A shower was moving in. From the big window on the 25th floor of the First National Bank Building in Dallas, you could see the gray-brown wall of rain creeping across expressways and clumps of tall buildings 15 miles away, out in the north part of town. Bunker Hunt touched a button on the desk in his office. A voice came over a loudspeaker.
"Uh, what was that?" the voice said.
"How's everything across the sea in Ireland?" Bunker Hunt said.
"Well, the horses are working every day and looking good," the voice said.
June 20, 1976
Bunker Hunt bent toward the loudspeaker and chuckled. It was a wonderful thing to touch a button in Dallas and hear your 18-year-old son's voice speaking from Ireland. It was also a wonderful thing to hear that the horses were looking good. The horses have been looking so good lately that Bunker has been wiping his glasses and pushing his hair back off his brow and cocking his head toward his left shoulder and letting out chuckle after chuckle, a little parade of chuckles marching forth across the sea to Ireland, England and France.
And why not? Just two weeks ago, in a period of five days, Bunker's horse Empery (10 to 1) won the English Derby at Epsom, and Bunker's horse Youth (2 to 1) won the French Derby at Chantilly. A few days earlier Bunker's horse Dahlia (4-1) had won the Hollywood Invitational in California to become the third leading money-winning thoroughbred of all time ($1,512,943—only Kelso and Round Table have earned more). That was worth a few chuckles, too. In seven days three of Bunker's horses had won $502,340, and Bunker had become the first U.S. owner to take both the English and French Derbies in the same year.
Now the matter under discussion was the Irish Derby, to be run on June 26.
"Put Ted on," Bunker said to son Houston Hunt in Ireland.
In a moment an Irish voice said over the loudspeaker, "What'll be your pleasure, govnah?"
"Are you boys still throwing bombs at each other over there?" Bunker said.
"No bombs today," said Ted Curtin, Hunt's trainer in Ireland. "But which horse [Youth or Empery] do you favor for entering in the Derby? They're both looking very fine."
"What if we enter the two of them? Would that be unethical? I wouldn't want to do anything that was unethical," Bunker chuckled.
"You would want to win, though, wouldn't you?" said Curtin. He chuckled, too.
After Bunker had touched the button to disconnect himself from Ireland, he said he wouldn't really enter both Youth and Empery in the Irish Derby. The decision would be made after more talk with Curtin and with Jim Shannon, Hunt's racing manager. "You don't want to run two good horses against each other if they're both yours," Bunker said. "There's a big race in Paris about the same time as the Irish Derby, so maybe we can win them both."
Another major Hunt victory in France in so short a time would cause cries of "Mon Dieu, quel fromage" from the French horsey crowd. Bunker Hunt's best horses are now bred in the U.S. and brought to France where they run off with the money. Frenchmen despise having their money run off with. French-bred winners pay premiums to French breeders. Bunker Hunt, who owns more thoroughbreds than anybody else in the world, will retire Youth and Empery to stud in Kentucky when they have finished running off with everybody's money. So what is a poor boy like Jean Romanet, director-general of the Société d'Encouragement in Paris, to do but suggest that any American who wishes to keep a stable in France would be wise to stand some good stallions at French farms.
Bunker Hunt has more than 600 horses in Ireland, England, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Kentucky and Texas, and he can chuckle about what the French think. For one thing, a group of Frenchmen backed out on him in a syndication deal with the stud Mississippian, and that cost Bunker about $1 million in chuckles right there. For another thing, Bunker has been running horses in France for 20 years and for the first half of that time he was donating money to the French.
"They are peeved because their horses aren't good enough to compete," Bunker said, looking out at the rain approaching his office window at the Hunt Energy Corporation. "I'd rather not be quoted on this, but it's true. The French have sold off their best stallions and race mares in the last 25 or 30 years. The Germans kidnapped a lot of great French horses in World War II. The French can't help what's happened, but they resent it. I guess they resent me. I have a real good time when I go to races in France, but maybe I wouldn't if I could speak French and understand what they were saying."
Bunker did not attend the French Derby this year because of superstition. Youth had won three recent races without Bunker in the audience. Though he says he is a "fatalist" whose character may be flawed by his utter inability to worry, Bunker figured there was no use messing with the pattern Youth was into. Bunker also missed the English Derby because it was the 25th anniversary of his marriage to Caroline. Invitations had been sent out for a party at the Petroleum Club in Dallas. People were arriving from all over the earth. Ordinarily Bunker would have been at the English Derby. He likes the part where you dress up in a top hat and stroll to your box at Epsom. "Monkey see, monkey do," Bunker chuckled.
It is reported that in various racing circles in Europe, as well as here and there in his own country, Bunker Hunt is regarded as a bumpkin who was lucky to be born a son of the legendary H. L. Hunt, one of the richest men of the century, who died two years ago at age 85. Being a child of H. L. Hunt did not start Bunker or his sisters or brothers (one of whom, Lamar, owns the Kansas City Chiefs pro football team and is prominent in professional tennis and soccer) off at a disadvantage. One of Bunker's grandmothers could translate into English from Greek, Latin, German and French—according to Hunt's Heritage, written by H. L. Hunt—and an earlier Hunt was the chaplain for John Smith. Bunker's father was an astounding man, a gambler on a level difficult to comprehend. He was also a man who believed himself blessed with psychic powers, an organizer and promoter with the genius for calling royalty to heel, a man who was feared and hated by many and understood by none. H. L. Hunt loved his little poodle. He wrote nine books. Bunker didn't grow up in a chicken coop.
"Naw, I like those high-class Englishmen," Bunker said. "They appreciate a good horse, no matter who the owner is."
At the ticket window of the parking garage, Bunker Hunt waited for his wife's car while other customers came and went. In his blue suit, white shirt and blue necktie with tiny horses on it, he looked like another insurance salesman with papers and trade magazines under his arm. If anyone in the parking garage recognized Bunker Hunt—once the owner of an eight-million-acre oil concession in Libya; a man who hired John Connally to go to Washington as his personal lobbyist in an effort to persuade the government to undo the effects on Hunt of the Libyan revolution; defendant with brother Herbert in a celebrated wiretap case that Bunker said was CIA revenge for his refusing to allow agents to pose as his employees in the Middle East; a man who probably owns more silver than the Bank of England and is chairman of the biggest sugar-beet-growing outfit in the world—if anyone recognized him, you couldn't tell it.
His father had made and lost several fortunes and was incredibly wealthy again in 1948 when LIFE printed the first photo of H. L. Hunt in a national publication. Bunker's picture has been published often, but his wide, happy face is not one you would pick out as belonging to a powerful oil dealer with a personal fortune of some $1 billion. (The nationalization of the British Petroleum/Bunker Hunt oil concession in Libya might have cost Bunker and the family store more than $20 billion.)
So when the old four-door Oldsmobile finally came down the ramp in the garage and Bunker got in to cruise into the late-afternoon traffic, there was nobody gaping at him, as there would have been if he were appearing on some TV series named Murder Patrol.
Jim Shannon says that among the papers Bunker takes home in the evening are the current rosters of his horses. Bunker is selling some of his better animals this year. At Keeneland in July he will peddle a half-brother to Dahlia by Secretariat and a half-brother to Youth by Vaguely Noble. Why has Bunker begun selling his best yearlings in the U.S. and New Zealand? "Well," says Shannon, "this is a man who likes to trade—it's his way of life. And when he goes into something he only does it in the best possible manner. He wants to top the market." Any time there is a sale of Bunker Hunt horses, the price is high. But Shannon says Bunker likes to study the rosters in the evening not to plot the money value of the animals but to scheme interesting breeding connections for them.
"Yeah, I guess that's what I do like best," Bunker said. "Matching them up and seeing what the foals turn into. It's a thrill to watch one turn into a winner. You know, I got out of racing for awhile because I wasn't winning and I got discouraged. Then a friend talked me back into it again. I sure am glad that he did. In the office I spend 95% of my time on company business and the other 5% on racing. At home it's just about the opposite."
His father's gambling reputation preceded Bunker as a young man in Las Vegas, Reno, Monte Carlo, anywhere people might be looking to trap a hick from the oil fields. "But I never was that big a gambler," Bunker said. "I might win or lose $3,000, that's about all. I didn't want to get too proficient with the dice. I try not to bet on my own horses if I can help it. I get prejudiced, and it affects my thinking."
The Circle T Ranch near Roanoke, about halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, used to belong to J. Glenn Turner, who was a horse breeder and a colorful Texas figure. Bunker bought the place complete except for Turner's trophies. Bunker filled the trophy cases in the main house with his collection of porcelain birds. The house is on a hill and looks down on pastures with white fences and oak trees with whitewashed trunks so the horses won't eat the bark, lakes that shine in the late sun after the rain showers pass, fields rich with thoroughbred horses and purple vetch and white Charolais cattle. Byron Nelson lives down the road. Across the highway Ben Hogan is building a new golf club partly on Circle T land Bunker sold him. There are still 2,400 acres at the Circle T, which is within a half-hour drive of downtown Dallas. It is a picture-book place, a place where you could sit on the porch for the rest of your life.
Bunker and Caroline stayed there maybe three or four nights in the past year. Where they live is in the Turtle Creek section of Dallas. Turtle Creek is loaded with beautiful homes and lawns and flowers. But the Circle T is the kind of place you might find once if you were very fortunate.
"I've talked about wanting to live out here," Bunker said, steering the Oldsmobile across the thick grass of a pasture, "but Caroline is tied up with a lot of activities in town, and the kids have always got something going in town. Someday maybe we'll wind up out here. I'll tell you something—Texas is as good a place to train horses as you can find in this country. Texas has got better weather for horses than Kentucky, but Kentucky has better promoters. I know people in Virginia who wouldn't buy a $25,000 share of a horse that was standing in Virginia but they'd rush right in to buy the same share of the same horse that was standing in Kentucky." Bunker has invested millions in three farms in Kentucky.
Now he got out of the car and walked over to look at a few of his horses. As a child in Tyler, before his father moved into the outsize replica of Mount Vernon on the shore of White Rock Lake in Dallas, Bunker had a horse. The horse was a mare named Lady. That was 42 years ago when Bunker was eight. Bunker and five or six of the neighborhood kids would climb on Lady and ride her around town.
"My dad was scared somebody would get hurt. He sold Lady and got me a bicycle instead," Bunker said, leaning against a fence at the Circle T looking out across the field of mares and foals. Bunker chuckled.