Calumet Farm, that fortress of the Bluegrass, is quite possibly the most recognizable symbol in all of American racing. Weathering storms that few farms have come through intact, it stands strong today nevertheless.
When a visitor lands at Bluegrass Fields in Lexington, it is among the first things he sees; when leaving, it is among the last. From the grandstand or the Press Box at Keeneland, Calumet’s acres, acres sown with history and tradition, are visible in all their glory. For if such a thing can be said of what many consider mere livestock and outbuildings, Calumet is an American institution.
Calumet now belongs to Henryk de Kwiatkowski, but whoever owns Calumet also is keeper of her history. And nowhere is her history more evident than in the living, breathing reality of her great broodmares’ descendents.
One such mare was Nellie Flag, a daughter of Man o’ War’s son American Flag and Preakness-winning filly Nellie Morse by Luke McLuke. Today her blood runs strong and true through generations of excellence all the way to 1996 Saratoga Special winner All Chatter and, before him, to such outstanding Thoroughbreds as Forego, Bold Forbes, Bet Twice, Lakeway, Life At The Top and Saratoga Six.
Nellie Flag’s dam was bred by J. O. and G. H. Keene and purchased as a yearling by Alec Gordon on behalf of H. C. (Bud) Fisher for $2000. Gordon was an exceptionally sound judge of horses and was knowledgeable about bloodlines as well.
Nellie Morse’s dam, La Venganza, was imported in utero and was a half sister to stakes winners Hessian, Mary Davis and Air Man. The family traced to the great producer One I Love, the dam of Affection, she dam of Heloise. The family was also the same as Calumet’s great sire, Bull Lea and was therefore a natural inbreeding vehicle for him, though that idea met with limited success.
Nellie Morse raced just two years. As a juvenile in 1923 she ran 22 times, winning the Fashion Stakes and running second in the Spinaway, Rosedale, Matron and Saratoga Sales Stakes and third in the Nursery Stakes. At three, she won the Pimlico Oaks and just four days later defeated colts in the Preakness. No filly has won that classic since, though three others; Flocarline (1903); Whimsical (1906) and Rhine Maiden won the classic. Rhine Maiden is particularly interesting in that she scored her Preakness win in 1915, the same year the filly Regret won the Kentucky Derby.
After the Preakness, Nellie Morse was never the same and she was retired to Fisher’s farm. Fisher dispersed his stock in the fall of 1932 after Nellie Morse had produced three foals including the winning filly Sara Burdon. At the time of her sale, Nellie Morse was in foal to American Flag, a son of Man o’ War. Her owner had originally wanted a season to Man o’ War himself, but the great horse’s book was full, so Nellie Morse’s owner was given a free season to his son.
Alec Gordon, who originally purchased Nellie Morse for Fisher, wanted to buy the mare, but was out-bid by $100. The winning bidder was Warren Wright of Calumet Farm, who was advised to buy Nellie Morse by Count Fleet’s owner, John D. Hertz. The total price was $6100.
So it came to pass that because Man o’War’s book was full and because Alec Gordon was out-bid, the foal Nellie Morse was carrying was born on Calumet’s sumptious acres and would become Nellie Flag, ancestress of three champions and eight classic horses. Of such chance is history often made.
Nellie Flag was more than just an historical blip in the Calumet heirarchy, she was a genuine top-notch racemare. Described as a “big, stout filly of intense speed”, it was written of her by turf historian “Salvator” that she was “so strong and robust as to lead to the belief that while possessed of extreme speed she should be one of the sort that train on. It would be difficult to find a better made one and she has very fine action.” Yes, Nellie Flag was real enough.
As a two year old, she gave some of the finest performances of her life. In the Selima Stakes, she set a record of 1:38 for a flat mile while carrying 122 pounds. In the Kentucky Jockey Club, she bettered her mile time to 1:37 2/5 while carrying 119 pounds, considered a record at the time for a filly. Those two efforts helped to earn her championship honors as a juvenile.
So highly was she regarded that it was the opinion of some observers she should be tried in the following season’s Kentucky Derby and she did, in fact, train brilliantly for that classic but could finish no better than fourth behind eventual Triple Crown winner Omaha. The Derby was a fine effort, but it seemed to rob her of her spirit and she never won another race.
History, however, helped to mend that old wound. Her direct descendent, Bold Forbes, also a horse of intense speed, would revenge her defeat in the Kentucky Derby and then added the Belmont Stakes for good measure. Yet another ancestor, Bet Twice, won the 1987 Belmont Stakes, robbing arch-rival Alysheba of a Triple Crown.
Nellie Flag produced nine foals from 1939-1950, being barren only in 1943, 1947 and 1949. Three of her foals, champion Mar-Kell, Kentucky Oaks winner Nellie L. and Sunshine Nell, were stakes winners, while Last Wave, her final foal, was stakes placed. Today, fourty-four years after that last foal was born, Nellie Flag still has several thriving and one exceptional branch, that of Nellie L., carrying on her tradition.
Nellie L., by *Blenheim II, was a very good racemare, winning the Acorn Stakes and Kentucky Oaks but she had the misfortune to hit her best stride the same season her outstanding full sister, Mark-Kell, was a champion.
Mar-Kell herself was a good broodmare, foaling the excellent runner, Mark-Ye-Well, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and the Santa Anita Maturity (now the Strub Stakes) as well as stakes winner Amoret. But Nellie L.’s is the lasting legacy.
Nellie L.’s daughter, Comely Nell, by the obscure but well-bred Calumet stallion Commodore M., foaled champion Bold Forbes. Comely Nell’s daughter, See You At The Top, by Riva Ridge in turn foaled Mother Goose Stakes and Ladies Handicap winner Life At The Top, she the dam of French Group III winner Elizabeth Bay. Yet another daughter of Nellie L., Priceless Fame, is the dam of the outstanding two year olds Saratoga Six and Dunbeath and the Alydar filly Milliardaire, dam of the brilliant Lakeway.
While Nellie L.’s branch is the strongest, others are still producing good horses. Ore-The-Lea, by Bull Lea, is the dam of Kentucky Oaks second Whirla Lea, the fourth dam of Belmont and Haskell Stakes winner Bet Twice and Del Mar Futurity winner Bold And Gold. Another branch of Ore-The-Lea’s tribe produced Oaklawn Handicap winner Warbucks. Whirling Girl, who prior to 1994 was mostly known as the fourth dam of the immortal Forego, is responsible for 1994 Bay Shore Stakes winner Prank Call, whose second dam is a full sister to Forego. Last Wave seemed to be floundering a bit, but has recently picked up the pace with recent stakes producer La Mimosa, dam of Saratoga Special winner All Chatter, who possesses no less than three crosses to Nellie Flag, through a double of Last Wave to a single cross of her half sister, Nellie L.
The aforementioned Mar-Kell is undoubtedly Nellie Flag’s best racing offspring. During her racing career, Mark-Kell was described in one account as “one of the finest specimens of the feminine Thoroughbred that has graced the turf in recent years, so admirably formed and highly finished that the critic surveying her finds it difficult to put his finger upon any spot or place that might be altered to advantage.
“She has fine size, plentiful substance, is strong at all points while at the same time smoothly and even elegantly turned; her head and neck, for so large a mare, are beautiful almost to the point of delicacy, her limbs of that fluted mold which so delights the eye. In the paddock, while being made ready for a race, or upon the course, she commands the almost unrestricted admiration of the connoisseur.”
One of her finest performances was in the 1943 Beldame in which she carried 126 pounds, conceeding from 4 to 24 pounds to her ten opponents which included Askmenow, Vagrancy and Stefanita. Her other major wins included the Top Flight, Cinderella and Evening Handicaps and the Spinaway Stakes.
Mark-Kell’s best offspring was her third foal, Mark-Ye-Well by Bull Lea. The colt had weak and troublesome stifles which kept him out of competition at two, but the following season, he was among the best of his sex and in fact defeated the champion of his division, One Count, in the 1 5/8 mile Lawrence Realization. The following season, in which he won Santa Anita’s two major fixtures, he wound up the year ranked just five pounds below champion Tom Fool. As good as he was, Mark-Ye-Well never quite attained the heights of dam, grand-dam and great-granddam. And as a son of Bull Lea, he was doomed to failure at stud in the U.S. though he was among the leading sires in Sweden.
There is much to be said about the inbreeding of Nellie Flag, so much in fact that the 6 x 5 cross of St. Simon (contributed only by her sire) and the 7 x 6 x 6 cross of Sterling (contributed only by her dam) are almost inconsequential. Indeed, the most important overall pattern is a 6 x 6 x 7 “weaving” pattern of Doncaster, as he is the sire of full sisters Clementia and Sandiway (5 x 5) and his son, Bend Or, also has a half sister, Rose Of York, represented (5 x 5 and contributed only by American Flag). This intense inbreeding along with the close-up doubles of the great Australian sire Trenton and Domino (through Ultimus and contributed only by Nellie Morse) make this a very intense pedigree.
Overall, Nellie Flag’s is a “split” family. From Nellie L.’s branch come two good – if not great – sires in Bold Forbes and Saratoga Six and from Sunshine Nell’s branch comes the good sire Dewan. But by and large, the majority of really good horses from this family are females. And it all started when Nellie Morse won the Preakness, Nellie Flag followed her as a two year old champion later good enough to run fourth in the Derby, Mark-Kell was a champion at four, Nellie L. won the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn and Life At The Top and Lakeway won the Mother Goose. They are not alone, since Whirla Lea, ancestress of Bet Twice, ran second in the Kentucky Oaks and Caline, from Last Wave’s branch, won the Santa Susana. Forego belongs in a class all his own, but he is nontheless a gelding and can offer no breeding support to the family.
Still and all, every branch had something to add. Mar-Kell’s branch is alive and well and she is the fourth dam of Japanese One Thousand Guineas winner Shadai Sophia; Whirling Girl has recent stakes winner Prank Call; every Sunny’s Halo represents Sunny from Sunshine Nell’s branch, Dewan has daughters in production, and now La Mimosa has foaled All Chatter from Last Wave’s branch. Ore-The-Lea could use a good horse but Nellie L. makes the world go ’round with Lakeway and Life At The Top’s promise as a producers.
Calumet has had many changes of fortunes, and fell as low as a farm can get at one point. But Nellie Flag was never down and it is doubtful she ever will be. Welcome her and her daughters Nellie L. and Comely Nell to the Reine-de-Course fold, they are symbols of everything good American breeding had – and continues to have – to offer to the Thoroughbred breed as a whole.