Sporting life and curious death of the $36.5m stud

THIS IS the story of an old sporting hero who retired to a comfortable life in the country, passing his days with gentle exercise and a lot of sex. Then he died suddenly and mysteriously, leaving a lot of people much better off and a long list of unanswered questions.

The outstanding feature of this potential murder mystery is, of course, that the main character is a horse.

Alydar was America's wonder horse of the 1970s. He was the first to finish second in each of America's three great races, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. After winning nearly $1m (pounds 600,000) in prize money he was put out to stud in the bluegrass country of Kentucky.

If Alydar was a good performer on the track, at stud he was a miracle. His offspring included winners of all three classics. He was a money machine, siring 100 foals a year. His owners were charging $350,000 for a single session. They were also collecting cash for future breeding rights.

Then, in November 1990, an equine orthopaedic surgeon was called to the luxurious Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, where Alydar was stabled. He found the horse with a broken rear right leg, which he put in a cast. But Alydar stumbled and fell again, breaking the leg in a different place. A lethal injection ended his 15-year life.

Alydar was known to be a bad-tempered creature and had frequently lashed out at his stall door. This time, it seemed, his hoof had just got caught, an accident with a tragic outcome.

And yet, circumstances surrounding the death gave rise to suspicions. Calumet was in trouble. A $15m payment to the bank was due. The farm could not even afford to keep up the payments on Alydar's insurance, which was about to lapse - no small matter, For Alydar was the most highly insured thoroughbred in history. As it was, the insurance company paid out $36.5m. But even this did not save Calumet, which went bankrupt.

Now, years later, the affair is being investigated afresh by the Texas authorities as part of a probe into the collapse of Calumet's bank, First City Bankcorp of Texas.

Perhaps the most important witness is Harold "Cowboy" Kipp, who had cared for the horse 12 hours a day, seven days a week. But, he told a court last week, he had been asked to take the day off by an associate of JP Lundy, the president of Calumet Farm. Instead, Alton Stone, a former groom, was there when the horse suffered its fatal injury. He claims he was attending the horse at Mr Kipp's suggestion, but Mr Kipp denies this, and Mr Stone is being investigated for perjury.

No one is suggesting he benefited from the millions that Alydar's death brought - he was working in construction when he was arrested. But there is plenty that is strange about the finances of Calumet.

In a tale which reads like a cross between Dick Francis and Elmore Leonard, JP Lundy, who married into the farm, apparently took a healthy business and drove it into the ground. He bought art works, squandered money on private jets and made poor investments in horseflesh. Much of this was done in conjunction with First City Bankcorp, which failed in 1992 after a $1.6bn government bail-out. Its vice-chairman, Frank Chiak, has been convicted of money laundering and bank fraud and is doing time in Michigan.

Calumet, once one of the greatest names in world racing, is back in operation again under new ownership, but at a much lower level. The money, of course, is long gone. What remains is the mystery of a horse that may have been worth more dead than alive.