John A. Bell III

John A. Bell III

Anne M. Eberhardt

BH 100: The Perfect Horseman

John A. Bell III established a legacy of integrity

This feature originally appeared in the December 3, 2016 issue of BloodHorse.

Among the ladies and gentlemen who have devoted effort, wisdom, and leadership to the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, one of the most remarkable was John Arner Bell III. During his lifetime, and in tributes after his passing, the theme of unquestioned integrity was a virtual mantra from all who knew him, and for him those qualities were accompanied by important achievement.

From a personal standpoint “Mr. Bell”—somehow “John” never got past the larynx—was in the hierarchy of TOBA through almost all the years I was employed by The Blood-Horse. (Disclosure: My wife has worked for one of Mr. Bell’s daughters, Benny Bell Williams, for 30 years at Cromwell Advertising and under the present corporate name of The Bell Group.)

Mr. Bell and other members of The Blood-Horse publication committee were keenly aware of the matters of the magazine, but rarely interjected any defined influence over editor Kent Hollingsworth, in whom they had great confidence. 

John A. Bell III was born in Pittsburgh and took his degree at Princeton in geology. His father bred Battlefield, who was purchased by George D. Widener, for whom he became the champion juvenile colt of 1950. Such diversions helped sway the son toward the horse business, and the Bells leased a portion of historic Hamburg Place near Lexington to operate under the family friendly name of Jonabell Farm. 

A remarkable sequence during that part of Bell’s career was the foaling and raising of Never Say Die, so named because of the struggles of his birth. The colt was such a large foal that the delivery was very difficult, breaking ribs, etc., and his survival imperiled. Mr. Bell resorted to a good slug of bourbon down the throat of a foal so weak that for some days he would be hauled in a cart from barn to paddock to at least get some sunshine. Jonabell foaled and raised the Nasrullah colt for a client, Robert Sterling Clark. Never Say Die was sent to England, where in 1954 he carried Clark’s colors to become the first American-bred to win the Epsom Derby since Iroquois in 1881.

In 1954 Jonabell was moved when Mr. Bell purchased land on Bowman’s Mill Road west of Lexington. The property had previously been a tobacco farm, although in earlier years it had been owned by Ed Corrigan, who won the American Derby with Modesty in 1884 and the Kentucky Derby with Riley in 1890. Corrigan had to sell the property eventually and died poor, but a pleasant reminder of better days was a handsome stone water tower near the Bells’ house.

Mr. Bell set out to breed for himself and for clients and had also become partners with Tom Cromwell in Cromwell Bloodstock Agency. (Alex Bower was his partner for many years after Cromwell’s death.) As early as 1949 Bell had demonstrated enough vision and influence to be the founding president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club. Further demonstrating his wish to enhance opportunities to promote horse husbandry, he was involved in the establishing of the Stud Managers Short Courses in affiliation with the University of Kentucky. He was president of the Thoroughbred Club of America in 1954-55. 

Each decade seemed to summon Mr. Bell to another challenge of leadership, and he was never programmed to wave off such challenges. He was on the Kentucky Racing Commission when the disqualification of Dancer’s Image from his 1968 Kentucky Derby victory prompted the regulatory body to refute any presumption that, because of the unique status of the Derby, the untidiness would be swept under the rug. The case dragged on for years and “gave him his first heart attack,” recalled his younger daughter Benny.

Mr. Bell was involved in the give and take in Washington, D.C., when racing leaders forged through the creation of the American Horse Council. 

The importance of the AHC was underscored not long afterward when its new president, Thruston Morton, was part of a blue-ribbon visitation of racing leaders who met with President Richard Nixon and successfully made the point that certain of his administration’s tax reform proposals would endanger the entire Kentucky Thoroughbred industry. Later, when Mr. Bell was on the site selection committee for the pioneering concept of the Kentucky Horse Park, daughter Benny recalled, “He said, ‘it takes a certain quality of land to support the horse population and other traffic that the Park will include. One piece of land that could support that is Walnut Hall.’ ” So be it. 

In 1971 John A. Bell was chosen as the honor guest of the Thoroughbred Club of America’s Annual Testimonial Dinner, arguably racing’s highest honor at the time. The scroll presented him included such praises as “the example he has set for honest dealing as an owner, breeder, consignor, buyer, bloodstock agent, and racing commissioner.” Taking the occasion with the seriousness it had engendered since Col. E. R. Bradley was the first honoree in 1932, Mr. Bell challenged a widely inclusive brigade of racing organizations of various breeds: “Do you really want to unite, or do you want to continue in your isolation? Are you willing to invest in racing’s future, or are you not?”

Mr. Bell served in various offices for TOBA, including its presidency, and was involved on the ground floor of one of TOBA’s seminal contributions to international racing, creation of graded stakes. He later was on the Breeders’ Cup board and was elected to The Jockey Club in 1980.

Through the years Jonabell raised a succession of major stakes winners for itself and its clientele, which included Paul Mellon, Mrs. Edith Bancroft and her sons’ Pen-Y-Bryn Stable, William Condren, and Mack Robinson. Jonabell raised Horse of the Year Damascus for Mrs. Bancroft and Belmont Stakes winner Summing for Charles Wilson and raced such major winners as One for All and Spinster Stakes winners Try Something New and Hail a Cab. Jonabell bred and/or raised more than 200 stakes winners. Significant stallions Bell stood included Affirmed, Holy Bull, Grey Dawn II, Cherokee Run, Hail the Pirates, and Green Forest.

Mr. Bell was involved in several record-priced sales in the auction market, and, as daughter Benny is proud to point out, such was her father’s reputation for integrity that when he was seeking to fill an order for Cromwell Bloodstock, clients had not the slightest pushback if he happened to suggest something from the Jonabell consignment. After all, he had intimate knowledge that they had been raised well.

In 1987, Epitome, bred by daughters Jessica Bell Nicholson and H. Bennett Bell (afterward Williams) and racing for Jonabell, made a prolonged rally to win the fourth Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) and clinch an Eclipse Award. Those of us who knew of Mr. Bell’s humorous, languid, and droll speech patterns relished in his repeated declaration, “It’s a miracle.”

All of Mr. Bell’s four children became engulfed in various roles within the Thoroughbred industry, and a brace of his grandchildren are forging their own roles in leadership. One son, James G. (Jimmy) Bell, is president of Darley USA, which occupies the former acreage of Jonabell that was sold to Sheikh Mohammed in 2001. A unique twist is that one grandson, Jamie Nicholson, is succeeding as a lawyer, professor, and author, and one of his books tells the tale of Never Say Die, the struggling foal that his grandfather saved so many years ago.

Several years after Mr. Bell’s passing at 88 in 2007, the distinguished Turfman Ted Bassett observed, “If one would write a job description of the perfect owner, breeder, and representative of the Thoroughbred industry, John Bell would be the epitome.” 

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