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Claiborne Farm at 100
Claiborne Farm wears its 100 years lightly. The entrance is flanked by unpretentious, ivy-laden stone pillars from a time when Kentucky's stud farms were working farms first and showplaces by virtue of hard-earned reputation, not expensive architecture.
Claiborne's 3,000 acres sport no trendy trappings, no gaudy gates, no outward sign of the modern, quasi-corporate world of stallion boutiques. Its barns are unassuming, with typically understated brass name plates on stalls and sepia photos displayed around a tack room. But the horsepower those barns have held, and still hold, is breathtaking.
Claiborne has achieved its age largely by eschewing fashion in favor of old-school principles that the first Thoroughbred-breeding Hancock, Civil War veteran Capt. Richard Hancock of Virginia's famed Ellerslie Farm, would have recognized. Hancock's son Arthur Boyd Hancock founded the farm on property originally owned by his wife's family, the Clays, and brought it to prominence. His son, Arthur B. Hancock Jr., better known by his nickname, Bull, expanded the farm, its horse population, and its influence throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Claiborne's current owners - fourth-generation horse breeders Seth Hancock and his sisters Dell and Clay Hancock - have sustained Claiborne by doing what their ancestors and farm owners of all kinds do: cultivating.
* PHOTOS BY BARBARA D. LIVINGSTON: See full article as it appeared in DRF Weekend (PDF)
Successive generations of Hancocks have cultivated loyal clients. They've built priceless broodmare families and developed enduring lines of stallions. The farm has been home to generations of workers, part of Claiborne's extended human family whose personal histories are entwined with the Hancocks.
Edmond Boyle, 70, is a living part of the farm's history, the son of a man who worked 57 years at Claiborne and who has been employed there himself for 51 years. Boyle has no formal job title; technically, he is a maintenance manager. In reality, he's a major support beam in the farm's operations. Boyle's vivid memories of farm founder Arthur Boyd Hancock Sr. illustrate the mutual affection and sense of obligation that has bound generations of Claiborne's owners and their employees.
Through a boy's eyes, Boyle recalled Arthur Boyd Hancock Sr. as an awe-inspiring man who made workers snap to attention when he rode his white horse on daily rounds inspecting the farm.
"He was a big man," Boyle said. "Probably 6-6 and maybe 6-7. Broad shoulders and had a deep, baritone voice. When I was 5 or 6, I was scared to death of him. When I'd see him come around, I'd get behind my dad."
A personal encounter with Claiborne's founder one winter gave Boyle new insight into Hancock Sr. that helped make Boyle a lifelong Claiborne man. At age 7, Boyle became seriously ill with an ear infection and whooping cough. He recalled watching through a bedroom window as Hancock Sr. walked through the snow to the Boyles' house. Filled with dread, he hid under his covers.
"When my mother answered the door, he said, 'I've come to see the boy,' in that deep voice, and I knew immediately that was me," Boyle said. "So I scurried all the way to the bottom of the bed. He came in and sat on the end of the bed and turned the covers back, brought me out and sat me up. He said, 'How are you doing, young man?' And then he said, 'I brought you something.' "
Hancock gave the boy one of the large Virginia winesap apples he kept in a dish in his house. Then he reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a large yellow Claiborne paycheck.
"And there was my name: 'Pay to the order of Edmond Boyle, five dollars,' from the farm," Boyle recalled. "I saw him in an entirely different light at that moment. And he sat there and talked with me and read a story with me for what seemed like the longest time. And when he went out the door, my whole outlook had changed. I thought, 'Wow, what a nice man he was.' And after that, in a sense, I really loved the man."
Likewise, some of the Hancock family's richest memories are of the Claiborne employees they grew up with or, later, watched grow.
"I really probably remember the guys more than the horses, at an early age," said Claiborne's current president, Seth Hancock, who was raised on the farm. "Our farm manager now is Bradley Purcell, and one of his backups is his brother Wesley. I've got a picture back there in my office from when they were about 9 and 6, foaling a mare up at the foaling barn. That's pretty neat, really, that they were out here when they were kids. I was running the farm then, and now, here they are. They're the managers."
It would take volumes to give credit to all of Claiborne's stallions and mares, or to the influence they've had in the century since the farm was founded. But traces of Claiborne's most important bloodlines, most vivid equine and human characters and transformative moments are still very much in evidence in the farm's landscape and hard-working staff.
STALLIONS: A who's who of legendary bloodlines traces back to Sir Gallahad
The stallion who put Claiborne Farm on the map traveled across the Atlantic in style just 15 years after Arthur Hancock Sr. opened the farm. Hancock and the first modern stallion syndicate paid about $140,000 for Sir Gallahad. For his 1925 journey from London to New York on the steamship Minnetonka, The New York Times reported, "special arrangements were made in the construction of Sir Gallahad's stall so that the pitching of the vessel in heavy weather would not cause injury. . . . Sir Gallahad was insured for more than his purchase price, and it was understood that the special care in his transportation was largely due to conditions imposed by the insurance underwriters."
Hancock's gamble paid off, and Sir Gallahad became one of the century's great sires, ensuring Claiborne's future.
The penchant of Arthur Sr. and his son Bull Hancock for importing fast European stallions brought America some of its most influential Thoroughbreds. These foundation stallions are buried in a hedge-bordered plot adjoining the Claiborne farm office. The headstones are plain rectangles stating only the horses' names and years of life. But their histories live on in record books, pedigrees, and in the fading memories of those people lucky enough to have known them.
Princequillo's life reads like a boys' adventure novel. His grandsire died in a fire at Xalapa Farm in Paris, Ky. His sire, Prince Rose, was killed in 1944 by artillery fire in France, where he was a leading sire. Princequillo got to Kentucky after shipping through the U-boat-infested Atlantic as a yearling. At Claiborne, he became sire or broodmare sire of five Horses of the Year.
Then there was Nasrullah. His violent temper was as infamous as his genes for speed were good. Even the great jockey Sir Gordon Richards pronounced him "very, very difficult." His reputation as a bad actor on England's racecourses spooked some breeders when he went to stud, but he rose to the top three on England's sire list anyway. He was the first sire of that caliber to be imported to the U.S. in mid-career. He so violently opposed Claiborne veterinarian Floyd Sager that he reputedly never did get his recommended tetanus shot.
"He's actually a pretty spoiled horse," Bull Hancock told turf writer Whitney Tower. "If visitors want to look at another stallion first, he'll kick up a hell of a fuss in his stall as if to say, 'There's no point in looking at those bums when you can look at me.' "
Nasrullah begat Bold Ruler, who begat Secretariat.
Bold Ruler, an eight-time leading sire, started out as a sickly colt whom Bull Hancock hid in a back pasture. First, he had a double hernia, then joint ailments. He injured his tongue as a yearling and later hurt himself twice in the starting gate. But he could run. He was the Horse of the Year in 1957 and beloved by his owner, Gladys Mills Phipps, who piloted her Bentley, two poodles beside her, to the track to see him. When Bold Ruler was found to have a brain tumor, Phipps had him treated with cobalt at Auburn University, which bought him almost another year of comfortable life.
Claiborne was already in its golden era when Bold Ruler sired Secretariat. But Secretariat was a personal foundation sire for Bull's son Seth. In 1973, only months after his father's unexpected death, Seth was 23 when he raised eyebrows by syndicating Secretariat for a record $6.08 million before the colt made his first start at 3.
"Everybody thought, 'He must be pretty smart, look at this,' " Seth Hancock said. "Well, I was really lucky. I wasn't smart. Daddy had a wonderful relationship with the Chenery family going way back, and that's why Secretariat came here."
When Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, Hancock said, "It basically made me. It gave people confidence in me."
Seth Hancock's era has been marked by two other great horses: Danzig and Mr. Prospector. Danzig, a 15-3 hands son of Northern Dancer, raced only three times and never covered more than 75 mares in a season. He never shuttled. But at his death in 2006, he was North America's leading sire of stakes winners. On the farm, he was famously territorial, even charging pigeons and crows who dared to land in his paddock. Danzig wasn't mean, longtime farm manager Gus Koch once said, "but you wouldn't turn your back on him, because he was always ready to go."
Mr. Prospector had already been leading freshman sire two years before he arrived at Claiborne in 1980 from Aisco Farm in Florida. Two years later, his son Conquistador Cielo was voted Horse of the Year, and Mr. P's career took off. From his Kentucky books, he got champions such as Gulch, Forty Niner, Rhythm, Aldebaran, and a dozen other champions. Mr. P's influence still lingers in the Claiborne stud barn. His leading earner, Seeking the Gold, was also a sire of champions at Claiborne until his pensioning in 2008. Mr. P is the broodmare sire of Claiborne's current top sire, Pulpit, whose son Tapit was 2009's leading freshman and 2-year-old sire.
Mr. Prospector's runners were famed for their speed and precocity. Much coveted in the auction ring, they brought seven-figure prices. But his lasting influence is best shown in his dominance of the broodmare sire list, which he led from 1997 to 2003 and again from 2005 to 2006.
When Mr. Prospector died at age 29 in June 1999, he was buried between Nijinsky II and Secretariat.
"It was just such an honor to come down here to groom the best stallion in the world," said his groom, Buck Campbell, the afternoon the old stallion died. "I could do things I probably shouldn't have with him. I'd go in his stall every morning to groom him, and I didn't put a shank on him. I should have, but I didn't need to with him because he'd pay no attention to it. He knew he was something important."
Claiborne's stallion history is notable for two untimely losses that cost the farm and the breed tremendous genetic potential: Easy Goer was a promising young sire when, galloping toward a visitor one day in 1994, he fell dead in his paddock. He was 8. The first Claiborne-owned Derby winner, Swale, was raised in Barn 16. In 1984, after his unexpected death eight days after he won the Belmont Stakes, a van brought him back to Barn 16 to be laid in a custom-made casket. More than 500 sympathy cards and bouquets flooded the farm office.
"There's no telling what we lost when we lost Swale," Koch said.
But it's not just big-name champions who catch the stud grooms' hearts.
"We lost Out of Place early this year," said Kevin Lay, a third-generation employee. "All these big, rough, tough guys were there when the call came we were going to put him down. It was like sitting around, 7 and 8 years old, watching 'Old Yeller' again. The lump's in your throat, and you're trying not to cry, but the guys are sniffling around you, and then you're sniffling. You get attached to them."
BULL: The influence of the farm's second owner runs deep
"I never thought of anything else," Bull Hancock once told Daily Racing Form's Charles Hatton when asked whether he had ever thought of not taking over Claiborne. "I grew up on this farm, and when I was 12, my father was paying me 50 cents a day to sweep out after the yearlings."
Bull, who had studied genetics and eugenics at Princeton, took Claiborne's helm in 1948, when Arthur Sr.'s health began to fail. He inherited the farm nine years later on his father's death. Bull's philosophy, still the farm motto, is "Do the usual unusually well."
Bull built a small stone retreat across Kennedy's Creek from the farm office, but it, too, became a place for striking deals.
"Mr. Bull would have his friends here in the evenings, and they'd play poker and drink some good Kentucky bourbon," said Edmond Boyle, a 51-year farm employee. "There was a black gentleman that worked for him named Nathan Brooks who could cook everything Mr. Hancock desired on this old grill. I just shiver to think some of the horse deals that went down here."
Like his father before and his children after him, Bull was a hands-on owner. Coffee in hand, he left the house at 6:30 a.m. and started his rounds "to see things," he said. Just weeks before his death, he was supervising construction of a new, U-shaped barn.
"When he'd come watch us turn out yearlings, you'd think, 'Who's this guy?' " said Billy Purcell, a new yearling groom in 1972 and now the broodmare supervisor. "He wasn't a fancy dresser or anything. What you saw was what you got. He was a great guy, and I wish I'd gotten to be around him more."
Bull never realized his fondest hope: to win the Kentucky Derby as an owner.
"For a hardboot like me, there's no race like the Kentucky Derby," he once said. "Anybody that tells you different, well, they're lying."
Bull's death from cancer at age 62 in September 1972, Boyle recalled, was "a jaw-dropping shock" for the farm. His death left sons Seth and Arthur III at the helm under the supervision of an advisory committee -- Bull's longtime partner William Haggin Perry, breeder Ogden Phipps, and a revered horseman and longtime farm manager, Charles Kenney.
"I remember the first meeting we had, Seth said, 'I don't care what you all want me to do. If you want me to go back and muck stalls, that's fine. But I'm here,' " Dell Hancock, Seth's sister, said.
But the succession was not smooth.
Arthur B. Hancock III, the older son and heir apparent, had a tempestuous relationship with his father and was, he later admitted to Sports Illustrated, "a freewheelin', hard-drinkin', guitar-pickin', bar-brawlin', skirt-chasin' fool." At a December 1972 meeting, the advisory group selected Seth as Claiborne's president. Arthur stormed back to Stone Farm, a 100-acre farm he had leased from Bull. He sold his share in Claiborne eight years later, saying, "I felt one way about some things, and they felt another way, so we agreed this was the best way to settle it."
In the end, both Seth, now 61, and Arthur, 67, achieved Bull's dream of owning a Derby winner, Arthur with Gato Del Sol in 1982 and Seth, for Claiborne, with Swale in 1984. Arthur also won the Derby in 1989 with Sunday Silence.
MARES: A home to tough, talented, enduring female families
The morning of April 6, 1954, was a good one for Claiborne Farm, not that anyone knew it yet. At 1:15 a.m., Miss Disco, a mare owned by the Phipps family, foaled a Nasrullah colt. Exactly eight hours later, the Claiborne mare Knight's Daughter also produced a colt, this one by Princequillo. The colts were Bold Ruler and Round Table. Both would become Horse of the Year, in 1957 and 1958, respectively, and then leading sires. Their dams became Broodmares of the Year, Miss Disco in 1958 and Knight's Daughter in 1959, all on Bull Hancock's watch.
Bull Hancock's great legacy lies in his restoration of the farm's bloodlines after Arthur Sr. handed him the reins in 1948. Shortly after taking over, Bull gave Daily Racing Form's Charles Hatton a frank assessment of the farm's mares.
"We haven't replaced any stock in 12 years," he said. "We have about 75 mares, and I don't like any of them except two."
Bull painstakingly reconstructed the band of mares, he later said, "so my children wouldn't have to," and he felt strongly about the mares' management. Weaning day was fixed on the first Tuesday in October, and about this and other things Bull was immovable.
"Claiborne is not against progress and experimentation and will support logical research and use the proved results," he once said. "But we will not use the Claiborne mares for experiments. They are too valuable."
Claiborne has been home to 15 Broodmares of the Year and many priceless racemares. Some have founded dynasties. Consider Rough Shod, whose influence still lives in her great-great-great-grandson Blame -- Claiborne and Adele Dilschneider's current Grade 1 winner.
Bull bought Rough Shod cheaply in England in 1951. She produced a champion son, Ridan, whom Time magazine once condemned as "an incorrigible people-hater who ran away with his exercise boys." One of her daughters, Thong, foaled Special, without whom there would never have been Sadler's Wells.
Then came Moccasin, strapping but ladylike and still the only juvenile filly Horse of the Year in North America. She, too, became a dam of champions. She was the filly who sparked Dell Hancock's abiding interest in racing, and she is the mare deputized by longtime farm manager Gus Koch when his sons, future Claiborne employees, practiced leading horses.
Koch, now retired, calls Moccasin his favorite mare in his 31 years at Claiborne. He remembers Special fondly, too.
"She was such a kind mare, very maternal," he said.
Others were harder to handle, like Obeah, dam of Go for Wand.
"There was a tough mare," Koch said. "We were showing her to someone one day, and she grabbed [broodmare manager] Billy Purcell and took the watch right off his arm."
Sometimes Claiborne's mares have provided twists of fate. When Tuerta was born, Bull Hancock was so angry that she was a filly -- and with only one eye -- that he kicked a bucket down the barn aisle in his fury. He had wanted a colt to point for the Derby. Twelve years after Bull's death, it was Tuerta's son Swale who finally gave Claiborne its first Derby winner as an owner.
Claiborne's old bloodlines remain vivid in today's pedigrees. Pulpit, Claiborne's current stallion star, is out of Preach, whose female line traces back to Knight's Daughter and is one of Claiborne's oldest families. Pulpit's daughter Wend is only 9, but her pedigree glitters with inbreeding to Round Table, Princequillo, Knight's Daughter, and Nasrullah. There are many others.
Personal Ensign, who died earlier this year, is the most famous Claiborne mare in recent years. The daughter of a Broodmare of the Year − Grecian Banner − she arrived at the farm in 1988, an undefeated 4-year-old so fractious she could hardly be shod. Eight years later, she became a Broodmare of the Year herself after her daughter My Flag won her fourth Grade 1 race. In 2000, My Flag foaled a champion, Storm Flag Flying.
Koch said Personal Ensign was one of the bravest horses he has known. As a racehorse, she overcame a fractured pastern that required her to take nearly a year off before continuing her 13-race winning streak. As a broodmare, she nearly died of peritonitis. The same illness killed her dam, but Personal Ensign fought through it and survived. She was, Koch said, an equine Greta Garbo.
"She was aloof," he said. "Her whole life, she was a mare who did not want to be bothered. She wasn't a mare you could ever get very close to, but she was an exceptional mare."
Thinking back through the generations to be born and give birth in Claiborne's wooden foaling barn, Koch said: "It's families. That's what striking to me about my career at Claiborne. There are so many good families, and the families are so deep. That was the unique thing about my career out there. To be around all those families and watch their traits come out generation after generation, it was special."
WORKERS: The outside world is frequently no match for the lure of the farm
Wes Purcell realized he lived somewhere special when he was just out of kindergarten and his class took a field trip to Claiborne.
"We passed right by our house on the farm," he said. "When we rode the school bus home, everybody wanted to get off here because there were all these horses and acreage. When people would ask where we lived, they'd say, 'You lived where Secretariat was!' People vacation to where we live."
Wes, 32, who works with the farm's broodmares, and his brother Brad, 36, the farm's general manager, were born in the Claiborne farm house where they grew up, the sons of Billy Purcell, 66, who also works with the broodmares.
Claiborne's workers number about 80 now. They are the hardworking machinery behind the farm's peaceful exterior, and their lives have entwined for generations with the Hancocks.
Some have long Claiborne bloodlines themselves. Former general manager John Sosby's dad had been a groom. Gus Koch, who retired as farm manager in 2009, raised 10 children there who learned to lead horses with Moccasin. And Eric Tubbs and Kevin Lay are the third generation of their family to wear the Claiborne uniform.
At 11, Wes Purcell was among the mourners at Secretariat's private burial. The iconic champion was one of 29-year-old Eric Tubbs's early memories, too.
"I'd wake up every morning wanting to go to work with my dad," said Tubbs, whose grandfather was the first of the family to handle stallions. "We'd come out with him to haul feed, and I can remember him pointing and saying, 'That's Secretariat.' It gives you cold chills thinking about now."
What gives Tubbs those chills today? Something as simple as bringing in the yearlings each morning.
"We have a certain call that we holler for them," he said. "It sounds like a big foghorn, and my brother sometimes calls me in the morning from Cherry Valley, maybe two miles away, and says, 'I hear you.' You can't see the yearlings, but you can hear them coming. The horses look to you to take care of them, and it gives you goosebumps thinking one you raised could do that good."
Sometimes the children of Claiborne's farm families have considered other careers, but the outside world is frequently no match for a foal's whinny, a Claiborne sunrise, or the warmth of the farm's extended family. That was the case for Brad and Wes Purcell, who tried accounting and teaching.
Ronnie Tipton left IBM when it downsized and he returned to the farm where his grandfather and father lived and worked. Now 64, he co-manages the maintenance crew with Edmond Boyle.
"A lot of us come back," said Tipton, who recalled his pride in the farm even when he was at IBM. "When people find out I grew up at Claiborne, they'd be interested, especially when Secretariat was here."
Kevin Lay, 34, left for a spell, too.
"When you leave, you leave something," Lay said. "You leave family. It eats at you. The day I got hired back was one of the greatest moments of my life. Coming over that hill in the morning, the fog and those horses, if that doesn't move your soul, nothing does."
Lay, like several others, has a young son he hopes will someday be working under the next generation of Hancocks, led by Seth's son Walker, 20. Chances are, says Boyle, they'll stick around. Boyle grew up at Claiborne under the eye of Arthur Hancock Sr., who did his rounds on a white horse while the farm's mule team did the mowing. Boyle fondly remembers placing Monopoly money bets with the farm's founder when Boyle's father chauffered him to the races.
"You're part of the family, and the Hancocks make you feel that," Boyle said. "When you're here, you're at home."