11/19/2010 3:08PM

Media tending to get Hancock all wrong

Barbara D. Livingston
The characterization of Claiborne's Seth Hancock as a poster boy for greed in the breeding industry is completely false and unfair.

Seth Hancock, whose family has owned and operated Claiborne Farm for a century, has the dubious honor of having being portrayed fictionally twice in recent weeks.

The first was an inaccurate depiction in the movie “Secretariat,” which opened last month. In the Hollywood version, Hancock was the greenhorn who was unable to sell a single stallion share in Secretariat until Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) sweet-talked Ogden Phipps (James Cameron) after everyone else had turned them down. In reality, Phipps was the first person to sign up and shares were sold out within four days.

The second instance of dramatic license has come in the two weeks since Claiborne’s homebred Blame won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at the expense of Zenyatta and her previously undefeated record. Some of Zenyatta’s cheerleaders in the news media have attempted to boost her chances of being named Horse of the Year, despite that loss, by claiming that Hancock is a soulless and selfish businessman whose colt should be spurned.

In a column that began “Zenyatta should be Horse of the Year, and anyone who can’t see that is a chowderhead,” Ed Fountaine of The New York Post wrote that “Hancock couldn’t care less what Zenyatta, the most popular horse of our time, has meant to racing. To him, Horse of the Year is all about boosting Blame’s stud fee by 50 grand when he stands at Claiborne next year.”

Joe Drape of The New York Times wrote that “Horse of the Year is an honor taken most seriously by breeders who can potentially add several zeros to their bottom line if they happen to be standing one . . . [The Classic] was a breathtaking few moments that made even the most hardhearted among us believe there was some kind of higher power working somewhere. Now Hancock, whose farm is celebrating its centennial anniversary, was reducing it to a business transaction.”

Facts first: The Horse of the Year title adds nothing to a horse’s stud fee. Blame’s was set at $35,000 last week, two months before the Eclipse Awards will be announced. It’s the same fee announced by Lane’s End Farm for Quality Road, who finished last in the Classic, and $5,000 less than Lane’s End charges for a season to Curlin, the 2007 and 2008 Horse of the Year. Blame’s stud fee will not change by a penny, much less by $50,000 or a factor of 100, as a result of the Horse of the Year announcement in Miami Beach Jan. 17.

Worse, the characterization of Hancock as a poster boy for greed or the excesses of the commercial breeding industry is completely false and unfair. Claiborne has in fact been one of the last holdouts against those excesses, limiting its stallions’ books of mares and resisting the temptation to shuttle them between hemispheres to double their workload and earning power. The farm – the birthplace and final resting place for dozens of champions –has always put the horse first.

What did Hancock say to inspire such calumny? It can’t have been the first thing he said at the postrace press conference when asked about Blame’s defeating Zenyatta.

“I’m just proud to win the race,” he said, his voice quavering a bit. “I take no pride in beating Zenyatta. I mean, she is what she is. She’s awesome, she’s been great for racing. Her human connections are wonderful people and I feel bad for them. I’m sorry we had to beat her, because she’s something special.”

Hancock never raised the issue of Eclipse Awards. About seven minutes later in the press conference, he was asked by a moderator to comment about “the Horse of the Year race.” He appeared surprised by the question.

“Well, I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about a half-hour ago, and Blame won it,” Hancock said. “I mean, she’s a great horse, Zenyatta is. But she had her shot to get by, and she didn’t do it. So I don’t think you can vote for her.”

This was not Gordon Gekko calculating a return on investment, but a proud lifelong breeder who thought Claiborne had bred, foaled, raised, and raced the winner of a showdown for that award.

He could not have been more gracious or complimentary about Zenyatta, her connections, or her place in history. Whether or not you agree with his electoral choice, he does not deserve the mistaken scorn and criticism of those unhappy that Blame won the race.