By Peter Lee
The history of Claiborne Farm is rich with colorful characters and fast horses. The bluegrass spreads across 3,000 acres of hills just outside the small town of Paris, Kentucky, and it’s proven to be a perfect breeding ground for Thoroughbreds. The horses who have stood there comprise a who’s who of racing; it’s been the home of some of the greatest champions in the sport. They are what has made the farm one of the most recognizable in the country, and its tradition is long and full of horses that made their mark not only on racing but upon the breed itself.
Seventy-one-year-old Seth Hancock is the latest in a line of Hancocks to head the family farm, which was created in 1910 by Arthur Hancock Sr., the owner of Ellerslie Farm in Virginia. Claiborne was created as a second farm on Hancock’s wife’s property, but it quickly became the farm as Hancock started funneling resources into it. Five years later, it became their main farm.
Hancock was a giant of a man, standing six feet, six inches tall, and became one of the giants in Thoroughbred breeding. He made his first major stallion acquisition in the 1910s when he purchased the modest stakes winner Celt for $25,000. A grandson of the great racer Domino, Celt was an example of what Hancock would base his success on: well-bred but modest winners who were bargains in the sales ring. The horse sired 21 winners for the farm and was the leading sire in 1931.
The successful purchases kept coming for Hancock; His purchase of Sir Gallahad III in 1926 produced the 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox, who in turn sired the 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha. With the help of Calumet Farm, Claiborne bought Epsom Derby winner Blenheim II, who produced 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway.
Hancock suffered a series of strokes in 1947 and turned the business over to his son, Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr. When the elder Hancock died in 1957, the Bloodstock Breeders’ Review called him “probably the most influential breeder in the history of the American Turf.”
Bull got his nickname from his deep voice, but he was more of a bulldog when it came to running operations at Claiborne. He had big shoes to fill, and he had no trouble filling them, turning Claiborne into a Thoroughbred producing machine during the middle of the 20th century. Two stallions — Nasrullah and Bold Ruler — led all stallions for 13 years from 1955 to 1973.
Known for his temper and refusal to keep the lead in races, Nasrullah had an inconsistent racing career, winning five of 10 races in Europe. But as a stallion, he was beyond compare, producing Noor, who beat the great Citation four times in 1950; Nashua, who won the 1955 Preakness and Belmont Stakes; and Jaipur, who won the 1962 Belmont. He led the sire list in America five times.
Bold Ruler did even better after winning 23 of 33 races during his career (including the 1957 Preakness), topping the sire list eight times between 1963 and 1973. His progeny included Bold Bidder, sire of Spectacular Bid; Reviewer, sire of 1975 champion 3-year-old filly Ruffian; What a Pleasure, sire of 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure; and Secretariat, whom many consider the greatest Thoroughbred ever.
Bull Hancock died in 1972, leaving the farm in the hands of 23-year-old Seth Hancock, his youngest son. (Bull’s oldest son, Arthur III, went on to establish Stone Farm.) Seth immediately turned heads by leading the syndication of Secretariat for a then-record $6.08 million. Secretariat stood at Claiborne, and while some consider his stud career to have been a disappointment, he was most successful as a broodmare sire. His bloodlines were present in such notable horses as A.P. Indy, Tapit, American Pharoah and Justify.
Seth’s reign at Claiborne is the longest of any Hancock, now spanning 48 years. He has overseen the stud career of Mr. Prospector, who sired 182 stakes winners and was present in the pedigrees of every horse in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. Another one of his stallions, Danzig, sired 188 graded stakes race winners and 10 champions.
Currently, the stars of Claiborne include War Front, a son of Danzig who sired recent champions such as Preakness winner War of Will and three-time GI winner Omaha Beach, and 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb (private stud fee). Thirteen stallions now stand at Claiborne, which sees a good number of tourists who come to view the horses as well as the graves of champions Gallant Fox, Round Table, Buckpasser, Damascus, and, of course, Secretariat.
Photo Credit: Peter Lee