Bred to Run: The Making of a Thoroughbred is a book by Mike Helm, providing insights about horse breeding and the horse-racing industry gathered from Helm's time spent at Claiborne Farm.
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About the Author
Mike Helm is the author of Bred to Run. His other books include Exploring Pedigree Handicapping's Newest Frontier and A Breed Apart: The Horses and the Players.
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Bred to Run
The Making of a Thoroughbred
By Mike Helm
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1993 Mike Helm
All rights reserved.
SETTING THE STAGE
It was the third week in February and just the beginning of the breeding season. A light winter drizzle angled down on the brown and still-dormant Kentucky bluegrass that, come spring, would turn lush and verdigris. Out in their paddocks Danzig, Mr. Prospector, Nijinsky II, and the other Claiborne stallions stood stoically with their backs to the wind, while tiny beads of dew congealed on the tips of their whiskers.
Thanks to modern horsepower, I had caught the red-eye express from San Francisco to Cincinnati the previous evening, rented a car, and undulated my way south over eighty miles of rolling hills to the heart of the bluegrass country in central Kentucky where I was now, at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning, listening to John Sosby bend my ear. An ebullient, bearish man in his mid-fifties, Sosby has been assistant manager at Claiborne for the past eighteen years and has the day-to-day responsibility of running the farm.
Part Kentucky farm boy, part corporate manager, John Sosby is a lot like Claiborne itself. "This is a working horse farm," he assured me. "This isn't a place where somebody pours in millions of dollars just for a hobby. It's got to pay its own way, if we're gonna make it. I think you'll see over the next five days that from Seth Hancock on down we're basically hardworking, traditional people here. We don't have to window polish or shine for anybody. There's no flashing neon lights out front saying this is Claiborne. My father went to work here when I was three years old, in 1941. I grew up here and have worked here all my life. And it's been that way with Seth Hancock and his father before him and his grandfather before that. I've seen four generations of Hancocks. We've been successful doing things our way, so we're not gonna change for the sake of change. But we're willing to try something new if you can show us it's a better way."
* * *
I was at America's most famous horse farm because Seth Hancock, the lanky forty-three-year-old president of Claiborne, had invited me. Or, more accurately, because he had responded generously to my request that I spend a week at the farm in order to give racing fans an inside look at the breeding side of the sport. In fact, Seth was putting me up in the "Bullpen" — a stone and wooden-beamed cabin his father, A. B. "Bull" Hancock, had fancied enough to buy from a neighbor and reassemble as a place where he and his friends could gather to drink bourbon, swap stories, and smoke cigars. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Seth had even lived in it for a few years. Centrally located, the Bullpen has muskets mounted on its walls that lend a touch of the Confederacy to it. Adding to the cabin's charm is the fact that once you press down on the wrought-iron latch and step past the oak-planked front door, you are little more than a three- minute lick downhill to the breeding shed where the stallions hold forth or a five-minute chug uphill to the foaling barn where the broodmares give birth.
Claiborne, of course, doesn't exist in a vacuum. The farm is located in Bourbon County, just outside the town of Paris, some fourteen miles west of Lexington in the heart of Baptist country. Like many small rural towns, Paris is in the throes of a difficult transition. It has one foot in its agricultural past — mostly corn, tobacco, horses, and livestock — and another in the declining industrial base of the 1990s that has seen many a job shipped overseas. Inside the city limits, the signs of neglect and decay are ubiquitous. Clapboard houses with the paint peeling off their sides surround idle brick factories that have had their windows punched out.
Originally founded in 1785, Bourbon County derives its name from the French royal house that supported the American Revolution. There is some irony here in that the Bourbons, useful allies that they were, supported the rebels not so much because of their fondness for democracy as their rivalry with the British. Be that as it may, Bourbon County has always had its own gentry. Over the years, the Hancock family, through a combination of initiative and inheritance, has become its most prominent member.
Good times or bad, rich or poor, one thing, however, is constant in Bourbon County. Local residents are proud of Claiborne's success. When you talk to them they'll gratefully tell you that Claiborne is not only the biggest employer in the county, but also its prime showcase during the summer. In full bloom the farm consists of over three thousand acres of verdant, rolling hills broken up into neatly fenced units that vary in size from the protective one-acre paddocks where a new foal and its dam are individually kept, to the sixty-acre fields where groups of yearlings romp and graze.
At its peak Claiborne takes care of enough horses to fill up the backstretch of a racetrack, although the exact size of its horse population varies from year to year depending on the size of the foal crop, how many horses have died or been sold off, and changes in the farm's client base.
John Sosby rattled off the February 1992 figures. "Right now we're talking 24 stallions (including Damascus and Sir Ivor, who are retired), 170 yearlings, 300 mares, and we're gonna get another 200 foals before the breeding season is over. So that gives us 700 head by the first of July. Then that figure starts to drop. We'll sell some of the yearlings, both for ourselves and our clients, at the Keeneland sales in July and September. By the first of December we'll get down to 475 to 500 head when we've shipped all these yearlings that we've raised and broken to the various training centers. We've also culled some of the less-productive broodmares and the new ones haven't come in yet from off the track."
Claiborne's most important function is, of course, as a stud farm. It is one of the most prolific Thoroughbred breeding facilities in the world. During the four and a half months of the breeding season, the farm's stallions will be bred to more than a thousand mares. Even so, the pace at Claiborne remains almost bucolic. While we talked, Nijinsky II, Mr. Prospector, Danzig, Private Account, Cox's Ridge, Devil's Bag, Forty Niner, Easy Goer, and Claiborne's other stallions continued to sniff the February rain in their individual paddocks just behind the ranch-style house that serves as command headquarters. Later in the spring and summer they would spend sixteen hours a day intermittently grazing on the bluegrass and dozing in the shade.
Claiborne, of course, isn't just another Kentucky horse farm. It's an institution revered throughout the world. For nearly a century the Hancock family has not only raised great horses but helped shape the direction of the breed by the periodic infusion of new blood. The stamp of their influence is attested to by the pantheon of names that are inscribed upon the tombstones of the horse cemetery that lies just outside the main office: great imports like Sir Gallahad III (1920–49), sire of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox (1927–58) who in turn sired Triple Crown winner Omaha; Blenheim II (1928–58), sire of Whirl-away and Mahmoud; Nasrullah (1940–59), sire of Bold Ruler (1954–71) and grandsire of Blushing Groom; and prepotent broodmare sires like Princequillo (1940–64), Double Jay (1944–72), Round Table (1954–87), Buckpasser (1963–78), Hoist the Flag (1968–80), and the inimitable Secretariat (1970–89).
Great stallions, of course, are only half the crop. Over the years Claiborne also has been home to one of the best broodmare bands in the world. Among the "Blue Hen" matrons that have foaled great horses there are Alluvial (Slew o' Gold), Busanda (Buckpasser), Con Game (Seeking the Gold), File (Forty Niner), Foreseer (Caerleon), Gambetta (Gamely), Grey Flight (What a Pleasure), Obeah (Go for Wand), Relaxing (Easy Goer), Special (Nureyev), Tuerta (Swale), Thong (Special), and the incredibly influential granddam Rough Shod II.
Seth Hancock, for his part, hasn't changed the farm's basic philosophy that much since he was given responsibility for running it in 1972. "The most important thing to me," he emphasized in his office one afternoon, "is still to try and raise good horses. Not only for Claiborne but also for the clients we have here like the Phippses, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, the Whitneys, Ed Cox, and so forth. Right now we have over 300 mares on the farm of which thirty we own outright and another 40 in partnership with William Haggin Perry. So the remaining 230 mares are owned by other clients, and they're as important to us as the mares we own ourselves. The best way to produce good horses is to have good stallions and good mares and then raise them right."
The Hancock family tradition of raising good horses, of course, didn't begin with Seth Hancock. It traces back four generations to Captain Richard Johnson Hancock, an Alabama native and veteran of the Civil War. He was the first Hancock to get into the horse business. Amid the vagaries of the Civil War, young Hancock joined the Ninth Louisiana Regiment and was subsequently wounded and forced to recuperate near Charlottesville, Virginia. While convalescing there he attained the rank of captain, fell in love with Thomasia Overton Harris of Ellerslie, and first entertained the idea of raising horses. During the hard years of Reconstruction, Captain Hancock first revitalized the Ellerslie estate and then slowly realized his ambition of founding a stud. By the late 1880s Captain Hancock had become a prominent Virginia breeder. He not only stood successful stallions like Preakness winner Knight of Ellerslie but also began breeding and raising yearlings for the commercial market.
His fourth and last son, Arthur Boyd Hancock, an honors student in mathematics at the University of Chicago, both surprised and delighted the good captain by offering, upon graduation in 1895, to help run the family farm, which otherwise might well have gone into eclipse. A reedy six foot six, Arthur gradually took hold of the reins and established a growing reputation for both himself and Ellerslie at the yearling sales in New York. Arthur and the captain initiated the Hancock tradition of periodically importing foreign blood to rejuvenate their stud with the purchase of the English stallion Fatherless in 1901.
The relocation of the Ellerslie stud from Virginia to Kentucky began unwittingly enough. In 1907 Arthur Hancock accepted an invitation to be a judge at the Bluegrass Fair in Lexington, Kentucky. During this fateful visit he was introduced to Nancy Tucker Clay of Marchmont, the daughter of a prominent Bourbon County family. The sparks, as they say, flew, and the following year the young couple was married. By 1909 Arthur had assumed most of the responsibility for running the Hancock stud from his aging father. And then in 1910, on the sudden death of both her parents, Nancy Clay inherited thirteen hundred acres of prime farmland. Thus Arthur Hancock now had two estates to manage, one in Virginia and the other in Kentucky. Given his love of Thoroughbreds, it wasn't long before Arthur decided to raise some horses on a portion of the Marchmont estate that had previously been devoted to corn and tobacco. The origin of how the name Claiborne came about is shrouded in hearsay and mystery. But it is a good bet that Nancy Clay's maiden name, with the spelling slightly altered, had something to do with it.
In 1913 Arthur upped the ante when he ventured to New York's Madison Square Garden and bought Celt, a speedy grandson of Domino, for $20,000 at the James R. Keene dispersal sale. Then in 1915, through the offices of the then-fledgling British Bloodstock Agency, he acquired the English stallion Wrack for $8,000. Over the next few years, as World War I approached, Arthur also bought a number of quality British broodmares at fire-sale prices. With both its stallion ranks and broodmare band thus upgraded and invigorated, the Hancock stud soon became one of the primary Thoroughbred nurseries in North America. That its yearlings could run was attested to in 1921 when Celt headed the sire list in terms of money won by his progeny.
Meanwhile, the focus of the Hancock stud increasingly shifted from Ellerslie in Virginia to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. In 1926 Arthur Hancock saw an opportunity to further diversify his stud and formed the first major horse syndicate. He persuaded banker William Woodward, retail magnate Marshall Field, and investor Robert Fairbairn to join him in the purchase of the French stallion Sir Gallahad III for $125,000. Sir Gallahad's exotic Teddy blood, Arthur argued, might be a perfect outcross for American mares that were saturated with the domestic blood of Domino, Ben Brush, and Fair Play.
Arthur's intuition proved prophetic. From Sir Gallahad's first crop came William Woodward's 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox (out of Marguerite, a daughter of Celt) followed by his grandson, 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha.
Having caught lightning in a bottle twice, Arthur Hancock gambled again with his outcross approach in 1936. He formed another syndicate and purchased English Derby winner Blenheim II from the Aga Khan for $250,000. Arthur hoped that the nine-year-old stallion's exotic Blandford blood would cross well with American mares. The gamble paid off when out of Blenheim's first crop came 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway for fellow syndicate member Warren Wright of Calumet Farm. But perhaps an even greater testament to Hancock's judgment about Blenheim's quality is the profound influence on the breed that two of the stallion's European get would subsequently have. Blenheim's daughter Mumtaz Begum would become the dam of Nasrullah in 1940, and his son Mahmoud would become in 1947 the broodmare sire of Almahmoud, the granddam of the great Northern Dancer.
By the mid-1930s the Claiborne name had become magical and Arthur Hancock, or A. B. Hancock, Sr., as he came to be known, concluded that Kentucky was indeed the best place to raise horses. Nevertheless, it wasn't until 1946, when the Ellerslie estate was sold off, that the entire Hancock horse operation was finally consolidated at Claiborne Farm.
Meanwhile the elder Arthur prepared his son A. B. "Bull" Hancock, Jr., to inherit the Claiborne stud. Young Bull Hancock attended private prep schools in Massachusetts and Virginia but also maintained contact with the farm. During the summers his practical education included mucking stalls and alternately working with the broodmares, stallions, and yearlings as well as with the farm's noted veterinarian, Dr. Ed Caslick.
Sent off to Princeton, Bull Hancock studied French, eugenics, and genetics and played football. After graduation in 1933 he assisted his father until the outbreak of World War II, when he joined the Army Air Corps. By the time Bull came back to Claiborne in 1945, the farm was in need of revitalization. Blenheim was eighteen years old and the broodmare band had also aged. First Princequillo, with his stout Prince Rose/St. Simon–line blood, was relocated from Ellerslie in 1946 to provide an alternative to the Teddy blood of Sir Gallahad that now ran through much of Claiborne's broodmare band. Then Double Jay was also added to the stallion roster to reinfuse some of the Domino blood that had been lost over the years.
But these additions alone, in Bull Hancock's opinion, were not enough. What Claiborne really needed was a totally new outcross that would infuse more speed. To that end Bull saw the advantage of tapping into the Pharos/Nearco blood that was becoming more prominent in Europe. Following the Claiborne tradition of looking abroad, he formed a daring syndicate and secured Nasrullah, son of the undefeated champion Nearco, from Ireland for $340,000 in 1949. The rest is history. From the fiery Nasrullah came horses like William Woodward's Nashua, Horse of the Year in 1955 and broodmare sire of Gold Digger, the dam of Mr. Prospector; Red God, the sire of Blushing Groom; Never Bend, sire of grass specialist Riverman; and, of course, the inimitable Bold Ruler, who topped the sire list seven times during the 1960s while standing at Claiborne for the Phipps family. At stud, Bold Ruler's sons included Raja Baba, Boldenesian (grandsire of Seattle Slew), What a Pleasure, Bold Bidder, and the incomparable Secretariat who galloped away with the Triple Crown in 1973.
Excerpted from Bred to Run by Mike Helm. Copyright © 1993 Mike Helm. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Setting the Stage,
2. Origins of the Breed,
3. Happiness Is a Hot Mare,
4. Stud Talk,
5. In the Breeding Shed,
6. With the Grooms,
7. Coming to Term (Working with Foaling Mares),
9. In the Nursery,
10. Fields of Dream,
11. Raising a Good Horse,
14. Client Relations and Information Control,
15. Money Management,
16. Lord of the Manor,
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