A Visit to Claiborne Farm

When I visited Claiborne Farm late last June, there wasn’t much – if any? – talk about Blame, even though at that point he was riding a winning streak of four consecutive graded stakes races. The Claiborne folks might be forgiven, though, and not blamed (sorry, couldn’t resist), given the hefty hunk of racing history that the farm comprises.

One of few Bluegrass farms that regularly offers tours to the public, Claiborne responded quickly when I e-mailed to enquire about visiting, accommodating both the date and time that I requested. The tour is free and, though scheduled to last 45 minutes, went far beyond that due to the gregariousness, affability, and knowledge of our guide, Tony Battaglia, a former trainer.

breeding barn

Run by four generations of Hancocks and currently overseen by Seth Hancock, Claiborne sits just northwest of Lexington in Paris, Kentucky; my visit fell on a perfect June morning, summer sunshine highlighting the century-old landscape and quaint buildings, a far cry from the modern structures that dot many Bluegrass farms. The breeding shed, we were told, is over 100 years old.

Claiborne currently stands 11 stallions, and one of their barns sits just up a small hill from the entrance. A tangible testament to racing’s history, it houses the stall – the first one on the left – in which dwelt Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Easy Goer, and Unbridled. It currently belongs to Eddington.

stallion barn

Battaglia told us that approximately 162 Claiborne-bred foals were produced in 2010, about 50 of which would be sold. According to Ed Bowen in Legacies of the Turf, Claiborne has gone through cycles of breeding to race and breeding to sell; Seth and his father Arthur “Bull” Hancock preferred racing to selling, but made selling a priority again in the 1970’s.

Our tour of the stallion barns was leisurely; horses were brought out, standing patiently while photos were taken, accepting eagerly the peppermints that were offered from well-prepared visitors.

Eddington

Pulpit

The public cemetery at the farm is near the offices, and it’s not surprising that our tour members wanted to linger there, gazing at the headstones, hearing the stories with which our tour guide regaled us, taking photographs.  The cemetery contains the remains of 20 stallions, including Secretariat, who was embalmed and buried intact, an exception to the practice of burying a horse’s head (intelligence), heart (courage), and hooves (speed).  Battaglia told us that Nijinsky, Mr. Prospector, Round Table, and Swale were also buried whole.

Our stop in the cemetery signaled the end of the tour, but I asked our guide if we might see the private cemetery, where some of my personal favorites rest. To my delight, he agreed.

And so we drove deeper into the farm and were permitted to walk among the resting places of Pine Island, of Banshee Breeze, and of Easy Goer.  A stone had not yet been erected for Personal Ensign, who had died a few months earlier.

Last Saturday at Belmont, the Busanda was run for the 38th time; it was won twice by Claiborne-owned horses: Espadrille in 1980 and Limit in 1995. Limit is out of Bound and thus from the same female family as Blame, the latest stallion to join Claiborne’s storied ranks.

Blame (Arch – Liable) is Claiborne on both sides; his dam is by Seeking the Gold, who stood at Claiborne and who, as of June, according to our guide, had produced 88 stakes winners, 31 of which were in Grade 1 races, and three Breeders’ Cup winners. He can now add a fourth to that résumé.

In 1910 in New York, racing ground to a halt at the end of Saratoga, the victim of politicians and their anti-gambling stance. Kentucky seized that opportunity to re-assert its primacy in the world of Thoroughbred racing; how fitting that in that year Claiborne Farm was born and has for a century set new standards for breeding and racing. In this year, its centenary, the farm raced a horse borne of its blood on both sides; won North America’s biggest race; and now, contends for its highest honor.

More of my photos here.

Further reading/sources consulted

Arthur Hancock Sr., Horse Breeder, 81.” New York Times, April 2, 1957 (obituary)

Bowen, Edward. Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders, Vol 2. Lexington, Kentucky: Blood-Horse Publications, 2004.

Hervey, John. American Race Horses, 1940. New York, NY:  Sagamore Press, 1940.

Pedigree Query for pedigrees of Blame, Espadrille, Limit

Robertson, William H.P.  The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America.  New York:  Bonanza Books, 1964.

Recent features on the farm in honor of the anniversary

Thoroughbred Times

The Blood-Horse (article plus slide-show)

Daily Racing Form

26 thoughts on “A Visit to Claiborne Farm

  1. Great post, Teresa! I didn’t realize there was a second graveyard at Claiborne. I am looking forward to visiting this great farm again, as the only time I went I was a kid and now can appreciate everything so much more. I remember our guide (I don’t remember his name, but he was a fan of Devil’s Bag) being so nice, and he actually gave me a spare photo of Secretariat he had in his office. Also, they let me take my picture with Unbridled. They certainly know how to make your experience one to remember there.

  2. You visited a wonderful place, Teresa. My favorite spot in Kentucky’s horse industry, other than Churchill Downs, is the “Big Stall” in the Claiborne stallion barn. Looking at the brass plates bearing the name of every stallion that was the top stallion of their time at Claiborne is a special experience for me. The Breeders’ Cup Classic win by Blame in the 100th anniversary of Claiborne Farm was as special to me as any magical story surrounding a Derby — and the Derby is a magical thing!

  3. Love it! 🙂 I visited for the first time in 1977, as a teen, and the kind and knowledgeable groom allowed me to see Riva Ridge, Round Table, Tom Rolfe, Hoist the Flag, Secretariat and others. Just last month (uh, 33 years later?!), they welcomed me to see Blame (thanks to Kevin Lay and Joe Peel for being so generous of their time).

    Thanks so much, Teresa, for recognizing a farm that has not only housed some of our greatest Thoroughbreds but has also graciously opened its gates to countless visitors over the decades.

  4. The entire stallion crew at Claiborne is second to none. I’ve brought visitors to the farm many times over the year and each one of the guys are knowledgeable, personable and full of wonderful stories. The second graveyard is something to behold as well. There’s not a better crew to work. To me, Claiborne Farm is the Grand Ol’ Opry of horse racing. Thanks again guys!

  5. Incredible! I’m not just speaking about the wonderful article, but the list of ‘people’ who left comments is awesome.

    Claiborne has long been one of my favorite breeders. I loved Lure the most, back to back winner of the BC Mile. Pulpit was another one of my favorite , with his huge heart and blazing speed.

    Thanks for helping re-live some memories.

  6. Thanks, everyone. August, what a great article. The SI Vault is just an incredible resource – I get lost in there for hours at a time.

    John, its history – and the tangible evidence of it – is humbling. I could written thousands of words about everything I uncovered, there and through reading about it.

    Barbara, Terri, Jamie, they did an incredible job of personalizing the experience of being there – other farms could learn a lot from them.

    Thanks, Zenyatta John. Clearly, the place has left its mark on a lot of people! It was great to see Pulpit – he seems to be enjoying his retirement.

  7. Teresa. Very nice visit with Claiborne. Seeing Buckpassr’s headstone refreshed my memory. He was the best looking most correct race horse to ever step on an American track.

  8. Thank you for posting this, Teresa. It brings back memories when I visited Easy Goer, Mr. Prospector, Danzig, and Ninjinsky there. Do you know if any of the horses buried in the private cemetery were also buried whole? I hope so. Some of my favorites were Unbridled, Easy Goer, and Banshee Breeze.
    I must arrange a tour again….it’s been so long and Eddington and Pulpit are two of my favorites…..Eddington because of his beauty and being a son of Unbridled and Pulpit because whenever I see a young horse that I really, really like, it seems that Pulpit is his/her sire.
    Thanks again for the great article and photos!

  9. You know, Bob, Buckpasser is one of those horses that I don’t know enough about. I’ve never really had cause to research him, and maybe this is the opportunity.

    Jennifer, the only horses that I know that were buried whole are the ones listed. That doesn’t mean that others weren’t, just that those were the ones mentioned. I didn’t see Lure the day I was there.

    Yes, August, isn’t that magnificent? Loved it; thanks for posting it here.

  10. Teresa, “Generally, every horse has about a hundred faults of confirmation. I would defy anybody to pick a flaw in Buckpasser.” Dr. Manny Gilman, NYRA Chief Vet. When you see the pedigree your jaw will drop. 1966 HOTY, 1,463.014, 25/4/1 in 31 starts. I first saw him in 1967 when he was trained by Eddie Neloy. You will slso notice in the blood lines the name Bull Dog whose headstone was featured in a terrific photo essay by Barbara Livingston.

  11. In Buckpasser’s last start the 1967 Woodward, he finished second to Damascus with Dr.Fager third. Rachel A was lucky she didn’t face those bad boys in her historic and storied win. Sorry, my enthusiasm got the best of my good judgrment.

  12. Outstanding, I’ll look forward to you post on Buckpasser. When you consider that Buckpasser, Damascus and Dr.Fager started 80+ times and were only out of the money about 5 times, it makes the colts of today look a little puny.
    Good work on helping find Hotstuf a “forever home”. I am looking for one of those myself.

  13. As to my previous post. Including Blame on the puny list would not be accurate. He is a HOTY finalist with two mares who will be on the All Time Great list. Buckpasser and many other greats lurk in his blood. On the other hand, a sound colt with 13 starts sent to the breeding shed will hurt his racing legacy.

  14. As I read your mention of the running of the Busanda in this post, Teresa, of course, I instantly thought of Buckpasser since she was his dam. I remember vividly the rivalries between Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Damascus in the late 1960s when I was a teenager. They were the stars who generated lots of coverage for racing in the sports pages. I also noted in your FB photos from Claiborne the marker for Moccasin, a solidly built, consistently hard-hitting chestnut filly from that golden era of 20th century racing. I look forward to your reviewing the life of the great Buckpasser.

    By the way, as a follow up to an earlier post, I just came across a small color snapshot I took of the saddling trees at Saratoga from ca. 1968 showing horses and people in close proximity to each other…no fencing to separate them. Ah, the good old days…I’ll try to get it uploaded to share.

  15. I was in Lexington last week with my husband from the 19th-22nd…I’ll tell you what, this may just be my “vibe” thought(s), but I think the TB breed is getting ready for a ‘Renaissance’. We may have about 5-10 years yet to go to REALLY see stallion rosters change, but taking into account the medication argument, the economy, much smaller foal crops, more breeders racing their stock for income, smaller stallion rosters, and whats left of the old guard now being forced in a hurry to pass the torch of animal husbandry knowledge to younger generations, (who honestly have not learned the ropes due to our instant gratification society) I do believe a dramatic shift back to hickory horses is on the horizon. Just like the pony, it’s Time For a Change…..I feel it in my bones….

  16. Glad that you had such a great visit, Nancy — it’s a wonderful place, isn’t it?

    Will be interesting, for sure, to see what the next few years brings. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  17. I will be coming through Lexington Monday, May 27, and would like to tour the farm. Please advise if this is possible. Please advise directions and anything else I would have to know. I will be leaving home on Thursday, May 23 so would like to have a response prior that date. Thank you.

    • Hi, Beverly,

      You can call Claiborne Farm directly to make arrangements for a tour. The farm’s website will have all the information that you need. Enjoy your visit.

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