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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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