Arthur Hancock & Sunday Silence

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Ask a silly question . . . You don’t need to be Carnac The Magnificent (look it up, kids) to guess Arthur Hancock’s Horse Who Changed Everything. The Kentucky horseman foaled, raised, owned and raced Hall of Famer Sunday Silence, whose 14-start racing career included nine wins and five seconds (with four of those runner-up efforts coming by less than a length). Sunday Silence changed the lives of plenty of people – some who knew him and some who only saw him.

Hancock, who owns and operates Stone Farm with his wife Staci, knew him. Well. And he’s the latest installment in TIHR’s Horse Who Changed Everything, presented by EMBRACE THE RACE.

But first a little Hancock history. According to the Stone Farm website:

Hancock’s great-grandfather, Capt. Richard Hancock, was wounded while serving with the Army of Northern Virginia at the battle of Gettysburg. He was taken to Charlottesville in a mule-drawn ambulance. While recuperating, Capt. Hancock met and fell in love with Thomasia Overton Harris, whose father owned Ellerslie Farm. The two were later married and settled in the area.

Capt. Hancock was drawn into racing by the Virginia horseman Maj. T. W. Doswell. A trip to see Doswell’s Eolus in a race at Pimlico in Baltimore rekindled boyhood images of court-day races back in North Carolina. Capt. Hancock began purchasing Thoroughbred mares, and Ellerslie became the home of the first distinguished racers bred by the Hancocks.

Arthur Boyd Hancock Sr., inherited the same devotion to agriculture. A few years after his marriage to Nancy Tucker Clay in 1908, A. B. Hancock Sr. expanded his breeding operation beyond Ellerslie, establishing a division on the Kentucky property inherited by his bride. They named the farm Claiborne, and in his lifetime and through succeeding generations, the farm has been an international leader in breeding, sales, and racing.

Arthur B. Hancock Jr., known to the world as “Bull,” was at one point sent back to run Ellerslie with an arrangement from his father, “If you make a profit, I’ll hire you back at Claiborne; if you don’t, just stay over there.” The younger Hancock succeeded.

In 1970, Bull Hancock sent young Arthur III to run a 100-acre tract known as Stone Farm. It was a farm in microcosm, involving all details of administration and business as well as horsemanship. Like his father, Arthur succeeded.

Stone Farm later became the property of Arthur III, who added parcels until the rambling, rolling property embraced 2,000 acres.

ETR boxA few miles away, Claiborne stayed in the Hancock family, under the direction of Arthur’s brother Seth and recently turned to a fourth generation under the management of Seth’s son Walker – all the while holding a perch among the most notable Thoroughbred farms in American history.

Stone Farm is where Sunday Silence came to be. Born March 25, 1986, the dark bay colt by farm stallion Halo out of the Understanding mare Wishing Well dodged death from an infection as a weanling and was destined for the sales ring – another client’s horse on a farm full of them. Hancock remembers a “weedy” foal who didn’t want to walk at the yearling sale and bit a handler while in the stall.

Bred by Tom Tatham’s Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds, the colt failed to meet his reserve at the Keeneland July yearling sale of 1987. Six months later, as a 2-year-old, he again failed to attract much attention and wound up a $32,000 buy-back by Hancock and partners. By necessity more than anything else, they had a racehorse (who survived a horse-van accident to add another chapter to the story) and sent him to Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham.

Meanwhile, Stone Farm was floundering. Homebred Gato del Sol had won the Kentucky Derby six years earlier and Hancock used the momentum to expand. Only the momentum stopped. A few months shy of Sunday Silence’s debut, Hancock met with his accountant. The man looked at the paperwork, the balance sheet, the P&L report, then looked at Hancock and spoke.

“Arthur you’re gone. This isn’t going to work. You might make it the rest of the year. A miracle won’t pull you out of this.”

Hancock took the news like a punch in the gut. His farm, his relatively new piece of Kentucky Thoroughbred history over the hill from his family’s solid old one, wasn’t going to make it. The accountant, also a longtime friend, smiled and gave Hancock an alternative life plan.

“You can always go out west and start Hawk’s Bar and Grill,” he said, using Hancock’s nickname and hobby of singing bluegrass tunes. With six kids and a wife, that didn’t seem like much of a plan. Then along came Sunday Silence.

He finished second in his debut, he won his second start by 10 lengths and lost his third to the speedy Houston by a head. The 3-year-old campaign started in March with a Grade 2 win in the San Felipe and rolled all the way to May with an upset of heavily favored Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby. Sunday Silence downed Easy Goer again in a Preakness duel. Easy Goer got some revenge in the Belmont Stakes and Prized ousted Sunday Silence in the Swaps but the Stone Farm horse finished with victories in the Super Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic – the latter over Easy Goer. Sunday Silence was Horse of the Year, champion 3-year-old male and a multi-millionaire.

He ran just twice as a 4-year-old, winning the Grade 1 Californian and finishing second in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. He retired with a ligament injury, after earning $4,968,554.

“He’s the horse that changed my life,” said Hancock. “Gato del Sol got me some respect, I think, by winning the Derby. I bought a lot of land and horses, got in lot of debt. The market crashed in ’88 or whatever it was and Sunday Silence came along. He saved the farm, saved the family. He’s the horse that changed everything for me, because he literally did.”

Hancock planned to add Sunday Silence to the Stone Farm stallion roster – following his sire Halo. Interest from breeders and would-be syndicate members was mild at best, however, and Hancock accepted an offer from Japanese breeder Zenya Yoshida (who bought a small percentage of the horse before he was retired . The price was $10 million. Sunday Silence went on to become arguably the most influential stallion in Japan’s Thoroughbred history – at one point averaging more than $1 million a week in progeny earnings. He led the sire list from 1995 though 2007.

Sunday Silence died of laminitis in 2002. His son Deep Impact is one of Japan’s leading sires and another son Hat Trick stands at Kentucky’s Gainesway Farm.

Arthur Hancock even wrote – and still sings – a “Here Comes Sunday Silence” country song in honor of the horse who changed everything: