Claiborne Farm is on a roll, a position it is quite used to, and the news scroll on the farm’s website tells the story.
The suspects are not highlighted there-maiden winners here, minor stakes winners there, maybe a farm graduate or homebred competing in a major stakes someplace else.
The six highlights on this scroll are the kinds of things just about any farm would dream about if they happened singularly-homebred by one of the farm’s promising young stallions wins $750,000 Illinois Derby, Claiborne-bred juveniles bring high bids at Florida and European sales, homebred two-time Breeders’ Cup winner elected into Hall of Fame, and the topper of all toppers, farm-raised colt wins Kentucky Derby.
Orb’s victory in last weekend’s Kentucky Derby marked the 10th time in 139 editions of America’s greatest race that the winner saw his first bits of daylight at the Paris, Ky., farm run by the Hancock family since 1910. (To read about the 10 Derby winners born at Claiborne, click here.)
Calling it 10 of 139 isn’t exactly fair however, since the farm didn’t celebrate its 100th anniversary until 2010, so the strike rate of Derby winners born and raised at Claiborne is closer to 10 percent. Considering that the first Claiborne-raised Derby winner didn’t come until 1930-that being eventual Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox-the percentage rises to more than 12.
Raising more than one Derby winner is one more than most breeders dream about. Raising 10 is virtually unprecedented and most certainly unparalleled for any Thoroughbred breeding operation still in existence and running almost the same today as it did when founded at the turn of the 20th century.
Statistically speaking, a Derby winner will come from the bountiful land that straddles the Stoner Creek in Bourbon County, about once every eight or nine years. Of course, what goes into raising horses at Claiborne is so much more than numbers and statistics.
The farm’s slogan, today and always, is “Doing the usual unusually well” and few can cast a legitimate argument to dispute such a statement.
Last weekend’s result might have led some to alter the slogan and perhaps incorporate the word Derby into the motto, but that just wouldn’t be the Claiborne way. Claiborne adapts to changes-maybe not as fast or with near as much flash as their counterparts-but doesn’t bend its mission and goal of putting the horse first.
“Daddy used to say we do the usual unusually well and it’s a creed we’ve tried to live by forever,” Claiborne’s Dell Hancock said earlier this week, still glowing days removed from Orb’s 2 1/2-length score in the slop at Churchill Downs. “When a colt jumps up and runs well, whether it’s the Derby or in Grade 1s, graded stakes, or even being a horse on the path to the Derby, it means your program is good. That’s a big validation and a huge satisfaction.”
Daddy was of course A. B. “Bull” Hancock Jr., the son of Arthur Boyd Hancock, a second generation Virginia-born farmer who founded Claiborne on inherited land about 20 miles northeast of the center of Lexington and in the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region.
A foundation of excellence was established at Claiborne in those early days and continues today under the watch of Seth Hancock, who famously took the reins of the operation in the early 1970s following his father’s death and just prior to putting together a world-record syndication of Secretariat.
Arthur Boyd Hancock bred two of the 10 Derby winners raised off the Claiborne land-1939 winner Johnstown and 1947 winner Jet Pilot (co-bred with Mrs. R. A. Van Clief)-along with nine champions and 138 stakes winners. He was the leading breeder by earnings five times from 1935 to 1943 and the leader by wins eight times in the 1930s and 1940s.
An association with William Woodward Sr. and his Belair Stud saw two other superstars spend their early days at Claiborne-Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox and his son Omaha. Gallant Fox was sired by *Sir Gallahad III, a hugely important stallion imported from Europe whose name appears in the pedigrees of each of the first four Derby winners to come from the Claiborne land. *Blenheim II was another major stallion imported by Hancock and his influence is seen in 1971 Derby winner Canonero II’s pedigree, not to mention making his mark as the sire of Triple Crown winner Whirlaway and sire of Mumtaz Begum, the dam of *Nasrullah.
*Nasrullah, who sired 1957 Preakness winner and hugely influential sire Bold Ruler, was imported from Europe by Bull Hancock, who took the torch from his father upon his death in 1957. Bull Hancock bred Hall of Famers Round Table and Gamely, bred and raced champions Moccasin, Nadir, Bayou, and Doubledogdare, syndicated Buckpasser and Nijinky II for world record prices, and was the leading American breeder by earnings four times from 1958 to 1969.
Two Derby winners were born at Claiborne during Bull Hancock’s watch-Canonero II and Riva Ridge, along with 1973 runner-up Sham and 1969 third-place finisher Dike.
Records aren’t readily available for how many placing runners from the Derby came off Claiborne, but the farm or its family members bred or co-bred nine runners who either finished second or third in addition to the three winners.
Bull Hancock once said “…there’s no race like the Kentucky Derby. Anybody that tells you different, well, they’re lying.”
He didn’t live long enough to see the farm’s orange colors in the Derby winner’s circle, but Claiborne won the run for the roses with homebred Swale in 1984. The farm was under the watch of Seth Hancock at that point. Swale’s victory came two years after Seth’s older brother Arthur B. Hancock III, whose strong-willed independent personality led him to split with Claiborne and start his own successful operation nearby at Stone Farm, won the race with his Gato Del Sol. He later co-bred and raced 1989 Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence and three other Derby winners came off Claiborne since Bull Hancok’s death.
“I’m not sure they’d be so happy about the state of the game, but I know they’d be proud of both the boys,” Dell Hancock said when asked what her father and grandfather might think of Claiborne’s latest accomplishment. “I know for certain they would be.”
Seth Hancock certainly took the torch and ran with it, even though he was only 22 and fresh out of college and a stint in the military when he was entrusted by a group of advisors led by the late Ogden Phipps to take over the farm. He followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in bringing in top-class stallions-Mr. Prospector, Danzig and Unbridled to name just three-to Claiborne and oversaw the world-record syndications of Secretariat, Conquistador Cielo, and Spectacular Bid. Claiborne was America’s leading breeder by earnings in 1984 and won the Eclipse Award as outstanding breeder in 1979 and 1984. Legends like Slew o’ Gold, Caerleon, Nureyev, Lure, Forty Niner, Ivanjica, Fairy Bridge, Wajima, and Blame have emerged from the Claiborne breeding program during Seth Hancock’s watch.
Kentucky Derby winners-especially Claiborne’s first two that went on to sweep the Triple Crown-stake their own place in racing’s rich history and are an undisputed source of pride for the men and women who own, operate, work, or carry any association with farms fortunate to win the race.
Claiborne’s legends extend far beyond one race, however, and countless upper-tier runners lived their first minutes in the farm’s famous white and yellow-trimmed barns.
Legends like Kelso, Ruffian, Personal Ensign, Buckpasser, Seabiscuit, and Forego were all born and raised at Claiborne. So were Bold Ruler and Round Table, foaled in the same barn on the same day in 1954, and so were Blame, Dahlia, Easy Goer, Forty Niner, Gamely, Inside Information, Lure, Private Account, Pulpit, Rhythm, and Seeking the Gold. Lure will be inducted into the Hall of Fame later this year, one of more than 20 Hall of Famers sired by a Claiborne stallion.
The list of greats goes on and on.
So what’s the secret?
Seth Hancock summed it up about as well as one can during the Thoroughbred Club of America’s testimonial dinner in 2000 when he basically said “if you do right by the horse the horse will do right by you.”
Again the words were so much more than an idea, a sound byte or a catchy marketing phrase. They are a rooted philosophy used long before they were uttered that evening at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington and undoubtedly will be words to live by for years to come at Claiborne.
The same philosophy is employed by the connections of Orb, whether it be Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey’s ever-patient approach or Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps’ and Stuart S. Janney III’s never-wavering trust, reliance and support of the people entrusted to care for and nurture their horses.
The association between the Phipps and Janney families and Claiborne goes back to the farm’s founder, whose association with Belair’s Woodward led to another business relationship with Gladys Mills Phipps. The grandmother of Dinny Phipps, Gladys Phipps bred and raced in the name of Wheatley Stable. Seabiscuit, who was sold by Phipps and later turned into an American superstar in the late 1930s, grew up at Claiborne but it was another colt that carried the Wheatley yellow and purple colors whose legacy would extend far beyond the racetrack.
Bold Ruler, a son of *Nasrullah who was fourth in Iron Leige’s Kentucky Derby in 1957, bounced back to win the Preakness two weeks later. He was America’s champion 3-year-old that season and embarked on a breed-defining stud career at Claiborne after an abbreviated 4-year-old campaign. Bold Ruler sired 11 champions, including Triple Crown winner and two-time Horse of the Year Secretariat, and a truly top sire of sires whose sons got such great runners as Ruffian, Spectacular Bid, Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes, and Bold ‘n Determined.
The idea of Orb’s win being one for the “old school” got a lot of press and continues to get a considerable amount of column inches now a week removed from the first Saturday in May. A week remains until Orb takes on the next challenge in the Mays 18 Preakness, so plenty more talk of the approach most certainly is in the offing.
That suits the folks at Claiborne just fine.
“The common thread we have is a huge respect for the horse,” Dell Hancock said. “That comes through on the way we raise them and the way they handle their racing stable. I just read somewhere, Shug saying how he lets the horse take us there and not the other way around. That’s what they’ve done and that’s what we do.”
This article is one story in a multi-part series on Claiborne Farm and its success in the Kentucky Derby.
Watch Orb’s victory in the Kentucky Derby here.
To see Churchill Downs’ profile of Orb prior to the Kentucky Derby, click here.
To read about Claiborne’s other Kentucky Derby winners, click here.
Take a look at how racing trade publications marked Claiborne’s 100th anniversary.