Claiborne Farm
Claiborne Farm

Photos from Claiborne Farm…

(Image and Footage : Mrs LW)

“If you keep quiet and listen,

it’s evident you can learn a lot at Claiborne.”

Mick Goss
Mick Goss

Mick Goss

Summerhill Stud CEOA year ago to the day, and fresh out of a Warren Buffett presentation of epic proportions, we were winding our way to Churchill Downs for the curtain-raiser to America’s greatest horse race, the Kentucky Derby. The first Saturday in May marks the “Run for the Roses”, and in 2011, we were there to witness a famous victory for Summerhill clients, Team Valor, and their new-found hero, Animal Kingdom. Our friends at Team Valor bid for a double tomorrow with Went The Day Well, though they could’ve been represented in a three way assault if things had gone their way, double-handed as they are in the talent at their disposal.

For several days we traversed the pikes and turnpikes of Lexington, from one great farm to another, renewing our acquaintances with old friends like A.P. Indy, Pulpit, Distorted Humor and Dynaformer and a few new pretenders, Tapit, Malibu Moon and Giant’s Causeway. We kicked off deep in Bourbon County, just outside of Paris, Kentucky, like Mooi River, a slow town alongside a little railway station which looks as if it was a remnant of the Civil War. Everywhere are the fields of dreams, dotted with oak trees and enclosed by identical four-rail fences, all stained black. Wisps of fog hover low over the blue grass which has been washed bright green by a summer shower. Every so often, the columns of a white mansion peek discreetly through a cluster of trees. The mood is such that if Scarlett O’Hara was suddenly to glide by in hooped skirts, carrying a parasol and cooing, you would probably think, yes, she fits well enough. We are, after all, in a rare place, some of the richest farming dirt in the world. Old families, old money, nicely understated. A warm hand of friendship greets you, much like your arrival at Summerhill, but this time with a greeting “good to see y’all”, which can be confusing if, as often happens, there is only one of you. Like us, the racehorse is the reason for it all.

The Hancock’s Claiborne Farm is just outside Paris. No farm anywhere has more influenced the evolution of the American thoroughbred this last century. Claiborne is all about the brotherhood and, God knows, it is understated: no bragging, no hussle, no brochures in technicolor. Claiborne has been going so long it is a shrine as much as a business, and like us, it’s only as good as its current batch of stallions. You learn soon enough why Claiborne is what it is. All you need do, is watch and listen.

I recall my visit to Claiborne in the dead of winter, 1988. We were there to buy Coastal, the first American classic winner to set foot on African shores. Clay Arnold, one of the stallion men, was stooped by his 70 years, yet there was a boyish serenity in his face. You figure this was because he liked horses and the place, and never wanted to do anything else, and Clay said “you figured right”. He clipped the lead shank on the old bay stallion who was bathed in a pale yellow glow by the sunlight streaming into his box. Most things at Claiborne are in pale yellow, including the paint on the stables. The stallion stepped out calmly, tall with a great length of rein, and a head that was surely what the man meant when he coined the line about “the look of eagles”. But the bay was light of flesh on top and behind, the near-hind was swollen up to the hock, the off-fetlock was so thickened as to be deformed, turned way out and filled so tightly that pink skin flared through the white hairs just above the hoof.

The old horse was grinding away on courage at the end of his career: he was not about to play the invalid now. The light still burnt brightly in his eye. He let us rub his forehead, but he did not acknowledge us. Like any good stallion, he does not look at you, but over and beyond, out over the fields of dreams. He was Nijinsky, the last winner of the English Triple Crown in 1970. Here was another Claiborne legend, the genuine article, the sire of 125 Stakes winners and a sales yearling who brought $13 million (about R104 million). Clay Arnold had handled a few legends. He merely touched the old horse on the neck and drawled: “yessir, he’s a nice horse… a nice horse… I like him a lot, yessir”.

Claiborne is also about ghosts. To feel them you need but step into the stallion cemetary, and read the names on the grey headstones. Nasrullah, died 1959, one of the immortal sires…Secretariat, the great red horse with flaring nostrils who won the Belmont by 31 lengths…Bold RulerRound TablePrincequilloBlenheimGalant FoxBuckpasserCourt Martial. Go to a yearling sale anywhere in the world, Dublin, Buenos Aires, Sydney or Johannesburg, and these names appear on practically every page of the catalogue. Claiborne was running out of burying room, but there was a place for Nijinsky. Standing there though, he seemed happy to stay out of the place. He stood quietly for us, and never thought to fidget.

Clay brought up stallion after stallion; not one played up. At last there was Mr. Prospector, whose blood runs so thick and so deep here at Summerhill these days, and who stood for around $300,000 in those days. And little Danzig, commanding much the same fee and built in the classic Northern Dancer mould: neat, strong through the body and with a lovely head and jowl. As I’ve said, all you had to do to learn was to watch. These stallions were so well behaved, so content, because generations of stallion-handling were built into Claiborne. The place has always believed in the primacy of stallions, in the farming truism that a good bull is half your herd, and a bad bull is all your herd.

Claiborne has been chasing stallions since Captain Richard Hancock came back from the Civil War, determined to breed the best. He chased stallions in Europe, South America and Australia, looking for hybrid vigour, for that magical beast who outbreeds his own pedigree and performances, and South Africa has not been exempt from their shopping list. Hawaii, officially a son of Utrillo, but rumoured in fact to have been sired by Joy II, was one South African who had the distinction of getting a winner of England’s most famous race, the Epsom Derby, as well as a second and a third in the same race. Horse Chestnut, as good a racehorse as this country’s known, was another to grace those historic pastures. No family has done more to turn the American thoroughbred into an international commodity than the Hancocks.

And so the story goes on, one great stallion after another, and sooner or later we will provide you with a little more of the history of this great farm.

The most intriguing building on Claiborne is not the white stallion barn with its yellow trim and the brass name plates that tell you that Bold Ruler and Secretariat lived here. It is the breeding shed. In recent times, some very elaborate breeding sheds have gone up in various parts of the world, complete with hot and cold running vets, lasers, rubber floors, videos, and all the software of the hi-tech age. They have the décor of hospitals. The breeding shed at Claiborne is clad with warped slats on which the black paint has blistered and peeled. The shingles on the roof are stained green with mildew. Inside the floor is uneven and covered with bark. The only concession to modern times is the yellow padding around the walls. Yet heaven knows how many great horses have been fashioned in greatness here.

There’ve been only 11 Triple Crown winners in the history of American racing, which brings us back to tomorrow’s race, the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of this illustrious treble. No less than five of these heroes were conceived in this rough old Claiborne shed. A Kentucky horseman, one of the brotherhood, explained it this way: “Yessir, it’s not the fancy things inside the shed that count: it’s the quality of the horses that grow up outside of it once their mothers have passed through the middle”. If you keep quiet and listen, it’s evident you can learn a lot at Claiborne.