Bull Hancock had been away for 10 exhausting days. First he had gone to Hollywood Park, then to Monmouth, then on to Belmont, and finally he had met and survived the most rugged challenge of all. "I took my two oldest kids to New York," he said, "and they had me at nightclubs and at suppers, and I've never been so whipped in all my life. You know what it's like trying to keep up with 17-year-old kids!"
Now, like a fighter eager to shed his robe and join the battle for which he had been trained, Arthur Boyd Hancock Jr. slipped quickly out of his city clothes, put on an assortment of country wear and stood thoughtfully on the soft wet bluegrass of a gently sloping hill in Kentucky. He breathed again the fresh country air he loved, and his penetrating eyes eagerly sought out the sights and shapes that meant home—home being Claiborne Farm, the best Thoroughbred breeding farm in the world. For 25 years now Claiborne has harbored more leading stallions than any farm in history.
Hancock inherited Claiborne in 1957, but the farm's modern supremacy in the tricky business of producing first-class race horses is the result of an enormously efficient joint venture. Hancock owns only a small number of the horses on the farm. The rest are the property of such well-to-do clients as Harry F. Guggenheim, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, Howell Jackson, Christopher T. Chenery, Howard B. Keck and William H. Perry. Taken all together, the output of their immense bloodstock holdings has made Claiborne the natural successor to the late Louis B. Mayer's farm and Calumet as the champion U.S. breeding establishment. Some examples:
•In 1959, money earned by horses bred and raised at Claiborne totaled more than $4 million—a new record. In each of the three previous years Claiborne-foaled horses earned $3 million or more.
•Four of the Claiborne stallions were on the top 10 U.S. Sires list. Nasrullah was first, for the third year; Princequillo was second, Double Jay fifth and Ambiorix eighth.
•Only three years ago, in a clear sign of what was to come, Claiborne gathered more one-season honors than anyone believed possible. Nadir was a top 2-year-old, Bayou the best 3-year-old filly, Round Table the best grass horse, Bold Ruler the Horse of the Year, Neji the champion steeplechaser and Dedicate the champion older horse.
•The future looks even brighter. The 15 stallions now standing at Claiborne—a group estimated by Hancock to be worth more than $8 million—make up the finest group of potential sires standing at one farm since the heyday of the Whitney family studs in the 1920s.
The master of this 2,873-acre Thoroughbred empire situated near Paris (pop.: 6,912), 16 miles down the road from Lexington, Ky., is a remarkable man even by race track standards. Bull Hancock's contemporaries know him as a shrewd horse dealer, yet a fair one—as fair as a man can be who is engaged in this delicate gamesman's art. He has the genuine respect of horsemen everywhere—whether they be novices looking for help or neighboring competitors like the honey-tongued Leslie Combs, boss of Claiborne's chief rival, Spendthrift Farm.
"He is," says a Claiborne customer, "the most knowledgeable horseman in the world today." This man looked over a Claiborne advertisement in a recent trade journal and added, somewhat anxiously, "I have only one thing against Bull. Since he stopped breeding for the commercial market, he's in open competition with his customers, and he'll probably knock our brains out!" He was referring, of course, to the fact that Claiborne Farm has stopped selling at the major Keeneland and Saratoga sales in favor of racing its own well-bred stock under the familiar Claiborne all-orange silks.
If ever anyone was bred and raised to knock the brains out of rival horsemen, it certainly was Hancock. For more than a century his family has been in the horse business. The family seat was first established in the mid-19th century in Ellerslie, near Charlottesville, Va., by Captain Richard Johnson Hancock, an Alabaman who was thrice wounded while serving under Stonewall Jackson. Racing in partnership with his friend, Major Thomas W. Doswell, Captain Hancock won the 1884 Preakness with Knight of Ellerslie. His silks have since been carried by all Claiborne horses.
One of the captain's five sons, Arthur Boyd Hancock, a 6-foot 6-inch trackman in the class of 1895 at the University of Chicago, decided—as his brothers went off to become professors and doctors—that his father's horse business was for him. Shortly after he married Nancy Tucker Clay of Paris, Ky. she inherited (in 1910) the present site of Claiborne Farm. The Hancocks moved to Kentucky in 1913, when Arthur Jr. was 3. At 6 he began learning the business from the weed-choked ground up.
"I started with my dad, riding out with him to open gates," Bull said recently. "He paid me a nickel a day. I can remember the first big thrill of my life. I was 10. My Dad paid me $2 a week for chopping with the Weed crew, and I sure thought it was pretty big stuff getting my first check with the men. After that I went to sweeping sheds and shaking empty stalls. It was tough work, but I knew right then that this life was the one for me."
It was just after dawn. Hancock got into his Oldsmobile and drove slowly toward one of the yearling barns, where his chief assistant, Bill Taylor, and his yearling superintendent, Dee Brooks, were waiting for the daily inspection. Bill squinted in the bright sun and apologized to a visitor, "I haven't seen these colts for 10 days. They're a little sunburned and wet—and a bit tough to remember." Then, as each yearling was led by in single file, he rattled off its complete pedigree without hesitation.
In the Claiborne office, breakfast over, Bull settled behind a desk piled high with mail. Before he could get to work, the phone started ringing. Howard Keck, one of his partners, called from California to report on plans for Bagdad. Then, after a period of listening, Bull took over. "You see that piece in the paper about Hillsdale retiring? I don't know what they're going to do with him, but I tell you one thing. He may be just another horse to look at, but his record is so impressive that you can hardly afford to ignore him. And another thing, you know his sire wasn't such a bad runner till he broke down. Hillsdale represents an outcross, and I wouldn't mind in the least sending a few of the Nasrullah mares to him."
Between phone calls Bull leaned back in his chair, laced his massive fingers behind his balding head and talked about the horse business. "It's true we've got quite an investment here: 15 stallions, about 280 mares, 180 weanlings, 30 yearlings, a few 2-year-olds and 300 head of cattle. To replace everything at Claiborne today would cost about $21 million. I raise about one-seventh of all the horses on the farm in the name of Claiborne. The rest of them are boarders. When I think that it costs me $850,000 a year to run this place I often sit here and wonder what the hell I'm doing it all for.
"I think there're probably two main answers. First, you don't raise winners of $4 million without feeling proud of success. Second, I wouldn't want to quit the association with the nice people I'm in business with. I don't mean that to sound corny, but where are you going to find nicer people than Howard Keck, Howell Jackson, Harry Guggenheim, Chris Chenery, Bill Perry, the Phippses and a lot of others who use Claiborne?"
The phone rang again, and Bull sat straight up. "You got the fifth at Belmont? Yeah, no kidding, he win, eh? What do you know! Another first for Claiborne." After hanging up he allowed himself a mild chuckle. "Claiborne colors won a stake over the jumps at Belmont today," he said. "We win with Ambassador. Once I talked seven guys I play golf with in Florida into betting $100 each on him, and he wasn't even in the hunt. Now suddenly, after he can't catch anything in front of him on the flat, he sees something in front of him on a damn jump course, and he not only jumps it, but they can't catch him."
Bull looked pensively for a moment at the pictures, plaques and certificates on his office walls, and they reminded him of something. "Oh, yes—what I was saying about good people. This call about Ambassador gives me a perfect example. You hear a lot of knocks all over about the jumpers. Well, you know, I hope the steeplechase doesn't die out. It has brought, over the years, a hell of a lot of good people into the game. Racing needs that kind instead of the fly-by-nights who come in for two or three years and then get out when they don't like it—or when they have no success."
Before dinner at Claiborne, Bull mixed cocktails, but his beautiful wife, Waddell, said time was short because the children were hungry. The two boys, A. B. Hancock III, age 17, and Seth, 11, were away. The girls, Clay, 15, and little Dell 7, were front and center. For generations the Hancocks have been a close family. Bull and his Waddell intend to keep it that way. "I'll help my kids do anything they want to do seriously," said Bull over his coffee, "but I won't stand for any laziness or casual approach. I'm not too much in favor of girls, going to college, and, for that matter, if they aren't learning anything in school I'd just as soon have them come home and learn to be good secretaries instead."
Bull Hancock's personal adventures with education are a story in themselves. After going to prep school, first at St. Marks and later at Woodbury Forest—where, by his own admission, most of his reading was in the Daily Racing Form—Bull was summoned before his father. "He gave me three choices," Bull recalls. "Go to Cornell and learn to be a vet, go to agricultural school at Iowa State or go to Princeton to get an education. Well, I went to Princeton (class of '33), and I think the thing I learned best of all was how to drink beer. When I was handed my diploma, the man who gave it to me—he was a good friend of mine and knew all along I was a horseplayer—said, 'It was a photo finish, wasn't it?' We both knew I was the last qualifying man in my class."
Ever since those undergraduate days a story has been going the rounds about Bull's prowess as a boxer—a story given substance by his nickname, by his height (6 feet 1¼ inches) and by his weight (210 pounds). Recently Hancock decided to end the myth once and for all. "One of my best friends at college was John Rutherford, who in our senior year was Golden Gloves heavyweight champion. Well, one night John needed a little help in finding the right bed, and when I got fed up trying to set him straight, I finally clipped him one. To this day John jokes about me being the only guy who ever put him on the floor for keeps. Hell, man, if John Rutherford ever came at me, I'd set my own track mark for an eighth of a mile. I can't box and never could."
If Bull was no great shakes at boxing, he was better than a fair hand at other sports. After alternating between guard and tackle on his class football team, he made a name for himself—a name of sorts, that is—at baseball. "I was a lousy fielder but a good hitter, so they put me anyplace they thought the ball wouldn't go. Our freshman coach, Dinny Dinsmore, sure did give me a fit. I got on first base one day, and three times he put the steal sign on. Three times I just stood there. Dinny came running out yelling, 'Didn't you see that sign?' "
The price of thought
" 'Yes, sir, but I thought....'
" 'Hancock!' he roared back at me. 'You stop trying to think. Every time you think, you weaken my ball team!' So he put the sign on again, and I stole, and they threw me out by 30 feet!"
The next day Bull led me to the top of a hill from which we could see hundreds of acres of pastures for his brood mares and their foals. "The late Mr. William Woodward Sr. was often quoted as saying, 'Upon the quality of the matron depends the success of the stud,'" Hancock said. "This may be true to a certain extent, but remember, Mr. Woodward's big success came when he got Sir Gallahad III as a stallion. As long as I can have a Nasrullah and a Princequillo, an Ambiorix, Double Jay and Hill Prince, I'll be on top."
Bill Taylor and Colonel Floyd Sager, Claiborne's veterinarian, came by to report that another mare bred to Bold Ruler was found to be barren. "Now isn't that just my luck," growled Bull. "Four mares I breed to Bold Ruler and all of them come up barren. This game sometimes seems like it's made up of bad luck. Just when you think you got the game twisted around ready to knock a home run, nature slips in and throws you a curve ball. Bold Ruler looks like he's going to make it as a sire. Every foal we've got by him is a standout. They've got remarkable strength in the shoulder and wonderful-looking chests."
Some of the mares were walking lazily toward the group of visitors, and Bull studied them closely. "In breeding," he said, "of course you've got to keep in mind conformation and soundness. If a mare has a tendency to breed unsound I want to send her to the soundest stallion I can. With Nasrullah, who was so temperamental, we tried to find him mares with the best temperaments. But as much as I like to get as good a pedigree as I possibly can, I'm not going to be scared off by one name in it I don't like. There may be a 'dog' in the pedigree of every champion if you inspect it carefully.
"In the main, however, I'm looking for mares with racing performance, and I'm willing to wait until she's had four foals before deciding whether she stays at Claiborne or we get rid of her. On the other hand, if I had fillies out of Doubledogdare and Sunshine Nell, I'd keep them even if they couldn't outrun peanut butter, because some day I'd feel I was going to come up with something good. The objective at Claiborne is that every horse is bred to go at least a mile and a quarter, and it's a pity that so few other farms in the country are trying to do the same thing."
The selfless view
While nearly every U.S. horseman will readily agree that the success of Claiborne Farm is closely linked with the stud careers of Nasrullah and Princequillo, nobody can accuse Bull Hancock of trying to keep the best for himself. "Until I went into a partnership with Howard Keck and more recently with Bill Perry," says Bull, "everything of mine was for sale. We quit breeding for the commercial market in 1953 and sold privately. I used to put a price tag on my yearlings and sell them, until my bookkeeper told me I was even or a little ahead. Then I used to race the ones that were left."
"There was never real high-pressure selling at Claiborne," says a Hancock client. "Bull never tries to force you into buying anything. But he'll lean over backward to accommodate you. He'll tell a man who can't make up his mind, 'I'll go in 50-50 with you on this colt and we'll race him together if that will make you feel better about it.' In other words, he builds confidence among his buyers in much the same way that you or I would feel better being in on an oil deal if we knew that the man who was going to drill the well also owned half the stock in the deal."
"The trouble with selling," says Bull, "is that every time you sell a horse, you're either a dummy or a thief because nothing that sells for, say, $10,000 is worth exactly that. Remember, too, that in the last 30 years sales prices have gone up three times, while the earning capacity of horses has gone up five times.
"When you sell at auction the people set their own prices. For my part, the objectionable part about a private sale is selling a man a horse that doesn't prove his value. People said I gave Kerr [Travis M. Kerr] a hell of a sticking when I sold him Round Table for $150,000. But look what the horse won for Kerr—better than 1½ million."
On the 20-mile drive from Claiborne to Lexington's Idle Hour Club, where he was going to play golf, Bull Hancock looked at some of the neighboring pastures. "There's lots to be said about proper nutrition for horses," he said, "and we do a good deal about renovating our fields and utilizing all the new land we can. But I'll be darned if I can go along with some of those California theories about raising good horses on just a lot of dry feed. My father used to say to me, 'Man o' War was the best horse I ever saw, and all he ever had was good hay, good oats, good grass and plenty of water.' I guess that theory is good enough for me."
Laughter at the pearly gates
As he drew closer to the club, Bull broke into a smile. "Did you hear the one about the racetracker who went to heaven? He got up the ladder to the gates and when St. Peter told him that the quota for racetrackers was filled and that there was no more room, the racetracker looked forlorn. Then he said, 'Would you mind taking a message inside to all those race-trackers while I wait here by the gates?'
"'Not at all,' replied St. Peter. 'I'll put it on the bulletin board.'
"'Just tell those guys in there that there's a 100-day meeting going on in hell, with $5,000 minimum purses, $50,000 stakes every Wednesday and $100,000 stakes every Saturday.'
"Within minutes, all the race-trackers were hustling down the ladder from heaven, and St. Peter came out to our friend and said, 'There's plenty of room for you now. Come on in.' But the racetracker had a puzzled look on his face, and he turned to St. Peter and said, 'Say, there might be something to that rumor. I think I better go down to hell and check on it!' "
THE WORLD'S RICHEST FARM
If Bull Hancock ever considered selling Claiborne Farm, the price tag would include the following items, according to Hancock's estimate:
280 mares, some with foals, at an average of $25,000
Approximately 3,000 acres
110 yearlings at an average of $20,000
300 head of cattle
52 acres of tobacco