He left Claiborne Farm that day in a rush, bursting out the front door of the farm's office and heading toward the Chevy station wagon. He could taste the salt in his tears.
Even today, Arthur Boyd Hancock III remembers that cold December afternoon in 1972 as vividly as he remembers the pain and turmoil that tracked his life and led him inevitably out that front door: the drinking and the car wrecks, the bar fights and the nights in jail, the long years of conflict and rejection that marked life with father. He can still recall the sound of his father's foghorn voice berating him, the angry threats and imprecations. He can remember the occasional whuppings his father delivered—that coldcocking right to the jaw and the kick to the belly when he was down. But that was over now, and all that remained for Arthur to face were the consequences of his improvident youth.
Three months earlier, on Sept. 14, Arthur's father, A.B. Hancock Jr., had died of cancer, leaving his wife, Waddell, and four children: daughters Clay, 27 years old, and Dell, 19, and sons Arthur III, 29, and Seth, 23. In the 25 years before his death, the 62-year-old Kentuckian, who was known to all as Bull Hancock, had emerged as the godfather of American thoroughbred breeding, the single most influential force in making the U.S. the international leader of both the bloodstock business and the sport of racing. In Claiborne Farm, Bull had left behind the preeminent thoroughbred breeding farm in the world—a 4,570-acre Bluegrass showplace outside Paris, Ky., that was home to royally bred mares and to the most formidable assembly of stallions in the world.
Many rich men trusted Bull with their money, and they spent millions gambling on his advice. His nickname suited him. He was a large man, 6'2" and 230 pounds, a bourbon-sipping raconteur with a deep, reverberating voice, an enormous sense of presence and a temper that was as quick as it was legendary. He missed a crucial putt one day while playing golf and became so enraged that he heaved his putter into a nearby creek. Still frothing, he grabbed his golf bag out of his caddie's hands and threw it into the creek. At that moment, his caddie started laughing, and so Bull picked up the caddie and threw him in after the putter and the bag.
October 30, 1989
Bull was competitive in the extreme, and it was his enduring frustration that he spent his adult life in futile pursuit of his most fervent dream. As big as he was in the breeding game, with access to all those stallions and with his celebrated insight into pedigrees, Bull never owned a Kentucky Derby winner. Claiborne had bred some Derby champs for other owners, but no Hancock had ever owned a Derby winner, and the Hancocks had been breeding horses at Claiborne since Bull's father, Arthur I, founded the place in 1910.
Bull's quest to breed and own that one big 3-year-old colt was the consuming passion of his life. Most of the best horses he raised for himself happened to be fillies, and raising fillies was just not the way to win the Derby. One spring day in 1970, one of Bull's finest mares, Continue, went into labor. She was carrying a foal by the Argentine champion Forli. "This could be my Derby horse," Bull told the 27-year-old Arthur as they drove to the foaling barn to watch the birth.
Bull paced nervously outside the stall as the farmhands helped Continue in the delivery. The moment the whole foal emerged, Bull peeked inside the stall and asked, "Well, what is it?"
"It's a filly, Mistah Hancock," said farmhand James Christopher.
Bull wheeled around and bellowed, "Sonofabitch, another filly!" He kicked the wall, booted over a filled water bucket, then began walking in circles, muttering in anguish: "What is it I've done? Why do I deserve this?" Calming down, he finally asked, "Is she all right?" Just then Christopher turned the foal over, and where her left eye should have been there was an empty socket.
"She only has one eye," Christopher said.
Bull jumped as though he had been electrocuted, then kicked a feed tub six feet into the air, sending it crashing out the barn door. "Goddam it!" he hollered. "Not only a filly, but a one-eyed filly!"
He named her Tuerta. Little did he know it at the time but, true to the curious twists and turns of the breeding business, that one-eyed filly would one day help fulfill Bull's ultimate quest.
When Bull died in 1972, Arthur III figured that Claiborne Farm would be his to run. He was, after all, the oldest son and had worked at all levels on the farm. Seth had just graduated from the University of Kentucky and had begun to work at Claiborne full-time. "I wanted to carry on my father's name," Arthur says. "It was what I had been programmed to do."
And, indeed, an executor of Bull's will says Arthur probably would have gotten the job had it not been for Ogden Phipps. Phipps, one of Bull's closest friends and most important clients, had been named by Bull as an adviser to the estate on matters relating to the horses. According to the executor, when Arthur was suggested as the logical candidate, Phipps objected, saying Arthur got drunk and got into fights all the time. Phipps denies this.
But there was no denying Arthur's history as the family rebel or his reputation as a carouser and womanizer. "I was a freewheelin', hard-drinkin', guitar-pickin', bar-brawlin', skirt-chasin' fool," he says. And Arthur did little to endear himself to his father's friends. A couple of months after Bull's death, on the day the farm dispersed some of Bull's racehorses in New York, Arthur showed up at the sale with eyes red from a night of drinking. Already he had sensed a coolness from Phipps, and now there was a distinct chill. Arthur began to suspect that his fate had been determined.
In the executors' meeting at Claiborne that December, he learned that the advisers wanted Seth as president of Claiborne, with Arthur in a subordinate role. Arthur knew instantly what he had to do; there was no chance that Arthur Boyd Hancock III would work for his younger brother.
Arthur stood up, all 6'4" of him, and said, "Y'all run it like you want to. You don't need me anymore. I'm out."
Out the door, that is, and into the Chevy. He hit the gas pedal and fled down the driveway. It was the most crushing moment of his life. Claiborne had been his home, his birthright. Feeling alone and suddenly lost, cut from his roots and his heritage, he was scared, facing things on his own for the first time in his life. "When I was young, I once thought that I wanted to be an explorer," Arthur says. "Well, I was exploring now. It was like crossing the sea from England to America. I thought, You'll find out at least what you're going to do in life and at least you'll do it yourself. If they don't want me, fine. Screw 'em. I'm not gonna hang around if I'm not wanted.
"It's like a song I once wrote: If it's all the same to you, I'll be leavin' in the mornin'. But at the same time I was torn all to pieces."
He felt resentment toward Seth and was filled with bitterness toward Phipps, whom he perceived as the architect of his removal. Arthur stopped in Paris to call his best friend, Paul Sullivan, at a pay phone.
"I just dropped out of Claiborne," he said.
"Oh, my god!" said Sullivan. "You gotta be joking."
True to form, Arthur got into his cups that night, drinking until the wee hours with Sullivan. Sometime past midnight, Arthur began plotting his return. He was living alone at the time, a few miles down the road from Claiborne, on a little 100-acre spread that Bull had leased him to run on his own. It was called Stone Farm. Arthur vowed he would build it into a showplace and one day would show Phipps and all the rest that he was his father's son.
"Someday I'm gonna win the Kentucky Derby," he told Sullivan, "and someday I'll be bigger then Claiborne."
Sullivan said, "Bring this fool another Budweiser!"
Almost 17 years after washing down his promises with yet another beer, Arthur Hancock III steers his black Mercedes between two wide fields of grass. It is a fine autumn day in the countryside northeast of Paris. He pulls over to the side of the road and points: "That field over there, where that big tree is growing, is where I raised Sunday Silence as a yearling on Stone Farm. Back over yonder"—he gestures to another field a quarter mile away, in the direction of Claiborne—"is where Easy Goer grew up as yearling at the same time. Ain't life strange? When they were yearlings, they could have looked over their fences and seen one another. Probably did. Now they're running for Horse of the Year."
On Nov. 4, Hancock will be sitting in an owner's box at Gulfstream Park in Florida, nervously awaiting the start of the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic and the season's final performance by his fast and gutsy 3-year-old, Sunday Silence. In a nearby box will sit Ogden Phipps, now 80 and the owner of Easy Goer, the dazzling chestnut who has already had three memorable Triple Crown duels with Sunday Silence. And somewhere nearby will be Seth Hancock, who watched Easy Goer grow at Claiborne.
In what is now as much a clash of owners and farms as a rivalry of horses, these two colts will meet one last time to determine who is the best horse in the U.S. In the contests of owner versus owner and brother versus brother, it will be impossible to measure the pride at stake. And it seems fitting that on Breeders' Cup day the spotlight will fall on two horses who were born and raised on neighboring pastures once walked by America's most important breeder of thoroughbreds. Somewhere, Bull Hancock will be smiling.
Bull was born in 1910, the same year his father founded Claiborne Farm on 1,300 acres of land in Bourbon County, 16 miles northeast of Lexington. Claiborne flourished as a stud farm through the 1920s, and by the 1930s, Arthur Hancock was widely acknowledged to be one of the finest horsemen of his day.
Bull Hancock was his father's creation, the son raised to run the empire after he was gone. "I started with my dad, riding out with him to open gates," Bull once said. "He paid me a nickel a day. After that I went to sweeping sheds and shaking empty stalls. It was tough work, but it was for me. I never wanted to be anything but a horseman."
Bull attended Princeton (class of '33), where he played football and baseball and studied eugenics and genetics. But when he returned to Claiborne in 1945 after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, the farm had a tired look to it. "It had sunk to a very low place," says Waddell. "The mares had all gotten old. The stallions were not fashionable. The farm had fallen into disarray."
Bull gradually took over the running of Claiborne from his ailing father and began to look for that big stallion who would lead Claiborne to a postwar resurgence. He found him in Ireland. Of Hancock's many contributions to breeding and racing in America, none remotely approaches his purchase, in 1949, of the Irish horse Nasrullah, son of the brilliant Nearco.
As a student of genetics at Princeton, Bull had bred fruit flies. Says Arthur, "He used to say that among the fruit flies, the complete outcrosses were the ones that had the energy and vigor. He called that 'hybrid vigor.' " In thoroughbred breeding, a horse is a complete outcross if no name appears more than once in the first four generations of his family tree. With Nasrullah, Bull undertook the application of his hybrid-vigor theory and infused American bloodlines with the Nearco fire, bringing a whole new pedigree to Kentucky mares.
After the war, Bull purchased the stakes-winning Miss Disco, whose pedigree was old American domestic. He was going to add her to his own broodmare band when Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, Ogden's mother and one of the farm's best clients, expressed an interest in owning her. Reluctantly, Bull sold her. In 1953, Mrs. Phipps bred Nasrullah to Miss Disco, and on the night of April 6, 1954—one of the most historic moments in American horseracing—Miss Disco gave birth to her complete outcross, a bay that Mrs. Phipps named Bold Ruler.
After being voted Horse of the Year in 1957, Bold Ruler became a phenomenon as a stallion at Claiborne. From 1963 to 1969, he was America's leading sire, probably the greatest that this country has ever produced. He crowned his incredible career as a stallion when, in 1969, he was bred to Somethingroyal. The next spring, she foaled Secretariat.
Behind Nasrullah, Bold Ruler and a host of other stallions, Claiborne became a repository of the most vigorous bloodlines in the world, and Bull became the most powerful man in the breeding business. It was into this tradition of success, in the shadow of this imposing man, that Arthur and Seth were born. All Bull ever wanted, of course, was for his boys to grow up as he had grown up, working to one day replace their father. "His dream was for Seth and me to run the farm," says Arthur. "That's what he always talked about. For us to carry on when he died."
But when Arthur came of age, he did not know what he wanted to do. "I always loved the horses and the farm," he says, "but I didn't think I could ever equal anything my daddy or granddaddy had done. I saw myself living a life of raisin' horses and probably never havin' any good ones. I sort of wanted to break away and do something on my own."
Much to Bull's dismay, Arthur began veering off on his own at an early age. He loved music, and his grandmother bought him a ukelele when he was seven. The opening lyrics to the first song he ever learned sound like an omen of his hell-raising future:
I went home the other night
Drunk as I could be
Found a head, in my bed
Where my head ought to be
Bull did not want his son playing music, and the boy first felt the sting of his father's disapproval one night at a family dinner. Arthur was 10, fascinated by the shining trumpets that the kids played in the school band.
"Can I get a trumpet for Christmas?" Arthur asked. "If I learn to play it well enough, I might be able to get in the band."
His father threw down his napkin and glared at the boy across the table. Biting off each word, Bull said, "When we were at Princeton, my football friends and I always wondered who'd have the goddam kid who played in the band!"
Arthur didn't get the trumpet, but instead graduated from the ukelele to the guitar, which became his emblem of rebellion. In 1956, when he was 13, he dyed his hair black, swept it back and donned a black leather jacket. His friends called him Elvis, and he learned to play well enough to sing a few songs one day on a Paris radio station. All full of himself, he strutted in the front door of Claiborne House, the white-columned family manse, and saw his father sitting there reading the Daily Racing Form.
"Well, well, well," said Bull. "If it isn't the canary comin' home to roost."
"It nearly killed me when Bull would say things like that to Arthur," says Waddell. "That absolutely cut me to the quick. I loved Bull, I adored him. But they were fightin' words. I tried to control myself. I'd say, 'Please try to be a little more considerate of the boy's feelin's.' "
That was not easy. Bull's favorite saying was, "The only real happiness in life is a job well done." He expected Arthur to take as much interest in Claiborne as he did. Arthur was picking his guitar in the house one afternoon, trying to learn how to play Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou," when Bull asked if he wanted to see some of the new foals.
"Thanks, Daddy, but I want to finish this song," he said.
"You know what you remind me of?" asked Bull.
"No, sir," said Arthur.
"The goddam court jester."
One night, when Arthur was 17, Bull told him to be home at 11:00. At 10:50, Arthur called from a hamburger joint in Paris to say that he would be 15 minutes late. Bull hung up on him. Instead of coming straight home, Arthur waited for his cheeseburger. When he walked in the front door at 11:15, Bull was standing behind it. The first right to the jaw dropped Arthur to the floor, and then Bull started kicking him. Arthur scrambled to his feet, but Bull knocked him down again. Leaning over his son, Bull said, "I tell you to be in at 11 o'clock, you goddam be in at 11 o'clock. Understand?"
Such episodes of physical violence were infrequent, and Arthur admits to provoking his father's anger. "I was scared of Daddy, but I admired him tremendously, and I loved him," he says. "But I was just an arrogant, cocky little sucker. You're Bull Hancock and your son gets up at Joyland Park in Lexington and plays rock 'n' roll with Little Enis and the Tabletoppers. Wild and crazy hair. They write in the Lexington papers the next day that Bull Hancock's son was singin' 'Johnny B. Goode' and doin' the duckwalk across the Joyland stage. I think a lot of that caused the clash."
Seth never stirred his father's ire as Arthur did. "I saw the problems Arthur had and what I viewed as his mistakes," says Seth. "I thought, I ain't comin' in late, I ain't gonna argue with him. You couldn't win. I could see that. I just stayed away from those types of things, and we got along fine."
Arthur's errant ways continued in college, at Vanderbilt. As a sophomore, a week after swimming to the Southeastern Conference championship in the 100-meter freestyle, he was still celebrating his victory. He left a party and was driving about 100 mph down a Nashville road, his radio blaring, when three police cars pulled him over. A policeman jerked him out of the car. Arthur started laughing and dancing the monkey in the road. They slammed him against the hood, handcuffed him and took him to the station. When they tried to give him a Breathalyzer test, he drew in all the air he could—"I was really fit from swimmin'," he says—and exhaled so hard that the balloon exploded.
He laughed in their faces and spent the night in a dim cell that reeked of vomit, lying on a cot, facing the wall. "Oh, Lord," he moaned. It was not the last night he would spend in a drunk tank.
He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1966, worked a year as a groom at Belmont Park for the Phipps family's trainer, Eddie Neloy, and then headed back to Claiborne to resume apprenticeship under his father. The end nearly came in 1969. Arthur was attending a wedding reception, and drinking too much, when a group of men began goading him with an unseemly suggestion regarding one of his sisters. He punched one of them so hard in the face that the fellow left a bloody trail as he skidded across the floor. It took four men, including the bride's father, to get Arthur out the door. The next morning, Arthur was visited by his old drinking nemesis, "Mr. R.E. Morse," as he calls him. The bride's family were old friends of the Hancocks, and Bull was mortified.
"Pack your bags and get out," Bull told him.
Arthur did some of the fanciest talking of his life, pleading with his father to forgive him. Bull grew quiet. He looked at Arthur sadly. "I was like you once," he said. "Get a grip on it, Bud. Be a man."
So Arthur stayed. A year later, Bull sent him to Stone Farm, to learn the business for himself. He was doing just that when Bull died and his executors gave Claiborne to Seth. When Arthur attended the January sales at Keeneland in 1973, men who had backslapped him two months before—"Hey, Ahhthur, how ya doin'?"—now dropped their heads when they saw him.
"They figured I was useless," he says. "They figured, here's a sonofabitch who can't follow Claiborne tradition."
While Arthur slipped off to Stone Farm to rebuild his life, Seth rose to assume his father's place—a 23-year-old college graduate suddenly thrust to the top of the greatest breeding establishment in the world, in charge of a farm worth tens of millions in livestock. Says Seth, "Arthur had the burden to bear on his shoulders of bein' turned out in the cold, and I had the burden to bear on my shoulders, like some young basketball coach, of following in the footsteps of John Wooden or Adolph Rupp. So, you know, everybody's got to carry their own bag of rocks. Carry them and do the best you can."
Seth carried his triumphantly in February of 1973. In his first major job as head of Claiborne, he syndicated Secretariat, in 32 shares, for a then world-record $6.08 million, convincing breeders to shell out $190,000 a share 10 weeks before the horse would run in the Kentucky Derby. Now all he had to do was wait for the race, and while Seth and Claiborne didn't own Secretariat, Seth now had a reputation at stake. "What would have happened if the horse had failed?" he asks. "I might have gone down with him."
Instead, Secretariat won the most spectacular Kentucky Derby in history, and Seth was feted as a chip off the old block, Bull's son, the bearer of the torch. Arthur was at the Derby, and that night he went home to Stone Farm. "I went back to the little house," he says. "Seth had won the Kentucky Derby. My little brother! I felt terrible."
In the years after Arthur left Claiborne—while he was scuffling around Bourbon County fitting parcels of land together, gathering clients and looking for stallions and mares—hundreds of people would see him and mistakenly call out, "Hi, there, Seth." Arthur Hancock had almost evaporated. "It was strange," he says. "Seth was the man."
At times Arthur drank as if to self-destruct, getting tanked in town and then driving home too fast. In 1975 he saw a pretty blonde named Staci Worthington working at a sale, and his first thought was, She looks like an angel, but I don't deserve her—wasted rogue that I am. He finally did ask her out, and they eloped in 1977. But Arthur was still the invisible man. Staci would introduce herself to people and they would say, "Are you related to Seth Hancock?"
By the time Arthur married Staci, he had purchased Stone Farm from Bull's estate and added a few other parcels of land, for a total of 844 acres. The vow he made to Sullivan that night in 1972 was no empty one. He talked about it all the time to Staci. "He wanted to win the Kentucky Derby, and he wanted to be bigger than Claiborne," she says. "He was trying to prove something to his father. It really didn't matter if his father was here or not. And he had to prove something to himself."
He worked tirelessly building up Stone Farm. In 1977 he purchased another 1,500 acres, and he was on his tractor or bulldozer all day, pulling up old wire fences, clearing trees, filling washes, mowing pastures. He built miles of fencing and collected clients to board their mares at Stone. "Seven days a week, from six in the morning to six at night," he says. "Year after year."
He began standing some unfashionable stallions, such as Cougar II, at Stone Farm, and he bought relatively inexpensive mares, such as Peacefully, to breed to them. He mated those two in 1978, and the following spring Peacefully foaled a horse at Stone that Hancock named Gato Del Sol. Why did he decide to breed Peacefully to Cougar II? "A complete outcross," he says. "Hybrid vigor!"
In partnership with Leone Peters, he entered Gato Del Sol in the 1982 Kentucky Derby. The big gray was 21-1, and Arthur stood numbly, in disbelief, as his horse came from dead last in a field of 19, charged to the lead nearing the eighth pole and won by 2½ lengths. And when the OFFICIAL sign flashed, he and Staci took off for the winner's circle. A Hancock had finally bred and owned a Kentucky Derby winner. "I felt like I could float right over that infield," Arthur says. "I thought, 'Now I know what is meant by walking on air.' I did something that Daddy tried to do all his life and couldn't. I was overwhelmed. I did it all myself! I said, 'I'm not such a stupid, worthless bastard after all.' "
Using Gato as collateral for a bank loan, Arthur quickly bought another 1,200-acre tract of land, making Stone larger than Claiborne. To Sam Ransom, one of Claiborne's old farmhands, now working for Stone, Arthur said, "Just think, we've won the Derby and now we're bigger than Claiborne." To which Sam, who often speaks in rhymes, replied, "We might be bigger in size, but Claiborne's bigger otherwise."
Indeed, Arthur and Stone Farm had still not achieved anything near the stature of Claiborne. Seth had done a splendid job of keeping the Claiborne barns filled with some of the best prospects in racing and developing such leading sires as Mr. Prospector and Danzig. In 1979, Claiborne won an Eclipse Award for breeding.
In 1984 a bay colt named Swale became the first Kentucky Derby winner owned by Claiborne; Seth, at last, had fulfilled his father's fondest dream. Swale, unlike Gato Del Sol and much in the Claiborne tradition, was regally bred, a son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. And the dam? None other than the one-eyed Tuerta, at whose birth Bull had kicked the feed tub out of the barn.
Despite his success with Stone Farm, Arthur still had problems; his new work ethic was tainted by his old play ethic. Although he had become a family man with four children and had begun to build a grand stone house on a hilltop, a place suitable for a successful Kentucky breeder, he still suffered bouts of self-destruction. "I always felt like John Wayne, the rancher, going into town for a drink after the cattle drive, shootin' it up in the saloon with the boys. I went into Paris to drink. But one night I landed in the police station for four hours and I was thinkin' about my children and my wife at home, and tears ran down my cheeks. I thought, Ain't this something? Would they be proud of Daddy? That day changed my life. I've hardly had a drink since. That day in the police station was really the bottom for me."
Arthur started climbing toward the top in 1984, when Halo, an expensive stallion, began stud duties at Stone Farm. When one of Halo's sons, Sunday Silence, won this year's Kentucky Derby, Arthur found himself, along with his two co-owners, floating to the winner's circle for the second time in seven years.
Arthur has made a kind of peace with Seth—he was best man at Seth's wedding two years ago, and they have a cordial, if not affectionate, relationship. But Arthur's hostility toward Phipps, while diminished, has not disappeared. Phipps, for all his success in breeding and racing, has never had a Derby winner. When Sunday Silence won the Derby, he beat the odds-on favorite Easy Goer, Phipps's horse. For Arthur the vengeance was sweet. "It was poetic justice," he says. "He once prevented me from having what I most wanted in life, and in the Derby I prevented him from having what he wanted too. I hope he wins the Derby next year—unless I'm in it."
If Sunday Silence should win the Breeders' Cup, it will crown the long comeback for Arthur. At times he wonders how he ever got where he is. "You look back and say, 'How did you do that?' I could have been a half-assed songwriter out in L.A., pickin' a guitar, gettin' drunk a couple of times a week, writin' songs. It's amazing I ended up where I am."
He certainly has left his old life-style. He has had four brief slips in four years. "I can't drink," he says. "Each time I did, it was the same thing. I got a visit from R.E. Morse. And then the depression, guilt, sadness. It's like I'm not even the same person when I drink. Know what I mean? Who was the bad one, anyway, Jekyll or Hyde?"
He looks out the window of his study, past the shelves of gleaming trophies and out across the rolling fields of soft grass. "I think it worked out well for me and for Claiborne," he says. "I'm sure Daddy would be proud of me."