Mark Story: Claiborne Farm owner gets Hall of Fame nod

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 4, 2012 

Whitney Handicap Horse Racing

Marylou Whitney, left, with Blame owners Adele Dilschneider and Seth Hancock, celebrate in the winner's circle after Blame won the Whitney Handicap in 2010. Hancock said Blame was one of his favorite Claiborne Farm horses.

HANS PENNINK — ASSOCIATED PRESS

PARIS — Envision yourself at 23 years old — being placed in charge of the New York Yankees.

In horse racing, Seth Hancock lived that scenario.

Hancock was 23 in 1972 when a confluence of events that began when his father, the legendary horseman Arthur "Bull" Hancock Jr., died from cancer, led to Seth being placed in charge of the day-to-day operations of his family's Claiborne Farm.

Claiborne is considered by many the most influential horse farm in North American Thoroughbred history. If taking it over weren't pressure enough, only months later young Seth was asked to play the leading role in putting together a multi-million-dollar syndication for the breeding rights of Secretariat.

"When you are 23, you think you can do anything, you are invincible, nothing bad is going to happen to you," Seth Hancock said. "I surely don't think that now, but I probably did then. I think most young people do."

Not only did Hancock, now 62, survive those early challenges, in the almost four decades since then he has navigated the treacherous economics of the Thoroughbred horse industry with enough skill to keep Claiborne Farm at the forefront of the sport.

Among achievements under his watch, Claiborne won its first Kentucky Derby (Swale, 1984) and a historic Breeders' Cup Classic (Blame over Zenyatta, 2010).

On Thursday night, Seth Hancock, who owns Claiborne Farm along with his sisters, Dell and Clay, will be among eight inductees into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

A family drama

Largely, Seth Hancock's story is that of his family. Claiborne Farm was started in 1910 by Arthur Hancock Sr., Seth's grandfather.

In 1972, Seth had just graduated from the University of Kentucky and his father was putting him through an apprenticeship designed to teach him all facets of the operations at Claiborne.

"My first breeding season, I rode with the broodmare foreman and that was stage one," Hancock said. "Stage two was riding with the yearling foreman. We were a third of the way through that when Daddy got sick. He died a month later."

At the time of his death, Bull Hancock was the most influential man in the thoroughbred breeding industry. His absence left a massive void.

Initially, Seth and his older brother, Arthur Hancock III, tried to fill their father's shoes by running Claiborne together. Soon, that arrangement began to fray.

Claiborne's advisors, Ogden Phipps, William Haggin Perry and Charles Kenney, suggested that Seth be named Claiborne President. The executors of Bull Hancock's will went along.

Arthur Hancock III left Claiborne and struck out on his own. He founded his own breeding operation, Stone Farm, just down the road from Claiborne. Arthur went on to race not one but two Kentucky Derby winners, Gato Del Sol (1982) and Sunday Silence (1989).

"In the end of the day, it worked out best for both of us," Seth Hancock said. "... I've told Arthur this, he's done more with less than anybody in the horse business. I have a lot of respect for Arthur Hancock. He is a tremendous horseman."

Secretariat 'made me'

Not a year into his tenure running Claiborne Farm, Seth Hancock was asked by the owner of Secretariat — remember, this is before the horse ran in the Triple Crown races and became a legend — to try to sell shares in what would be an unprecedented, $6-million-plus syndication of the horse's breeding rights.

In the 2010 film Secretariat, the actor Wes Roy, playing the role of Seth Hancock, is shown facing one rejection after another when trying to sell the shares.

"Despite what the movie would lead you to believe, I made 31 calls and 28 of them took shares," the real Seth Hancock says. "It went fast."

The $6.08 million syndication that Hancock executed for Secretariat owner Penny Chenery (at the time she was Penny Tweedy) changed the economics of the thoroughbred breeding industry.

It didn't hurt the perception of the deal that Secretariat subsequently electrified the nation by winning the Triple Crown in 1973, the first horse to do so since Citation in 1948.

"(Secretariat) made me, because people thought I knew what I was doing, that I was smart," Hancock says. "Really, I was lucky. ... (Investors) gave the kid a chance, and the first time up, he closed his eyes and hit a tape-measure home run."

Trainer was 'like a father'

If Seth Hancock's apprenticeship at Claiborne Farm was cut short by his father's passing, in a sense it was replaced through his relationship with the legendary horse trainer, Woody Stephens.

"He was like a father to me," Hancock said. "When Daddy died, Woody was training a couple of horses for us, about 10 or 12. But Daddy left it in his will that they all be sold. So I knew Woody through that sale."

Eventually, Seth Hancock bought a Claiborne yearling for himself and he and Stephens traveled together to Aiken, S.C., to check on the horse's development. On that trip, a friendship developed.

"Woody showed me more about horses than I could have ever learned around here," Hancock said of the Hall of Fame trainer, who died in 1998. "He'd have a horse with some pressure in an ankle or a buck shin and he'd show it to me, explain it to me, 'you gotta do this, you can't do that.'

"Then being around him at the races all the time, how to read a form, the intricacies you look for in horses, trainers, grooms, assistant trainers, just everything. He taught me this business, just the whole nine yards."

Three favorite horses

Asked to name his favorite from the horses he's raced for Claiborne Farm, Hancock picks three.

Blame gave Claiborne a signature moment two years ago when he upset the previously unbeaten Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic. "Blame showed up all the time, every time," Hancock says.

In 1984, Swale allowed Seth to achieve the one thing his father always coveted but never got: a win in the Kentucky Derby. Swale also won the Belmont, then shockingly dropped dead eight days later with heart failure.

"He was a skinny-minnie as a young horse," Hancock says of Swale. "But he was going to fill out and be a big, strong horse some day. If he'd done that and combined it with the will he had, he would have been pretty special as a 4-year-old."

Forty Niner is best remembered for running second by a neck to Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby and then hooking the filly in a withering speed duel in the Preakness (that set up Risen Star to win).

"If you ask me who was my favorite horse of all times, I'd tell you it was him," Hancock said of Forty Niner.

Still, once the son of Mr. Prospector was retired, Hancock eventually made the decision to sell Forty Niner to Japanese breeding interests.

"We had a lot of Mr. Prospector blood here and we had Seeking the Gold here who went to stud at the same time and was going great guns and he was also a son of Mr. Prospector," Hancock said. "I thought we needed some cash to get some different kind of horses in here. It was a tough decision. ... I hated to do it. But I just felt like you do what you have to do to try to keep this place going. It's not an easy business."

Father and son in Hall

From the time he was put in charge of Claiborne Farm at 23, Seth Hancock's challenge has been to live up to the standards of his family.

Bull Hancock was posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989. On Thursday night, Seth joins him.

"I'm honored for this," Seth Hancock said. "I don't really understand it, but I'm not gonna argue. I'll be there with bells on."

Accepting recognition for keeping "the New York Yankees of Kentucky horse farms" at the top.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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