Special Reports

At fabled Claiborne Farm, yearling training is kindergarten for horses

Yearling manager Eric Tubbs checked his charges as they grazed at sunrise. The horses stay out all night. They go inside during the day to prevent sun damage before upcoming sales.
Yearling manager Eric Tubbs checked his charges as they grazed at sunrise. The horses stay out all night. They go inside during the day to prevent sun damage before upcoming sales. Herald-Leader

PARIS — If any Thoroughbred farm in Kentucky can be said to have the golden touch, it would be Claiborne Farm.

During its 102 years of operation, the Hancock family farm on the outskirts of Paris has dominated breeding and racing like none other.

The names on the brass plaques on the varnished door of "The Big Stall" say it all: Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Easy Goer, Unbridled, and now Eddington.

In the other shedrow, there's Parading, who lives in Mr. Prospector's and Hoist the Flag's old stomping grounds; and Horse Greeley, who could commune with the spirit of Nasrullah and Boundary. The newest Claiborne wonder, Blame, who beat the great Zen yatta in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic, lives in the stall Buckpasser and Devil's Bag once called home.

Claiborne's stallion barn alone is a who's who of bloodlines.

Others gracing the grounds in spirit include Spectacular Bid, Swale, Danzig, Bold Ruler, Gallant Fox, Nijinsky II and Riva Ridge.

The unassuming shed just down the walk is "hallowed ground," says Kevin Lay, as he gives one of many daily tours. He isn't kidding.

Rolling back the black wood doors, he says: "Created inside: 22 Derby winners, 19 Preakness winners, 22 Belmont winners and six of 11 Triple Crown winners." Last Kentucky Derby winner conceived here? "Big Brown."

With July in full bloom, tourists come almost every day to see where the great horses worked and are buried — and where the next generation, including Pulpit, Arch, War Front and Blame live now.

The beginning

Behind the scenes, the real work goes on. To fans, July is tourist season. For yearlings, it's boot camp, albeit a kind of preschool boot camp. This year, Claiborne Farm will send about 50 yearlings to the sales, and these 50 are expected to represent the gold (or Claiborne orange, as it's historically called) silks with distinction.

But for youngsters who have known little but blue sky, green pasture and daily baths to suddenly be asked to perform such arduous tasks as walk in a circle or — horrors! — stand still seems akin to asking a teenager to fold laundry.

But they get it. Gradually. The first week, it's like any other kindergarten class — minds on anything but what they are supposed to be doing. Within a week, they can walk, stand and be reasonably still.

These might seem like pointless skills. (Who hasn't heard a grade-schooler say, "Math? I'm never going to need to know how to do math!") But they are vital for the upcoming yearling sales at Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton. What might seem like a tedious exercise to a frisky yearling ("I bet Secretariat never had to learn to stand still!") is preparation for one of the biggest moments in their young lives: their chance on the all-important auction stage.

If the right buyers see the same hints of greatness, the same spunky gleam, then the zeros will start flying and today's impish kindergartner can walk out of the auction ring a sale topper with Triple Crown expectations.

But it all starts with baby steps.

The training

As the sun rises over pastures of mares and weanling foals, yearling manager Eric Tubbs is thinking of them as "future yearlings."

Once the weanlings are old enough, sometime this fall, they will strike out on their own, so to speak, with the female yearlings going in one direction and the males in another. Those destined for sales rings eventually get their own paddocks.

"The boys tend to get frisky, scuffle a little," Tubbs said.

When one is thinking of spending six figures or more on a horse, one expects perfection — no scratches, no scuffs, no sunburn even.

Sales yearlings come in during the day to preserve their beautiful coats. They go out at night to play.

On July 5, training begins in earnest. The first set of yearlings is introduced to the EquiGym, a kind of carousel without music. They load one at a time into a section and then start walking. An easy three minutes each way at first, eventually building up to eight minutes each way.

"We'll get them up to 7 or 8 miles an hour," Tubbs said.

All that walking helps build muscle, rock-hard legs and the definition that would-be buyers are looking for.

The yearlings also have a miniature "sales area" like those outside the barns where buyers will come, much-marked catalogs in hand, to get a first-hand look at the merchandise in a couple of months at Keeneland, Saratoga or Fasig-Tipton's Newtown Paddocks.

The yearlings practice walking, posing — including that critical conformation pose — and standing still. But don't get too docile: you still want them to know you're something a little special up here on four legs.

By they time the September sales roll around, Claiborne's 50 yearlings will be able to do this like the blue-blooded chorus line they are. Their hooves have been trimmed and buffed just so, to straighten a leg just a touch or show an ankle to slightly better advantage. (The secrets a good farrier/blacksmith keeps would make a Hollywood hairdresser seem chatty.)

For the workers at Claiborne, who over the course of several generations have seen this cycle for more than 100 years, it never gets old.

In fact, it's what keeps them young.

"The best part about it is when you see them cross the finish line ... and they were raised here," Tubbs said. "And you had your hands all over them."

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