The name Claiborne Farm is synonymous with greatness in the Thoroughbred Racing.
That is why, on a recent driving trip from Colorado Springs back to the east, I could not pass up the chance to venture just 12 short miles off the interstate and stop in Paris, Kentucky to visit the final resting place of the incomparable Secretariat. Having had the good fortune to have seen him win the Preakness during his Triple Crown campaign, Claiborne was an obvious stop.
Most people are probably familiar with Secretariat, indisputably one of the greatest thoroughbred horses of all time. But if not, Big Red, as he was fondly called around the stable area, won racing’s illusive Triple Crown in 1973. The chestnut son of Bold Ruler out of a mare by Princequillo still holds the record in all three of the Triple Crown races: The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness and The Belmont Stakes.
Once Secretariat was retired from racing, he stood as a stallion at Claiborne and remained there until his death in 1989 at the ripe old age – for a racehorse – of 19.
Despite the day being showery and wet, Claiborne was beautiful. The field stone pillars gracing the entrance proudly proclaimed the name given by founder Arthur B. Hancock in the 19th century. The tree lined drive wound down to the office which gave way to miles of black board fencing and cream colored barns and outbuildings. Over 3000 acres of rolling fields and paddocks are home to more than 250 thoroughbred mares, foals, weanlings, yearlings, horses in training and, of course, the stallions.
I stepped into the office to check in for my pre-arranged tour and stopped dead in my tracks. The room was cozy and comfortable, with wing chairs and small tables strategically arranged around the stone fireplace. But what instantly caught my attention were the leather halters hanging on the walls. At first I could hardly believe they were real, but then I began reading the names: Nasrullah, Bold Ruler, Nijinsky II, Danzig, Princequillo, Swale. I touched them almost reverently, quietly breathing some of the greatest names in horse racing history. I stroked the brass nameplates imagining each one, not hanging in orderly rows on the wall, but rather gracing the noble heads of their respective owners. I felt as if I were in the presence of royalty. These were the names of great sires that I had been hearing since I was a child. Some of my earliest memories are of discussions of racing pedigrees and these names were nearly as familiar as my own.
Wandering outside to await my guide, my gaze drifted out across the green meadows drinking in the tranquility. The pleasant silence was broken only by the chirping of birds and the occasional distant whinny of an unseen horse. As it turned out, the other visitors who had signed up for the tour decided to postpone due to the inclement weather. I got a private tour.
Late summer is a quiet time at Claiborne; there isn’t as much going on as during the late winter breeding season and spring foaling season. John, my guide, and I strolled and chatted beneath the shade of the sycamore trees, some of which were planted by Arthur Hancock himself. Only a few buildings are included on the tour. In the c.1860 tobacco barn turned breeding shed, we discussed the merits of artificial turf and decided that it is better suited for breeding barns than racetrack surfaces.
In one of the stallion barns, Algorithms and Orb were lying down, taking a late morning nap. Their box stalls were immense, bedded in fresh straw with screens painted the signature cream color. The barn was immaculate, the aisles and walkways paved with rubberized bricks.
Circling around to the six-stall barn, I met Blame, notorious for his defeat of Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders Cup Classic, and War Front. On each stall door was the name of the current occupant (first) and all those famous horses that had lived there previously. John carried a stash of red and white mints in his pocket and the clever horses knew to come to the door for a treat when we arrived. Blame, in particular, who licked my hand after I produced the mint, seemed to relish his sweets. Perhaps he knows that he is “equine-non–grata” in the eyes of many visitors to Claiborne. Some have never forgiven him for ending the winning streak of the great filly Zenyatta.
We paused at each stall where John was able to tell me about pedigrees and statistics about every horse. He was a wealth of information, had some great stories about each animal and easily answered all my questions.
John pointed out the paddock where Secretariat used to be turned out and explained the need for the privacy fence that had been installed along the road. Apparently when Secretariat was retired to Claiborne Farm, there were so many people who wanted to catch a glimpse of him that they would stop along the road clogging up the traffic. If the tours were filled and they couldn’t get in, some people had even climbed the fences to get in to see him! Imagine the potential danger for people unaccustomed to thoroughbred horses – especially stallions!
The Stallion Cemetery
Our final stop on the tour was one of four thoroughbred graveyards at Claiborne – the main stallion cemetery. There are 21 stallions buried on the site located just behind the main office. It is framed by manicured hedges, and once again I found myself standing in awe of the great names. Beginning with Swale, the son of Seattle Slew who died suddenly of a heart attack just 8 days after his Belmont Stakes win, I moved silently around, stopping at each grey, moss-covered stone to pay my respects: Gallant Fox, Buckpasser, Mr. Prospector, Riva Ridge, Round Table and finally, Secretariat.
Mission accomplished. But so much more. Even for someone like me who was raised on thoroughbred farms, knows racing and understands the business, it was a wonderful day. I would highly recommend it. Claiborne Farm will not disappoint.
Continuing the legacy
Today, the fourth generation of the Hancock family has taken over the reins of Claiborne operations. There are currently 11 stallions continuing the long tradition of Classic race winners, Horses of the Year, Leading Sires and Triple Crown Winners. Visitors are invited to come for guided tours at 10 and 11 am daily. The tours are free, but it is customary to provide a gratuity to the guide.
Contact: http://www.claibornefarm.com/ 703 Winchester Road, Paris, KY 40361 Phone: (859) 987-2330 (859) 233-4252