Hancock takes the wheel at Claiborne Farm
Walker Hancock: "War Front will go down as one of the very good ones"
PICTURE: RP GRAPHICS Hancock takes the wheel at iconic Claiborne Farm
By Nancy Sexton 2:53PM 29 OCT 2016
HISTORY seeps through every aspect of Claiborne Farm. It is where Nasrullah, Blenheim and Sir Gallahad had their most productive years. Later, it was the home of Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Round Table, Buckpasser, Nijinsky, Mr Prospector and Danzig, and the birthplace of Fairy Bridge, dam of Sadler's Wells, among a host of other luminaries.
For much of the farm's history its owners, the Hancock family, have operated under the same modus operandi. And in turn, Claiborne has remained a forerunner not only in the stallion business but as an owner, breeder and sales consignor – as the farm slogan says, it is a matter of "doing the usual unusually well".
In January 2014, four years after celebrating its 100th anniversary, Claiborne welcomed a new president in Walker Hancock, the fourth in a line of Hancock men to take the helm, and today, buoyed by the ongoing success of its flagship stallion War Front, it is a farm guided by a mix of fresh ideas incorporated with tradition.
At 27, Hancock is one of the youngest presidents of any farm worldwide. But like his father Seth before him, he operates in a world that has taken precedent throughout his life; lest we forget it was at just 23 years of age in 1972 that Seth Hancock syndicated Secretariat – then still a two-year-old – in a $6 million deal.
"My dad is still around," says Hancock. "I still have a lot of influence from him and we bounce ideas off one another.
"Dad never pushed me to go one way or the other. He always said ‘if you don't like it, please go and do something else because it's not worth going through your whole life doing something you don't want to do'. And if your heart's not in it, you're not going to be successful. This is in my blood, I was bred for it and I love what I'm doing."
At the time of the presidency handover, War Front was well established as a buzz horse on both sides of the Atlantic. Winner of the Grade 2 Alfred G Vanderbilt Breeders' Cup Handicap at Saratoga for his owner-breeder Joseph Allen, he began stud life in 2007 at a fee of $12,500. That figure dropped to $10,000 before results on the track propelled it into six-figure territory. He has not officially stood for less than $150,000 since 2014 – although some breeders have reportedly paid far more to secure a nomination – and is due to stand for $250,000 in 2017.
While Claiborne and Allen have been instrumental in his success, a vital cog has been the support of Coolmore. Indeed it was in Michael Tabor's colours that War Front's first European stakes winner Warning Flag was campaigned. Since then numerous Group winners by the stallion have been campaigned from Ballydoyle, among them Declaration Of War, War Command, Air Force Blue, Brave Anna, Hit It A Bomb, War Decree and Roly Poly.
In turn, Coolmore have employed the stallion as a useful outlet for their Sadler's Wells/Galileo-line mares, a cross that came to fruition this year through Brave Anna and Roly Poly, who finished first and second in the Cheveley Park Stakes.
"We've had so many stallions throughout the years who have been very successful," says Hancock. "Certainly War Front will go down as one of the very good ones but I think it's yet to be seen how good.
"He was fast and they're sound horses. So he really fits the racing athlete in Europe, especially when it comes to turf sprinters and milers. He's put together well and he gets a really athletic, balanced horse.
"I think he's just getting going. He's breeding some really proper mares out of great families. Coolmore have done a great job in supporting him. They've been a big supporter of the horse and we're thankful for that."
Coolmore and their associates again sent a number of mares to the stallion this year including Misty For Me, Diamondsandrubies and Liscanna.
Evolution of War
War Front has been incredibly commercial for several years – for instance, yearlings bred off his final $15,000 fee averaged $401,629 at Keeneland in 2013 – but surely a key contributer to his appeal has been the restricted nature of his books. War Front covers 100 to 110 mares a year, meaning that his progeny rarely flood the market.
"We send ten to 12 of our own mares to him and sell a couple of seasons here and there," says Hancock.
"Our stallions cover up to 120 mares and we're going to try to keep our restrictive policy on books. Obviously we have to keep up with market demand – I can't say we're never going to breed more than 120 because you don't know how this market is going to go or what the people are going to want.
"The market will evolve one way or another and if you don't evolve with it, you're going to get left behind.
"But we try because we like to keep the supply down and the demand high on our stallions. We'll do this for as long as we can, and it seems to be working for us right now."
War Front heads a roster of 11 stallions that also includes Blame, the only horse to beat Zenyatta, proven sire Flatter, Orb, one of ten Kentucky Derby winners raised on the farm, and War Front's Grade 1-winning son Data Link.
War Front's sons at stud already include Grade 1 sire The Factor and hopes are high for Data Link following a sales season in which his yearlings sold for up to $200,000.
"He's a $7,500 sire and we can't expect him to come out guns blazing, but he's been well received," says Hancock. "You can see signs of War Front in his progeny, so he's doing what you'd hope for."
Bull Hancock had enormous success importing some of the leading turf lights of their time to Claiborne – think the aforementioned Nasrullah, Blenheim and Sir Gallahad for a start. However, times have changed and despite War Front's success with turf runners, his grandson is yet to be tempted to return to those ways.
"We've imported various fillies," he says, alluding in particular to the 1,100,000gns purchase of Long View, a Galileo half-sister to Golan and Tartan Bearer who has a "stunning" filly foal by War Front.
"It's just so hard to do it with stallions. The American market is tilted more obviously towards dirt – it's difficult to bring a European stallion over here and breed them to those kind of mares. It's not what people are looking for."
New blood brings new horizons
A newly elected member of the American Jockey Club, Hancock is encouraged by the way the sport is developing in the US, in particular the way it has reacted to the American Pharoah effect. Away from the track, concerted efforts are also being made to engage the American fan through Horse Country, a not-for-profit organisation that offers tourism experiences in the Bluegrass to the public.
This is nothing new for Claiborne; it has long held farm tours and last year welcomed 10,000 people through its gates.
"Secretariat – that's when it started," says Hancock. "There was such a demand that I think we thought we should start showing the fans what they wanted. Now there's nearly always a few people who visit a day, especially during the racing season."
Hancock's sister Allison Bishop is in charge of Claiborne's drive to attract more visitors. Now a prominent presence on social media, the farm also recently invested in launching a visitor centre.
"It's been a couple of years in the making," says Bishop, who is also involved in Horse Country. "But it wasn't really feasible until this year. People were taking the time to visit and then at the end of it would ask about memorabilia.
"Now we have various items for purchase – T-Shirts, hats, Secretariat memorabilia. It's been really well received – it's amazing how much interest there's been."
With War Front one of the most sought-after stallions worldwide and a number of young sires, including Orb, waiting in the wings, Claiborne is in a prime position to build on its historical importance. What is for certain is that the younger generation associated with the farm have the drive to do it.