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A Visit to a Horse Farm
Writer Mike Helm at Claiborne Farm
A few years ago, writer Mike Helm, who had already penned a book about racehorses at the track, noticed that his horse “handicapping” improved as he took into account the pedigrees of the racing contestants. Helm decided to see what the horse breeding business was all about for a book he eventually titled, “A Breed Apart.” (Recommended.) He arranged a trip to Kentucky, where he was welcomed for a stay at historic Claiborne Farm, in Paris, Ky., Bourbon County, just east of Lexington.
Helm threw his suitcase into a small visitor’s cottage at Claiborne and went for a walk, strolling along a lane, soaking in the beauty of the farm in winter – sensing the history of the place, which has been owned by the Hancock family for decades. It was February, the start of the of the foaling and breeding season. The next morning, farm manager John Sosby took Helm in hand and laid out the operation at Claiborne.
“Kentucky is the best place to raise horses, “ says Sosby. “Today, we’ve grown to 3,481 acres and on these acres there are 729 stalls, and every horse at Claiborne, even the $1,000 teaser (we’ll meet Ranger in a minute) has a stall in the winter. All our barns are built with two principles in mind, elevation and ventilation. Elevation is important because you don’t want to build a barn where water can get into it. Ventilation is desirable because it keeps moisture out in the winter and the barns cool in the summer. A lot of these barns were originally built to cure and dry tobacco, which we still do. But they make great horse barns, too.”
Sosby explains that Claiborne is a “working” horse farm.
“This isn’t a place where somebody pours in millions of dollars just for a hobby,” says the farm manager. “It’s got to pay its own way if we’re gonna make it. I think you’ll see over the next five days that from (Claiborne president) Seth Hancock on down we’re basically hard working people here. We don’t have to window polish or shine for anybody. There’s no flashing neon light out front saying this is Claiborne. My father went to work here when I was three years old, in 1941. I grew up here and worked here all my life. And it’s been that way with Seth Hancock and his father before him and his grandfather before that. I’ve seen four generations of Hancocks. We’ve been successful doing things our way, so we’re not going to change things for the sake of change. But we’re willing to try something new if you can show us it’s a better way.”
So far, they haven’t found anything better at his job than Ranger, a Percheron horse – great big and not at all sleek like a thoroughbred. But a lover at heart. Ranger’s job is “teaser.” He’s a kind of an oversized James Dean, who sets the mares’ hearts on fire. Ranger is led along a row of stalls where the prospective moms are lodged during breeding season. Ranger will look and sniff, and send out signals. The mares that are interested will sniff back and turn and “show themselves.” Experienced hand note how each mare responds, and which seem timed up perfectly to be led along to a date with destiny with a powerful, potent sire. You know the rest.