A History of Quality - By Eric Mitchell

 (Originally published in the June 5, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

A business with a 100-year history is rare, but the Bluegrass region has four farms that have operated continuously on all or part of the same land by the same family for a century or more.

In the June 5 issue of The Blood-Horse we recognize the storied accomplishments of the Hancock family’s Claiborne Farm, near Paris, Ky., which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Founded by Arthur B. Hancock Sr. in 1910, the farm has bred, raced, or stood at stud some of the most influential horses in American racing history—Round Table, Nasrullah, Bold Ruler, and Mr. Prospector to name only a few.

Claiborne and these other farms deserve recognition because they have persevered through decades of economic, cultural, and family changes. According to the book “The Living Company,” written by Arie de Geus and published by Harvard Business School Press, the average age of a Fortune 500 company or its equivalent is 40 to 50 years. Among strictly commercial agriculture businesses, the number of farms has fallen from around 6.8 million in 1935 to around 2 million currently, according to U.S. Census data.

These working farms have not only survived but bucked every trend of development and commerce.

The region’s oldest continuously run Thoroughbred farm is the Clay family’s Runnymede Farm, also near Paris. Col. Ezekiel Clay began breeding Thoroughbreds in 1867 on a farm his family had actually owned since the 1830s. The colonel’s son Brutus Clay took over the farm in 1920 but died only a few years later. His wife, Agnes, remarried U.S. Sen. Johnson N. Camden, a successful breeder and owner of the Kentucky River Coal Corp. After the senator died in 1941, Agnes’ son Brutus Clay ran a thriving boarding operation out of Runnymede before he left to enter the Jesuit order. Catesby Clay, grandson of Ezekiel, took over in the 1950s and, now 86, is still head of the 365-acre farm that bred or co-bred two Kentucky Derby winners (Ben Brush, 1896; and Agile, 1905) and more recently produced grade I winner Divine Park, winner of the 2008 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I).

The next oldest farm among the four is Alice Headley Chandler’s Mill Ridge Farm, which started with 288 acres that were part of her father’s Beaumont Farm. Hal Pettit Headley, Chandler’s grandfather, started breeding Thoroughbreds around 1878 at Beaumont Farm but didn’t establish a major breeding operation until 1890. Beaumont Farm at one time covered 1,600 acres about two miles from downtown Lexington. Chandler’s father, Hal Price Headley, took over management of the farm in 1908. Much of the original farm is now covered with homes and businesses, including the offices of Blood-Horse Publications. Chandler started Mill Ridge in 1962 after her father’s death and grew the farm to more than 1,100 acres. She bred 1968 Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor and became the first woman to breed, own, and train a racehorse that earned more than $100,000—the multiple stakes winner Nicosia. More recently Mill Ridge co-bred Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner Monba.

Walnut Hall Stock Farm is also among the centenarians. The Standardbred farm next to the Kentucky Horse Park started on 400 acres purchased in 1892 by Lamon V. Harkness. The operation grew to 5,000 acres and became one of the country’s leading breeders. It is the tail-female line that runs strongest in the family behind Walnut Hall. After Harkness died in 1915, his daughter Lela and her husband took over and continued the farm’s tradition of breeding top-notch horses. The farm then passed into the hands of the Edwards’ daughter Katherine Nichols and their son’s widow Mrs. Sherman Jenney, who divided the then-3,500-acre farm into separate operations. Nichols called her farm Walnut Hall Farm, while Jenney called hers Walnut Hall Stud. Nichols went on to become the first woman to break the two-minute mile with a trotter. When Katherine Nichols died, the farm was split among her daughters Martha Nichols Brown (Dunroven Stud), Margaret Nichols Jewett (Walnut Hall Limited), and Katherine Nichols Sautter (Walnut Hall Stock Farm).

While age deserves respect, these farms are not significant only because they’re old. They have each been important contributors to their respective breeds. They’ve taken the long view and should be honored for their dedication to quality.  

Eric Mitchell, Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief


Leave a Comment:


Thank you for the video of Nasrullah.  After so many years of seeing him in major pedigrees, it's wonderful to see him "in the flesh".

02 Jun 2010 3:21 PM

Great article Eric and the video of Nashrullah enjoying his new paddock. Was a wonderful bonus. He was a beauty.  

02 Jun 2010 5:36 PM

WOWOWOW, Nasrullah was magnificent! Small wonder he was so successful as a sire. That video is a huge treat - Thank you!

02 Jun 2010 6:24 PM
Gina Powell

Utterly amazing sire! The best conformation, virility, and sense of well-being. Claiborne knows how to take care of champions. Thanks for sharing the video. It gave me such inspiration as a trainer.

02 Jun 2010 9:00 PM

No comment about Hamburg Place, started by the great breeder & trainer, John E. Madden? The first part of the farm was bought with earnings from the sale his sire Hamburg. The farm was handed down to Preston Madden, who owned T.V. Lark. Has the family gone completely out of the TB business? What a shame if they have.

02 Jun 2010 9:09 PM

What a great looking horse!  Thanks for sharing the video.

03 Jun 2010 7:56 AM

NIJINSKY was left out of the Claiborne profile.  NIJINSKY was the last horse to win the British Triple Crown in 1970, one race was 1 3/4 miles.  NIJINSKY stod his entire career at Claiborne.  Bull was at the Arc d'Triomphe to watch Piggot ride the worst tactical race of his career. Bull on Nijinsky's defeat in the Arc, "Well if they run often enough, they lose." NIJINSKY was a great last "iron horse". NIJINSKY eventually got his revenge in the Arc through his tremendous genetics with Zarkava, Lamatarra, Ferdinand, Quiet Fling, to name a few. American columnists unfailingly neglect to give him is due.

03 Jun 2010 10:36 AM
Ted Kuster

Quality is outstanding in all three of these Farms, the love of horse and family have caused these outstanding Farms to thrive for over 100 years, Look at what racing and breeding thoroughbred is all about; the stallions and broodmares that the Hancocks' have taken careof over the years, the foundation of our industry, note where the Clay family is this weekend , fulfilling a dream,in a small way , from Paris, Kentucky to Paris France, and mares in Ireland and Japan, what vsion for my 86 yearold neighbor and friend, and Mill Ridge, the Headley name says it all Keeneland, Sir Ivor, etc.  Our hats off to this great trio who raise horse like horses should be raised.  Thanks to all, Ted Kuster

03 Jun 2010 10:55 AM
s lee

What a great story, thanks very much!  How wonderful to be reminded that tradition and patience still work.

The video of Nasrullah in his new paddock is fantastic!  You can almost hear him bugling to "the boys" in the other paddocks, "look out kids, the king is here"!

03 Jun 2010 1:05 PM
Robin from Maryland

Visited KY a few years back. Toured several farms - Claiborne included. Beautiful places with wonderful histories.  Can't wait to go back.

03 Jun 2010 11:43 PM
John T

Nasrullah finished second in the 1942 Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket to a very hard knocking filly called Ribbon who would go on the following year to finish second in both fillies classics the 1000 Guineas and Oaks.Nasrullah

himself would go on to finish third in war time 1943 Epsom Derby

to Straight Deal run that year at Newmarket.But it was when he came to America he became famous as a sire.One of the most beautifully balanced thoroughbreds of all time

he give us Nashua followed shortly

by Bold Ruler who would go on to be the sire of Secretariat and one of his other son,s Reviewer would produce Ruffian.

04 Jun 2010 9:24 PM

Great post John T.

Arthur Hancock Sr. imported Nasrullah in the early 50's, correct? He looked like he could be a handful.

05 Jun 2010 10:16 AM

Look at the bone on him! Amazing. Too bad they don't make them anymore like that. Thanks for the video!

06 Jun 2010 4:32 PM

It's amazing Nasrullah didn't get hurt, out of the van, into that hugh paddock. The good old days!

06 Jun 2010 10:39 PM
joe c.

I was too late for Secretariat, but visited Claiborne in 1996 and saw Conquistador C, Danzig, Mr. Prospector, Seeking the Gold and Cox's Ridge.  High point:  Was allowed into a half-awake ('was a hot day) Unbridled's stall for a close-up.  Unforgettable.  Thanks!

07 Jun 2010 3:40 PM

I visited Claiborne when Secretariat was in residence.  He was a magnificent horse and Claiborne was kind enough to allow visitors to pet one of the greatest thoroughbreds in America.  I will never forget stroking his neck while he stood calmly as befitted his position as royalty.

08 Jun 2010 5:07 PM

Loved this video!  He was such a beauty and what spirit.  It is such a special treat to see video of a horse who has such a place in equine history and was only before a black and white picture.  Thanks.

08 Jun 2010 5:19 PM
Barbara W

We have a little piece of history, as he is in our horse's pedigree also.

When we were at Claiborne, our guide told us that Nasrullah used to stand on his hind feet and knock out the light bulb over his stall. The ceiling is very high!

08 Jun 2010 8:41 PM
Cowboy Adventure

My Gosh that video was incredible!

Thank you so much for sharing.  Someday I will visit Claiborne farms; they really know how to breed a horse the right way.

09 Jun 2010 1:23 PM

Love the history (and especially the video)!  I remember being at Claiborne only a few months after Nasrullah died.  He was still the first topic of conversation, much like, I am sure, Secretariat was long after he was gone.

By the way, if I'm not mistaken, Mrs. Nichols had Walnut Hall Farm and Mrs. Jenney Walnut Hall Stud, which subsequently became the Kentucky Horse Park.

Would love to see more articles like this.  The Thoroughbred breed has such a rich history.

10 Jun 2010 9:45 AM
Melanie G

Thank you so much for the video! I have been compiling a pedigree history of Nasrullah and his legacy for some time. It is amazing to see him in action!

18 Jun 2010 1:12 PM

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