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

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