Arthur Hancock with Air Force Blue's dam Chatham at Stone FarmPICTURE: Michele MacDonald
Simple truths held dear by Air Force breeder
Michele MacDonald visits Stone Farm in Kentucky, where Air Force Blue was bred, and finds out from Arthur Hancock the roots of the 2,000 Guineas favourite
WHEN it comes to breeding and raising thoroughbreds, Arthur B Hancock III holds fast to his faith in a few simple truths.
"If you take care of the land it will take care of you, and if you take care of your horses they will take care of you," Hancock says, as he stands under the blue sky stretching over the quiet paradise of his 2,200-acre Stone Farm near Paris, Kentucky.
From his gently undulating fields, Hancock has raised dozens of significant stakes winners, including a trio of Kentucky Derby heroes in Sunday Silence, Gato Del Sol and Fusaichi Pegasus, as well as the colt who is the heavy favourite for Saturday's Qipco 2,000 Guineas, Coolmore's 2015 European champion juvenile Air Force Blue.
"We feel very fortunate and blessed, and we're holding our breaths for the Guineas," Hancock says in his soft Kentucky drawl about the emergence of Air Force Blue as a potential superstar, with three Group 1 wins already under his belt. Trainer Aidan O'Brien has hailed the colt as the best two-year-old he has ever trained.
"These are the kinds of things you hope will happen in this business - they don't happen very often, but when they do they really keep me going," adds Hancock, 73, who was honoured this month by his Kentucky peers with the Hardboot Breeders' Award for his distinctive achievements.
The Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Owners and Breeders also recognised Air Force Blue as the outstanding Kentucky-bred racing abroad during 2015.
Hancock selected Air Force Blue's dam, the now 12-year-old Maria's Mon mare Chatham, from the dispersal of bloodstock from the late William T Young's Overbrook Farm at the 2009 Keeneland November Sale. He bred her to Claiborne Farm stallion War Front in both 2011 and 2012, following his tenet that a promising mating should be done twice, and Air Force Blue was the result of the latter visit.
"He was a nice colt and had plenty of sense," Hancock recalls of the powerfully made bay, "but I never really saw anything out of the ordinary with him until he was a yearling getting ready for the [Keeneland September] sale. He had a really good walk and he just had an air about him that he might be a good horse.
"I told the Coolmore people about him and they listened to me, and I'm so glad he's with them. They know what to do with a good horse."
Hancock, a passionate leader of prominent American owners who stand against the use of drugs including Lasix in racing, is a fourth generation scion of the remarkable family that established Claiborne and has bred champions for more than 100 years.
Torn in his youth between his love for bluegrass music and horses, he was dispatched in 1970 by his father, AB ‘Bull' Hancock jnr, to run a 100-acre tract known as Stone Farm. He eventually multiplied his farm interests into 4,600 acres before selling some portions, including 1,248 acres in 1994, to Robert and Janice McNair for Stonerside Farm, which was sold again in 2008 to Sheikh Mohammed's Darley.
'Bill Young is looking after me'
HANCOCK is an advocate of natural horsemanship and maintains as his farm motto the straightforward, ‘We're trying to raise you a good horse'. He notes with a touch of wryness that some buyers scratched Air Force Blue from their lists when the colt was offered as a yearling because he did not pass one team's heart scan and a veterinarian disapproved of his slightly offset knees.
MV Magnier apparently had few qualms, paying $490,000 for the colt on behalf of Coolmore partners.
Hancock gives credit for the early development of Air Force Blue to his 17-member team at Stone Farm, which tends to Hancock's 25 broodmares and another 55 boarded for clients, as well as a herd of Angus cattle and hay and wheat production. He also salutes Young, who was a friend, and the strength of the Overbrook bloodlines he acquired in Chatham.
"I like to say Bill Young is looking after me," Hancock says with a smile.
A three-time winner who was twice stakes-placed while earning $156,431, Chatham is a granddaughter of the Storm Bird mare Starlet Storm, who produced Overbrook's US champion juvenile filly Flanders. In turn, Flanders delivered Overbrook's champion Surfside, so Chatham's pedigree was impressive.
Hancock said he saw quality when he inspected the solid bay mare at Keeneland. Not only did he buy her, paying $190,000, he also acquired her then weanling daughter by Broken Vow for $90,000 in the hope of guiding the broodmare's chances of success.
The Broken Vow filly, named Pinkie Pact, was injured after only two starts and returned to Stone Farm. Hancock's 2010 mating of Chatham to Empire Maker produced a big, attractive filly, but she did not x-ray well as a yearling; named Emperesse, she eventually joined Chatham and Pinkie Pact in Hancock's broodmare band.
Air Force Blue's emphatic triumphs in last year's Dewhurst Stakes, National Stakes and Phoenix Stakes have substantially boosted the value of Chatham and her daughters, calling to Hancock's mind another truth in the art of breeding.
"There's an old saying that sometimes your bad luck is your good luck," he says. Emperesse is now in foal to the popular young War Front stallion The Factor and Pinkie Pact is set to deliver a foal by Claiborne's Data Link, another Grade 1-winning son of War Front.
Chatham, who slipped a foal by Broken Vow last year, was recently scanned in foal to War Front on a March cover.
A gentle mare, she shares a spacious field with the likes of champion Forever Together, owned by George Strawbridge, for whom Hancock raised 2008 European champion juvenile filly Rainbow View, and Grade 1 winner Dame Dorothy, owned by Bobby Flay.
Hancock believes horses are best raised in sprawling fields, where youngsters can develop muscle and bone and mares have ample choice in grazing.
In selecting mates for his mares, Hancock says his interpretation of the chef-de-race principle is to combine "a lot of good ingredients to make the souffle" of a potentially good racehorse.
"At the time we didn't know who War Front would nick with," he says of the mating that produced Air Force Blue. "You've got to be fortunate and lucky in this business. I remember Benjamin Franklin said in Poor Richard's Almanac that you can do everything right, but without a blessing from above you won't succeed."
AIR FORCE BLUE'S pedigree ingredients include three lines of Northern Dancer and two each of Mr Prospector and Buckpasser, and he could give his female family even more fame this season while his four-year-old sister Bugle also aims at stakes glory.
A $400,000 yearling and two-time winner, Bugle was initially raced by Hancock's client Joseph Sutton, a co-owner of the Houston Texans football franchise. However, she was sold privately to Coolmore associate Richard Henry earlier this year and was recently bred to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, said trainer Eddie Kenneally.
"Hopefully, she'll win a stakes race before she retires after one or two more starts," Kenneally said.
Hancock works amid mementoes of the horses who have shaped his life.
Sunday Silence remains the most meaningful horse he has raised and raced, and the black horse's image looms large in the Stone Farm office. Hancock wistfully relates how the difficult decision to sell the 1989 American Horse of the Year changed breeding forever in Japan while saving Stone Farm with an $11 million cash infusion just prior to the bloodstock crash that decimated many breeders.
The story of Stone Farm continues to unfold. Hancock's wife Staci is active with him in farm business and joined him in co-founding the anti-drug group Water Hay Oats Alliance.
One of their five daughters, Alex, works in the farm office and another, Lynn, is employed by Boomer Bloodstock in Australia. The Hancocks' son, Arthur IV, helped run the farm for several years before pursuing his interest in music with his band The Wooks.
Father and son have performed together musically many times as Arthur and Arthur and will give a concert today to raise money for thoroughbred retirement organisations.
The elder Hancock - who co-wrote the song recorded by Willie Nelson called Run That By Me One More Time and who recorded his own CD with the title song Sunday Silence - plays guitar while the younger Hancock strums a banjo.
Meanwhile, Hancock looks forward to Chatham producing a brother or sister to Air Force Blue next spring. But he keeps his aspirations close to the simple truths that have served him well.
"Without luck or a blessing, as Benjamin Franklin said, I think all your endeavours will be in vain," Hancock says. "So, you want to be humble, and you do your best and hope for the best - and you should be damned appreciative if good things happen."