He left Claiborne Farm that day in a rush, bursting out the front door of the farm's office and heading toward the Chevy station wagon. He could taste the salt in his tears.
Even today, Arthur Boyd Hancock III remembers that cold December afternoon in 1972 as vividly as he remembers the pain and turmoil that tracked his life and led him inevitably out that front door: the drinking and the car wrecks, the bar fights and the nights in jail, the long years of conflict and rejection that marked life with father. He can still recall the sound of his father's foghorn voice berating him, the angry threats and imprecations. He can remember the occasional whuppings his father delivered—that coldcocking right to the jaw and the kick to the belly when he was down. But that was over now, and all that remained for Arthur to face were the consequences of his improvident youth.
Three months earlier, on Sept. 14, Arthur's father, A.B. Hancock Jr., had died of cancer, leaving his wife, Waddell, and four children: daughters Clay, 27 years old, and Dell, 19, and sons Arthur III, 29, and Seth, 23. In the 25 years before his death, the 62-year-old Kentuckian, who was known to all as Bull Hancock, had emerged as the godfather of American thoroughbred breeding, the single most influential force in making the U.S. the international leader of both the bloodstock business and the sport of racing. In Claiborne Farm, Bull had left behind the preeminent thoroughbred breeding farm in the world—a 4,570-acre Bluegrass showplace outside Paris, Ky., that was home to royally bred mares and to the most formidable assembly of stallions in the world.
Many rich men trusted Bull with their money, and they spent millions gambling on his advice. His nickname suited him. He was a large man, 6'2" and 230 pounds, a bourbon-sipping raconteur with a deep, reverberating voice, an enormous sense of presence and a temper that was as quick as it was legendary. He missed a crucial putt one day while playing golf and became so enraged that he heaved his putter into a nearby creek. Still frothing, he grabbed his golf bag out of his caddie's hands and threw it into the creek. At that moment, his caddie started laughing, and so Bull picked up the caddie and threw him in after the putter and the bag.
Bull was competitive in the extreme, and it was his enduring frustration that he spent his adult life in futile pursuit of his most fervent dream. As big as he was in the breeding game, with access to all those stallions and with his celebrated insight into pedigrees, Bull never owned a Kentucky Derby winner. Claiborne had bred some Derby champs for other owners, but no Hancock had ever owned a Derby winner, and the Hancocks had been breeding horses at Claiborne since Bull's father, Arthur I, founded the place in 1910.
Bull's quest to breed and own that one big 3-year-old colt was the consuming passion of his life. Most of the best horses he raised for himself happened to be fillies, and raising fillies was just not the way to win the Derby. One spring day in 1970, one of Bull's finest mares, Continue, went into labor. She was carrying a foal by the Argentine champion Forli. "This could be my Derby horse," Bull told the 27-year-old Arthur as they drove to the foaling barn to watch the birth.
Bull paced nervously outside the stall as the farmhands helped Continue in the delivery. The moment the whole foal emerged, Bull peeked inside the stall and asked, "Well, what is it?"
"It's a filly, Mistah Hancock," said farmhand James Christopher.
Bull wheeled around and bellowed, "Sonofabitch, another filly!" He kicked the wall, booted over a filled water bucket, then began walking in circles, muttering in anguish: "What is it I've done? Why do I deserve this?" Calming down, he finally asked, "Is she all right?" Just then Christopher turned the foal over, and where her left eye should have been there was an empty socket.
"She only has one eye," Christopher said.