Monday, July 22, 2019

Virginia's Incredible Thoroughbred Heritage

Kentucky conjures visions of Thoroughbred horses racing across lush green fields with colts and fillies by their side. But over a hundred years before the Civil War, Virginia laid claim to the horse breeding industry that eventually made Kentucky famous.

It was 1730 when the first Thoroughbred stallion was imported to America, to Virginia, Bulle Rock.  He was a 21-year-old foundation sire Darley Arabian and had been a race horse in England.  He lived in Hanover County (just north of Richmond) and was imported by a merchant mariner, James Patton, and owned by Samuel Gist.  He was thought to have mated to at least 39 English or Spanish mares.

In 1798, John Hoomes of Bowling Green, Virginia (also north of Richmond) purchased the English racehorse Diomed, who won the inaugural Epsom Derby in 1780. Diomed’s English owner, Sir Charles Bunbury, sold him for a small sum of money as the horse had been a failure as a breeding stallion and not very virile to boot. However, Diomed flourished in Virginia and sired numerous top-flight racehorses, including the great Sir Archy, who was the great grandsire of the famous Civil-War era Kentucky racehorse and stallion Lexington. Diomed was still fertile at age 29 and lived to be 31.

During the Civil War, a Confederate Captain Richard Hancock served under General “Stonewall” Jackson. After the war, Hancock married Thomasia Harris, whose family owned a farm near Charlottesville, Virginia, which Hancock named Ellerslie Stud when the former Confederate officer began to breed and raise Thoroughbred racehorses. One of his four sons, Arthur B. Hancock, founded Claiborne Farm in 1910 in Paris, Kentucky.  So it could be said that Claiborne actually started in Virginia. Ellerslie is still in tact near Charlottesville.

One of the most famous horses at Ellerslie was Princequillo,who is considered to be one of the finest long distance dirt runners behind Kelso. He was purchased by Arthur B. Hancock and at stud he sired 64 stakes winners and became best known as a broodmare sire. Among his daughters' progeny are Mill Reef, Secretariat, Sham, Fort Marcy and High Echelon. His most famous descendents include Secetariat, AP Indy, Cigar, Seattle Slew, John Henry, Zenyatta, American Pharoah, and California Chrome.

Princequillo gained the name Mr. Fixit thanks to the wonderful conformation and soundness he passed down to his progeny.He died of a heart attack in 1964 and is buried at Claiborne in Kentucky.


The Middleburg-Upperville area of Northern Virginia is and has been home to some of the most prominent racehorse breeding establishments, among others, Isabel Dodge Sloane’s Brookmeade Stable, Elizabeth Whitney Tippett’s Llangollen Estate, Jack Kent Cooke’s Kent Farms, Paul Mellon’s Rokeby, Bertram and Diana Firestone’s Newstead Farm, Joseph Allbritton’s Lazy Lane Farm, and Edward Evans’ Spring Hill Farm. These owners are associated with such racehorses as Sword Dancer, Mill Reef, Arts and Letters, Sea Hero, and Hansel.

Secretariat, the most famous racehorse of modern times, was a Virginia-bred. He was foaled at Christopher Chenery’s Meadow Stud in Caroline County, near Richmond. Bowling Green, where John Hoomes brought Bulle Rock, is located in Caroline County, making the area the location for two major events in the history of the Thoroughbred breed in America.

 (Barn Where Secretariart was Born in Virginia)

Another famous horse spent much of his life in Virginia, Sir Barton, the first winner of the Triple Crown in 1919.  In 1921 the champion was sold and moved to Audley Farm just outside of Berryville where he remained until 1932.  In December 2008 a statue of the great champion was unveiled in front of Audley Farm's stallion barn (the farm is located on Route 50 near Berryville).  In 1932 Sir Barton became part of the Army's Remout Service at Front Royal and then later in Fort Robinson, Nebraska.  He was later taken to a ranch in Wyoming where he died of colic in 1937.

(Sir Barton)

(Sir Barton's Statue in Virginia)

While Virginia is no longer one of the leading states for breeding and racing Thoroughbred racehorses, it is where the sport emanated in Colonial times before there was a United States. Some of the greatest American racehorses have a clear connection to the Old Dominion State.

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