Hancock looks up for luck

Horse racing: Omens come in all shapes and sizes for Menifee's trainer, but there's nothing he'd rather see as he makes final preparations for Saturday's Preakness than a gray cat

124th Preakness

May 12, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The bird pooped on Arthur Hancock III in the paddock at Keeneland. It was a big load, splattering on Hancock's shoulder.

This was two days before the Blue Grass Stakes, the race in which Menifee, whom Hancock bred and co-owns, would prove whether he belonged in the Kentucky Derby. Hancock's aunt had always said that a bird pooping on you meant good luck.

"I thought, `Well, that's interesting,' " Hancock said yesterday in his Kentucky drawl. " `Maybe we'll be lucky in the Blue Grass.' "

About 30 minutes later, back in his seat at Keeneland, Hancock heard a startled voice in the next box: "Oh my God, will you look at that."

It was Anne Campbell. A bird had pooped on her leg. This was too much. Anne Campbell is not only the wife of Cot Campbell, the noted horseman, but also the person for whom Menifee's mother was named.

Hancock had bought the mare Anne Campbell in 1988 for $750,000. He later arranged her mating with his promising first-year sire Harlan, and the union produced Menifee.

"I thought, `That's the damnedest thing I ever saw,' " Hancock said. " `That's got to be a good omen for the Blue Grass.' "

Sure enough, Menifee won the Blue Grass at odds of 7-1, earning a berth in the Kentucky Derby and validating again for Hancock his belief in Hamlet's words: There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

"Not too many things happen in God's universe that aren't meant to be," Hancock said. "There's a material world, and there's a spiritual world. I tend to be attuned to the spiritual."

Menifee finished second in the Derby to the long-shot Charismatic. But Menifee, compromised by an extremely wide trip, is probably the better horse.

Gamblers will verify that Saturday in the Preakness by wagering far more on Menifee. They might even bet enough on Hancock's horse to make him the favorite. Whether he wins may depend on black cats, pennies and the bowel habits of winged creatures flapping over Pimlico.

Arthur Hancock III, 56, is the eldest son of the legendary horseman A.B. "Bull" Hancock Jr. The Hancock name is synonymous with Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky., one of the oldest, largest and most successful horse farms in the country.

But Arthur Hancock cut his ties to Claiborne in 1972 after the death of his father. His father's will instructed his advisers to decide who should run Claiborne. The advisers favored Arthur's younger brother, Seth, who was married and settled down.

Arthur drank, played guitar, rode motorcycles, hunted with owls and howled at the moon. Instead of clashing with his brother, Arthur left Claiborne.

Not long after, he sat in a Lexington bar with longtime friend Paul Sullivan.

"I'm going to be bigger than Claiborne and win the Kentucky Derby," Hancock boasted. Sullivan looked up and said: "Waitress, bring this fool another Budweiser."

But Hancock did become bigger than Claiborne. He founded Stone Farm, eight miles from home, and by the mid-1980s owned 4,400 acres, about 1,000 more than Claiborne.

He co-owned and co-bred Gato Del Sol, who won the 1982 Kentucky Derby, and co-owned Sunday Silence, who won the 1989 Derby and Preakness. Sure, he believes in omens, but, sober 10 years, he is no fool.

"He's great," said Elliott Walden, who trains Menifee. "He keeps it loose. But he's the consummate professional. He knows at the end of the day it's the horse that has to win the race."

Still, there was this penny. It was 1989, a few days before Sunday Silence's Derby. Hancock, his wife and a friend were leaving the track kitchen at Churchill Downs when they spotted a penny, heads up, glistening in the dirt.

"Wouldn't it be something if it was a 1982 penny?" the friend said, referring to the year of Gato Del Sol's Derby.

Hancock picked it up. You guessed it: 1982. When they got into his car and he turned the key, the first words from the radio were "1982," from the song by Randy Travis.

After Sunday Silence won the Derby, he shipped to Baltimore for the Preakness. The day before the race, as Hancock followed Sunday Silence along the horse path to the track at Pimlico, he heard a terrible screeching against the fence.

It was a big gray cat, holding down a black cat. The one thing Hancock swears is bad luck is a black cat crossing your path. This gray cat was keeping the black cat from doing that.

What's more, Hancock had named his previous Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, for a big gray cat that used to sun himself, eyes closed, at Stone Farm. Gato Del Sol means "Cat of the Sun."

"All I know is it happened," Hancock said of the aggressive gray cat. "You can make of it what you will."

The next day, Sunday Silence won the Preakness.

A black cat crossed Hancock's path years ago, and the next day his wife, Staci, broke her leg. One crossed his path this February in Florida, and, a few minutes later, Staci called in tears. Harlan, Menifee's sire, had died of a ruptured aorta in the breeding shed.

"It was a terrible blow," Hancock said. "We'd hoped that Harlan would carry the farm. Now Menifee's here. Thank God for Menifee."

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