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Going Up

For a variety of reasons Arthur Hancock III has long been one of our favorite people in the industry. Through 70-plus years he has maintained a sharp eye for horses and a sly wit and ready laugh; he has the heart of an artist (and is, in fact, a talented songwriter and musician); and he believes there is more to the universe than meets the eye.

Hancock’s embrace of omens is more than just Southern storytelling, although he has entertained many with his interpretation of seemingly random events. So on the morning of June 10, Hancock paid close attention when he heard a loud WHOOOSH coming from outside his office at Stone Farm near Paris. With his two dogs barking up a storm, Hancock ventured outside, where he saw cows running through a field so fast they looked like horses. And just beyond them was a hot air balloon lifting up no more than 10 feet off the ground.

It was not lost on Hancock that later in the day his homebred Ascend would be running in the $1 million Woodford Reserve Manhattan Stakes (G1T) at Belmont Park, where Hancock once lived in a tackroom while working for trainer Eddie Neloy.

“He floated down the valley, and I got in the car to see if he was in trouble,” Hancock said of the balloonist.

He drove through the farm and met three members of the University of Kentucky engineering department as they landed in one of his fields, the same field in which Ascend had been raised as a foal until he was weaned.

“I took that as a pretty direct omen,” Hancock said.

Hancock drove back home, where two weeks earlier a rabbit had entered through a door cracked open for the dogs. An exhaustive subsequent search had turned up neither hide nor hare. Now, as Hancock approached his front door, the rabbit was sitting on the porch and continued eating some greens as Hancock walked right up to it. Thirty years earlier Hancock had exited his office one day to find a rabbit sitting just outside, similarly without a care in the world.

“That was right before Sunday Silence ran,” said Hancock, referencing the dual classic winner whose racetrack exploits and subsequent sale saved Hancock from bankruptcy. “Those are the only two times that ever happened. It was a spiritual thing.”

It was both spiritual and sound business when Hancock bought a handful of mares from the dispersal of his late friend Edward Evans in 2011. One of those purchases was Ghost Dancing, in foal to Candy Ride, for whom Hancock gave $220,000. A floating calcification, too near a joint to be removed, caused Hancock to keep the Candy Ride yearling rather than get pennies on the dollar for him at auction.

“Sometimes your bad luck is your good luck,” said Hancock, who named the horse Ascend.

He was slow to come around although he proved a useful allowance runner last year at 4. Ascend won the Henry S. Clark Stakes in his first stakes try to begin this season but was facing five grade/group 1 winners in the Manhattan.

Hancock decided not to travel to New York for the race. He had longtime clients in town to look at horses and also wanted to attend a show by The Wooks, a bluegrass band that includes his son Arthur on banjo. His wife, Staci, and daughters Alex and Lynn deputized for him at Belmont.

“The farm was well-represented,” Hancock said. “They didn’t need some old, bald-headed guy up there to say something to (trainer) Graham (Motion) about strategy and (mess) the whole thing up.”

In the middle of the card, a hot air balloon similar to the one Hancock had seen that morning landed on the infield behind the Belmont toteboard. Not concerned with omens, the betting public held Ascend at 27-1 in the Manhattan. Ascend tracked in mid-pack, made a four-wide move turning for home, and assumed command at the sixteenth pole, holding off a slew of graded stakes winners to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

“It was so thrilling,” said Hancock. “I stood there at home nervous as hell; it was an emotional win. It’s not easy winning one of those.”

Even when everything aligns.

“Sometimes you see a sign when things are gonna happen good,” he said. “Maybe it’s coincidence, but I don’t believe there’s any such thing.”