Claiborne Farm loses John Sosby

| August 10, 2011

For most casual fans of thoroughbred racing, and probably a good percentage of fanatical followers, news of the passing last weekend of John Sosby might not have an immediately personal impact.

But if you have visited the Kentucky Derby Museum any time since that wonderful facility opened its doors for the first time in April 1985, Sosby affected your life in at least a small way.

The voice of Sosby (prounounced SOZE-bee), longtime manager of legendary Claiborne Farm, has been part of the museum experience since the early days of the facility that now attracts close to 250,000 visitors each year.

Endearing voice

Sosby’s voice has been one of thee most emotional and endearing aspects of the “The Greatest Race,” the marvelous multi-media show in the museum’s Great Hall. That in-the-round experience was launched as a collage of photos and sounds, and now is one of the nation’s finest High Definition presentations.

All that’s needed to remind you that John Sosby has been a part of your life at some point over that quarter-century of the Kentucky Derby Museum history are four words:

“Lightning in a bottle.”

It is Sosby’s marvelously weathered voice, enriched by the magic created when the perfect person is matched with the ideal job, that describes the earliest moments of a thoroughbred’s life and the start of a journey that dreamers (i.e., everyone related to the horse business in any way) hope will include a moment in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. The dream is to see roses draped across the withers of what is, in the early hours and weeks of life, a spindly-legged, unsure foal.

Dream, tradition

John’s voice embodied perfectly the dream and tradition of thoroughbred racing in America and its greatest prize, the Kentucky Derby.

That voice, sadly, is now silent. Sosby, who spent more then 50 years working at the famed Thoroughbred racing and breeding farm in Paris, Ky., died on Aug. 6 at the age of 73. He had retired from Claiborne in 2003.

While Sosby’s perspective and voice preserved in “The Greatest Race” have touched generations of Derby Museum visitors, his work at Claiborne quietly touched the lives of racing fans around the globe.

Hands on

“Every great horse that came off of Claiborne Farm in the last 50 years, he had a hand on,” Hancock told the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Janet Patton.

The stellar roster of horses raised at Claiborne is headed by the legendary Secretariat, a horse that remains a pop culture touchstone long after his mythic sweep of the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown.

Other stars who emerged from Claiborne under Sosby’s watch include Swale, who carried the Claiborne silks to the farm’s only Kentucky Derby victory in 1984; Ruffian, the ill-fated and unbeaten superstar filly who suffered fatal injuries in a 1975 match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure; Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby and a 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Alysheba, that year’s Derby champion; and Personal Ensign, who completed her unbeaten career for the New York-based Phipps family with an unforgettable triumph in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (now Ladies’ Classic) at Churchill Downs.

Claiborne celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, capping the party at Churchill Downs in early November when Blame, owned by the farm in partnership with Adele Dilschneider, downed previously unbeaten Zenyatta in a photo finish in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Half of Claiborne’s century of unrivaled excellence benefitted from Sosby’s touch.

His work away from the farm in his Bourbon County community was just as impressive. As a human being, John Sosby was the complete package.

Hancock told The Herald-Leader’s Patton that Sosby was “the most caring, giving person I’ve ever known. … He’s as fine a man as ever walked the hills of Bourbon County.”

It’s difficult to imagine a more wonderful or fitting epitaph.

Kentucky’s horse industry and the racing world have lost a friend in John Sosby.

Cup previews

Three major Breeders’ Cup prep races – all on the grass with international casts – will be run on Saturday’s Arlington Million card at Chicago’s Arlington Park. American turf champion Gio Ponti will bid to become the first two-time winner of the Million, but he must turn the tables on Cape Blanco, the Irish-based Aidan O’Brien trainee who easily handled the U.S. champ in a recent meeting in Belmont Park’s Man O’War.

The Million is likely to produce a few starters for this fall’s Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, as are its companion features: the Beverly D. Stakes for fillies and mares and the Secretariat, a Grade I race for 3-year-olds.

Louisville’s owner-breeder family team of Richard, Elaine and Bert Klein have a 3-year-old on the rise in Windswept, who could make his stakes debut in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 24 at Philadelphia’s Parx Racing.

The well-named Windswept won the final race of the Churchill Downs Spring Meet on July 4, providing a fitting conclusion to the meet that saw a rare tornado slam into the historic track on June 22. The Steve Margolis-trained Windswept was stabled in Barn 23, the structure most heavily damaged by F1 tornado’s 105 mph winds.

The homebred son of 1998 Super Derby winner Arch returned to finish a fast-closing second in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Saratoga and is now back at Churchill Downs and training toward his stakes debut. Both Richard Klein and Margolis said the $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs is also a possible spot for the next start for their late-developing colt, but the Pennsylvania race is the more likely target.

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