Taking Stock: Sikura's Hill 'n' Dale at Xalapa

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John Sikura Keeneland

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What a time to be alive for John Sikura, master of Hill 'n' Dale! The farm's stallions have been putting on quite a show lately while Sikura quietly goes about the task–well, it's a labor of love, really–of restoring, modernizing, and expanding Xalapa, the historically significant Bourbon County property near Paris that he acquired a few years ago. Xalapa now houses Hill 'n' Dale's roster of 12 stallions and all of the farm's mares, yearlings, and foals on close to 1,500 acres.

On Sunday at Saratoga, the farm's Ghostzapper was represented by GI Ballerina H. winner Goodnight Olive. A day earlier at the same track, Hill 'n' Dale's flagship sire, Curlin, was the star with two Grade l winners: champion Malathaat won the Personal Ensign and Cody's Wish the Forego. The weekend before, Curlin's Nest easily took the GI Alabama S. at Saratoga and Ghostzapper's Moira, a filly, thumped colts by seven lengths in the $1-million Queen's Plate at Woodbine.

And there's more. Violence is the sire of Lost Ark, a 2-year-old half-brother to Nest who won the Sapling S. at Monmouth Saturday by 7 1/2 lengths; Maclean's Music's champion sprinter Jackie's Warrior was a valiant second in the Forego to Cody's Wish; Curlin's Obligatory, a Grade I winner this year, was third behind Goodnight Olive in the Ballerina; and freshman sire Army Mule had three winners over the weekend and ranks fifth on the first-crop list by progeny earnings (third by winners, with 11), behind barnmate and champion Good Magic, already the sire of a Grade II winner, in fourth place.

Sikura knows stallions. On the former Hill 'n' Dale property near Lexington, he started out the careers of leading sires Candy Ride (Arg) and Medaglia d'Oro, who are now at Lane's End and Darley, respectively.

In between the two weekends of Hill 'n' Dale stallion fireworks, I visited Sikura at Xalapa last Wednesday with WTC colleague and pedigree analyst Frances J. Karon, also a writer, photographer, and racing historian. Sikura, originally from Canada, isn't a typical elite Kentucky stud farm type; for one, he doesn't wear the ubiquitous uniform of the pastel button-down shirt and khaki trousers. He greeted us in a t-shirt and blue jeans, and he looked as if he'd be as equally comfortable in the raucous stands of an ice rink (he played hockey) as he would in a tranquil art gallery (he owns several paintings by celebrated Lexington-based sporting artist Andre Pater). He spoke passionately of the unique history of Xalapa; next to his desk were two large bags of wildflower seeds strewn on the floor. “I like flowers,” he said casually, when we noticed. Indeed, Xalapa is enchantingly covered with various species of unique flowers, plants, and trees, both imported and native, and Sikura has done his part to add to the foliage, planting many more trees and shrubs to the clusters already mature on the land.

Sikura likes falconry, too, and has a red-tailed hawk that he trains to hunt housed in her own small building. Aside from his acute eye for horses and the business of buying and selling them, he's got varied interests, talents, and a keen sense of history, and they are dovetailing in his attention to detail at Xalapa. “The history of a place is more important than the sales yearling averages and prices everyone writes about,” he said.

After a tour of the offices, a series of interconnected stone and wooden structures that once served as the main residence, we piled into Sikura's pickup for a trek around Xalapa. It lasted close to three hours and was a magical mystery tour of unique landscaping with natural pools, some of which once housed fish supplied by an in-house fish hatchery; stone and log buildings and barns; unique and meticulously crafted stone walls, masonry, and statues; bridges; a famous limestone water tower; a millhouse next to Stoner Creek with a sculpture of Daniel Boone in bas relief affixed to its front façade, a work of art by the important artist Henry Augustus Lukeman–his World War l bronze is celebrated in Prospect Park, Brooklyn; remnants of a one-mile training track next to a historic and massive training barn that's now been converted to the stallion barn; and an 1827 Federal architectural brick home that Sikura and his family now occupy as their residence.

The newer barns that Sikura has constructed are in a style that melds harmoniously with the old, and old and new structures alike have been made consistent with new slate roofs. Sikura noted that the farm, which is more than 100 years old and encompasses rolling hills and valleys, had been originally designed with a sophisticated drainage system that empties into parts of Stoner Creek, and the land, therefore, is mineral rich and fertile with this natural process of moving earth.

Frankly, there isn't another farm in Kentucky with quite the physical presence and aesthetic beauty of Xalapa, and the closest approximation to the awe I felt touring it came previously from a visit 30-odd years ago to the historic Argentine stud Haras Ojo de Agua, another 100-years-plus facility now shuttered as a breeder of racehorses.

Some History

Ojo de Agua bred Forli (Arg), the sire of the great Forego; and Dorine (Arg), second dam of the great Personal Ensign. Both of those influential imports resided at Claiborne, about seven miles away from the main gate at Xalapa. In the 1960s and through the early 1970s, Bull Hancock leased the training barn and track at Xalapa for the stock of Claiborne and its clients, and he oversaw the breaking and early training of numerous champions at Xalapa, including Buckpasser and Ruffian, among many others. Sikura pointed out a log cabin–“Bull's Cabin”–adjacent to the training barn and track that Hancock had used during his stays on the farm. Hancock also leased part of the property as a Claiborne stallion annex–Bold Reasoning, the sire of Seattle Slew, stood there–and Epsom Derby winners Nijinsky and Sir Ivor, both of whom came to Claiborne in 1970 from Ireland, quarantined at Xalapa before moving to the main Claiborne property. In fact, photographer Barbara Livingston recently posted a rare photo on Twitter of Nijinsky at Xalapa next to the training barn, taken on Nov. 21, 1970 by photographer John C. Wyatt.

Claiborne, of course, is one of the most storied of farms and is more than 100 years old as well, but there was a time in the 1920s and 1930s that its neighbor Xalapa was as equally well known as a stud farm and breeder–Xalapa bred 1950 Broodmare of the Year Hildene, a foundation mare for Christopher Chenery's Meadow Stud and the dam of sire First Landing. Two of the most well-known stallions in the 1920s, the high-priced European imports Prince Palatine and Negofol, stood at the farm, as did Eternal, perhaps the most successful sire at Xalapa. None of them, however, was in the class of Curlin. His presence at Xalapa will be as significant for future historians as the farm's past is now.

Since Sikura bought the property, much has been written of its history, and a Google search will yield many articles that repeat the well-known narrative: that Edward F. Simms and his brother William E. Simms of Bourbon County inherited the property upon the death of their father; that E.F. Simms, a Yale graduate with a degree in engineering and later an attorney, made his fortune in oil from his then-base in Texas and later returned home to Bourbon County fabulously wealthy, buying out his brother's share in Xalapa, in 1914 or 1915; that with extraordinary wealth behind him–he reportedly made $20 million from the sale of oil fields in 1917 alone–Simms developed Xalapa into a showplace and began breeding and racing horses on a grand scale; and that until his death in 1938, the year Hildene was foaled, he experienced several ups and downs of fortune. Simms suffered financial losses in the early 1920s around the time of the Teapot Dome Scandal (an oil partner, Harry Sinclair, owner of Rancocas Stud, was implicated), leading to a complete dispersal of Xalapa stock in 1924. Simms again suffered a massive blow in the 1929 stock market crash. In 1930, probably strapped for cash, Simms sold his private training center and track off Nelson Ave. in Saratoga to John Hay Whitney of Greentree Stud for a value between $350,000 and $400,000, according to the New York Times. Darley currently owns the facility still known as Greentree.

Simms, however, did recover years later, making a reported $26 million from the sale of oil assets in 1937. After his death in 1938, Xalapa dispersed its stock in 1939, and it was from this dispersal that Meadow Stud purchased Hildene.

Simms's widow continued to own the farm, but by the 1950s Xalapa was out of the horse business and its grand training barn was housing farm machinery. After the Hancock era at Xalapa, Simms's granddaughter, Lillie Webb, revived the farm and started breeding horses on the property again. Her operation produced, among others of note, 1991 Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Suave Dancer, a grandson of Nijinsky. Some years after Webb died, her children sold the main portion of the farm; other segments had been sold through the years from the roughly 2,800 acres that Simms had collected.

Sikura has reconstituted the main parts of Simms's Xalapa, most recently purchasing an adjacent property called Stoner Mill, on which sits a luxurious building known as the “Tree House”– there's a tree trunk in the foyer that acts as a supporting buttress–that Sikura offers as a high-end Airbnb rental. “That saddle belonged to Elvis Presley and it's been authenticated,” Sikura said as he showed us decorative artifacts around the house. Upstairs, Sikura pointed out a secret door that had once been a bookcase that wheeled back to hide a room that perhaps was used to hide alcohol during Prohibition.

Sikura drove us to his residence on a path that runs for more than a mile from the main gate, winding gently through a beautifully landscaped portion of land with natural vegetation that's been attributed to iconic landscape architect Jens Jensen, whose work in Chicago's parks system is highly acclaimed and prized. Jensen's landscape architecture of private homes includes gardens at Airdrie Stud, part of which was owned by Simms's sister-in-law in 1917, the year Jensen worked on the project, according to the National Register of Historic Places. The Jensen influence is even more apparent in the gardens behind Sikura's home, which includes a stone wall and a pond.

There's a newspaper account in the Lexington Herald of May 26, 1917, taken from the The Bourbon News, of the famed hospitality of the master of Xalapa. Simms threw a huge party at Xalapa shortly after his $20 million score from a few months earlier. Seemingly everyone in the county was invited to Xalapa for a fish fry “irrespective of sex/age, color, or previous condition of servitude, political or religious beliefs, the only qualification necessary being their ability to enjoy themselves. And they did!”

When we got to Sikura's residence, he channeled Simms and went straight to the kitchen to offer us an excellent red wine. Then, he started kneading his own homemade dough for pizza, and right there in front of us he made two excellent thin-crust pies, as good as any I've had in Brooklyn.

Afterwards, we went out back to enjoy the Jensen garden, and then sat around a low table on a patio deck. Sikura seemed content. “Put your feet up and relax,” he said.

We did.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

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