James Sebastian began working at the Hancock family’s Claiborne Farm in 1966. What started out as a way to make ends meet, working at Claiborne has become a labor of love for Sebastian and, simply, home.
A native of Jackson, Ky., in Breathitt County, Sebastian was a 21-year-old looking for a job when he came to Lexington. He started out working at a cattle farm and later followed his brother Wardie to Claiborne in 1966. He never left.
Sebastian, now 77, spent about six months working with yearlings before he moved on to the broodmare division.
In 1971, he began working nightshift delivering foals from January through May each year and estimates he’s delivered foals from approximately 200 mares per year, which would put him just shy of 10,000 foals delivered during his tenure on nightshift.
“James Sebastian is one of the best people one could hope to know,” said Dell Hancock. “He is kind, patient, always pleasant. It shows through his face and his work with foaling the mares and working with the foals. Claiborne is lucky to have such a person on the farm.”
Since Sebastian started at Claiborne in ’66, Hall of Fame inductees Dahlia, Easy Goer, Forego, Go for Wand, Heavenly Prize, Inside Information, La Prevoyante, Lure, Personal Ensign, Riva Ridge, Ruffian, and Slew o’ Gold were foaled or raised on the historic farm, which was established in Paris, Ky., in 1910 by A. B. Hancock Sr.
That list of Hall of Famers is really just scratching the surface of the remarkable equine star power that has come through Claiborne Farm, the birthplace of 10 Kentucky Derby winners and the farm that stood 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat and breed-shaping sire Mr. Prospector.
“It gives you a thrill,” Sebastian said of looking out at the foals in the paddocks at Claiborne. “I look out at the field and just think about how great they are. To be around these horses as long as I have, you have to be fascinated with them. And to work at Claiborne has been a real joy to me.”
Sebastian has been married for 57 years and has three children. From January through May, his workday starts at 5 p.m. and ends at 5 a.m. He said he usually get to bed at about 6 a.m. and wakes up between 12:30 and 1 p.m. He relaxes and gets something to eat and spends time playing with his grandchildren before heading back out to the barn at about 4:30 p.m.
After the shift change at the broodmare barn, they check all of the mares to try and judge how many foals there might be that night and then check back every 30-35 minutes for the rest of the night.
After the foaling season, Sebastian switches over to day shifts caring for mares and foals.
When Sebastian was honored with the Godolphin Thoroughbred Industry Employee Award for Dedication to Breeding in 2016, he was credited by Claiborne as having a “sixth sense” for knowing when mares were close to delivering.
“It’s something you pick up through the years from watching the horses every day,” Sebastian said, adding that you can tell by the movement of the mares which ones and getting closer and which ones are ready.
Sebastian has been entrusted with the delivery and care of hundreds of foals each year from carefully cultivated families that have made an indelible imprint on the fabric of Thoroughbred racing in the United States. He said the ones that were born and raised at Claiborne who returned as stallions are among the most memorable.
“Forty Niner, I took care of as a baby and that’s why I remember him so well. I took care of him until weaning and you get attached to them when you spend so much time around them,” Sebastian said. “He was smart. A lot of times when you’d put him out, he’d want to go right up on his back legs and play. He was always easy to be around, though, a really good horse.
“Pulpit is another stallion we had here on the farm and there was Lure; Orb is standing here now. The ones who were always around Claiborne are the ones who stand out to me. Of course, I’m getting old now so that might be part of it, too.”
When asked if there was any one memory that stood out as an unforgettable moment in his years on the farm, Sebastian pointed to Swale’s Kentucky Derby win in 1984.
“Back when Swale won the Derby — I foaled him — and it’s a great thing to see one of them in a big race like that. You know, you were the first one that ever touched him and he just won the Kentucky Derby.”
Sebastian has dedicated his life to foaling and raising Thoroughbreds, but when asked to put his career into perspective he circled back to Claiborne.
“There couldn’t be any nicer people; working at Claiborne is just like being at home,” Sebastian said. “They trust me, and it’s just a really nice place to be.”