The Nuckols Brothers

By Alfred H. Nuckols, Jr
On Sept. 2, an era in the history of Central Kentucky Thoroughbred breeding ended with the death of Charles Nuckols Jr. "Uncle Chas" to me and "Charlie" to his many friends, he was the last of a generation of Thoroughbred breeders known throughout the industry as "the Nuckols Brothers."

The brothers all grew up under the tutelage of their father, Charles Nuckols Sr. From the accounts of family members who remember him, he was a tough taskmaster expecting nothing but the best effort from his children. This was backed up by the leather strap in case there was a misunderstanding of what was "proper," such as not behaving in the manner expected of those who were to take over the family farm, Hurstland.

When Charlie, "Hoss" (Alfred), and Hi (Hiram) were young men, the Phoenix Hotel was a favorite watering hole among those in the Thoroughbred business. Many stories over the years had the "boys" enjoying their bourbon, and if someone had the audacity to confront one of them in a heated exchange, he quickly learned that one Nuckols brother equaled three, a proposition very few men wanted to face. When they couldn't find someone else to fight, the brothers would fight each other just for something to do.

This may not have been your "normal" American family, but it was the family that Nucks and Judy, Hetty and Jimmy, Mary, Helen, Hi, and Gay and I grew up in. All the cousins lived within walking distance of each other, and our generation also knew the taste of a leather belt when our behavior was less than acceptable. They didn't play favorites. If you were caught breaking the rules, it didn't matter whether it was Dad or an uncle; the dire consequences were the same and the punishment was meted out by the Nuckols brother who "caught you." We were close, with all three families dining together in the summer. So it was, and we all continue to be close.

As we grew older, all of us worked summers on the farm weed-hooking, mowing, baling hay and bedding, stripping bluegrass, working in tobacco, and grooming sale yearlings. We were expected to work hard and do our best, and therefore the good things were seldom praised in public. But woe to us if we didn't do the job as instructed!

As we boys, the "sons," matured, we appreciated the farm--what it had to give and what was required of us to make it work. The horses became front and center and the Keeneland sales were the payoff for a job well done. Uncle Chas, Dad, and Hi would introduce us to all of the prospective buyers who came to inspect our consignments. There was Mac Miller with Mr. Charles Engelhard, Homer Pardue with Mr. Joe Strauss, Mr. John A. Morris, Elliott Burch for Mr. Paul Mellon, Georgie Poole for the Whitneys, Woody Stephens for his owners, George Blackwell, and on and on.

It was a wonderful time to grow up in the Thoroughbred business, a time when the buyers were the people who raced the horses, and they relied on their own knowledge and that of their trainers, not a bloodstock agent intent on not making a conformation mistake. These people knew the breeding families and what these horses were supposed to look like. No scopes, no repositories. A sale was a sale and a deal was as good as the handshake that sealed it.

This is the legacy of the band of brothers known as "the Nuckols boys." These are the men who taught the next generation of horsemen the values and work ethic that made them a success in their era. It gives me a wonderful sense of pride to carry on the family name at Hurstland, the same as it does Nucks and Jimmy at Nuckols Farm, and Michael and Gay at Blackburn. It is a name that has been around since the 1800s and will hopefully endure through the 21st century.

Thank you, Uncle Chas, for leading our families through your generation and for being there for Hi, Gay, and me after our fathers, your brothers, were gone. Thank you for your loving advice and for your warm stories about our families who were all so closely intertwined for so many years. Thank you for sharing "brown water" and thank you for the example you set for the name "Nuckols." May we prove worthy of the honor.