War Emblem Comes from 'School of Hard Nucks'

Published in the May 11 issue of The Blood-Horse
This Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner doesn't come from the school of hard knocks; he comes from the school of hard nucks. War Emblem was bred and raised at Nuckols Farm near Midway, Ky., an operation headed by one of the last true Kentucky hardboots, Charlie Nuckols.

Officially, that's Charles Nuckols Jr., but the 79-year-old horseman prefers Charlie.

Nuckols is in the third phase of his career with Thoroughbreds. He began with his father, the late Charles Nuckols Sr., then operated for many years with his late brothers, Hiram and Alfred, and now is joined by his sons, Charles III "Nucks" and Jim.

The constants have been: the land, a 1,100-acre tract that has been in the family for over 100 years; an affinity for raising good horses, with over 300 stakes winners bred by Nuckols, his father, his sons, and many clients; and a strong character, Nuckols saying in a recent interview, "...my word is my bond. Whatever I say is what I'm gonna do."

For half of his life, Nuckols has been tending to the broodmare band owned by 85-year-old Chicago industrialist Russell Reineman. Under a longstanding agreement between the two friends, the mares are leased by Nuckols, thus the foals produced from Reineman's mares are listed as bred by Nuckols. For many years they were listed as bred by Nuckols Brothers, and now, like War Emblem, as Charles Nuckols Jr. and Sons. Those that make the races do so in Reineman's name and colors.

These days, approximately 30 Reineman-owned mares reside at Nuckols Farm. War Emblem's dam, the Lord At War mare Sweetest Lady, is not among them. She died from foaling complications at age 11 in 2001, having produced only four foals.

Also grazing the pastures at Nuckols Farm are 35 mares owned by the family and another 40 owned by other clients.

The Nuckols/Reineman association began after Russell Reineman's brother, Howard, sold his Crown Crest Farm near Lexington. Howard Reineman and his wife, Helen, purchased 1,100-acre Almahurst Farm No. 2 from Henry Knight in 1951. A few years later, they sold that farm and purchased 378-acre Woodvale Farm from the estate of Royce Martin.

"At that time, Russ tried to get Bull Hancock to take his horses," Charlie Nuckols remembered of Russell Reineman's decision to talk with A.B. "Bull" Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm. "Bull was full, so he recommended me."

In a 1957 article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Howard Reineman, then relatively new to the Thoroughbred business, said, "I'd like to breed a horse that can win the Kentucky Derby."

In 2002, his brother, with a mare he owns but leases to Nuckols, did just that.

Nuckols came close to etching his name in Derby lore once before: Nuckols Brothers bred No Le Hace, who ran second to Riva Ridge in 1972. Wise Times, who ran ninth for Reineman in 1986, was also bred by Nuckols Brothers. Wise Times stood at Nuckols Farm until being exported in 1996; he was by the farm's now-deceased stallion Mr. Leader. Three stallions currently stand at Nuckols Farm: Home At Last, Jambalaya Jazz, and Stalwart.

The first Derby starter bred in the family name was Alamond, who was bred by Charles Nuckols Sr. and ran sixth in 1946, the year the race was won by eventual Triple Crown winner Assault.

Sir Bee Bum, who ran 15th in 1951, was bred by Charles Nuckols Sr. and Sons.

The first mating Nuckols ever did for Reineman produced 1962 co-champion juvenile filly Smart Deb. Among the others bred by the farm are champion older mare Typecast, sprint champions White Skies and Decathlon, and European champions Habitat and Broadway Dancer.

Nuckols watched the Derby at his Midway, Ky., home with his daughter, Judy. He recently fell and injured his rotator cuff and is undergoing therapy three times a week. Because of some soreness, he preferred not to battle the Derby Day crowd.

"He was just a clean, sound colt," Nuckols remembered of War Emblem's early days on the farm. His son, Nucks, keeps a book on each foal in which he lists their ailments. War Emblem's page is blank. "That's rare," the younger Nuckols said. "They all have something you note. War Emblem was uneventful...no problem foaling; a big, strong looking colt; no problem as a foal or yearling; never sick."

Watching the race, the elder Nuckols said he knew early he was about to become the breeder of a Derby winner. "When he hit the half-mile pole, I knew they wouldn't catch him," he said. "They said no one went with him, but they all had a chance to go with him."

In his farm office, Nuckols has a funny statuette of an amusing looking jockey astride a buck-toothed horse. The Thoroughbred is draped in a blanket of roses.

"There was a contractor who had worked on the farm and he loved horses," he said. "He would always ask me, 'How many Derby horses have you bred?' I would say, 'None.' He gave me this and said, 'That's the closest you're gonna come to raising a Derby winner.' "

That was true until May 4, 2002.