Some of the finest landscapes in all of Kentucky’s Bluegrass sprawl across Bourbon County, where the particularly picturesque fields of Xalapa Farm have nurtured Thoroughbreds since the 19th century and now have entered a new era under John G. Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms.
The breed’s roots are deep in this county, the home of several historic establishments, notably Claiborne Farm, which at one time leased facilities at Xalapa, and Runnymede Farm, the state’s oldest continuously operated Thoroughbred nursery.
Located seven miles southeast of Paris on North Middletown Road, Xalapa reached its first peak as a premier breeding and training establishment approximately a century ago, in the 1920s and ’30s, under eccentric Bourbon Countian Edward F. Simms. Despite the farm’s fade from prominence following his death in 1938, Xalapa has remained renowned for its exquisite architecture and eye-catching landscapes.
In 2019, Sikura fell under Xalapa’s spell and purchased the property. The 1,400-acre farm is now home to 13 stallions, with leading sires Curlin and Kitten’s Joy heading the roster, and Sikura has promised to ignite a new bonfire of distinction.
“The torch has been passed. Driven by the passion to restore and revive the grandeur of arguably one of the most stunningly beautiful horse properties in the world, Hill ‘n’ Dale will usher in an era whose impact on the industry and the breed will be enduring,” the farm’s website proclaims.
The flame taken up by Sikura burned bright under Simms, who brought a singular fervor to the farm he tenderly crafted to be unlike any other in Kentucky while existing, in his hopes, self-sufficiently.
Simms gained fabulous riches at the Spindletop oilfield in Texas in 1901, and although he had financial setbacks during the Great Depression era, he worked diligently and spent liberally at Xalapa to create both a model Thoroughbred operation and a splendid estate evocative of English country manors.
Xalapa’s lush pastures vitalized some of the best bloodlines in the world, with residents including Rose Leaves, dam of five-time leading sire Bull Lea, and Simms-bred Hildene, 1950 Broodmare of the Year. The farm also was the home of noted stallions of yesteryear such as *Prince Palatine, *Negofol, Eternal, Leonardo II, The Wanderer, Lucky Hour, and My Play, who was Man o’ War’s full-brother and a multiple stakes winner in his own right.
The farm’s centerpiece was a circa 1936 fieldstone training barn that visually stunned with its red-tiled roof, sparkling glass windows, cupola observation tower, and indoor quarter-mile training track, believed to be the first of its kind in Kentucky.
Constructed with materials from the farm’s own quarry, the barn was thought to be the largest Thoroughbred stable in the world, not in capacity, for it had only 31 stalls, but in total area.
Xalapa was widely known for its miles of tree-lined roads, a water plant, stone cottages and barns, log dwellings, and run-in sheds with slate and tile roofs. Several breathtaking structures in particular created a dream-like quality to parts of the landscape. Indeed, the farm was likened by some to an enchanted forest.
A cut-stone, three-arch bridge spanning Stoner Creek, featured in a vivid scene of the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit,” made the farm unforgettable for visitors, as did an imposing, medieval-looking limestone water tower with a ship’s bell that rang out on momentous occasions, such as the end of World War II.
Lavish gardens enclosed by wrought iron fencing brought in from Kentucky’s old State Capitol in Frankfort held statues imported from Europe. Sculpted Chinese Fu dogs stood guard. A rebuilt, two-story stone mill with a heroic size bronze relief of frontiersman Daniel Boone held an immense den accented with bear and buffalo skin rugs, and included a ballroom, guest room, bath, and kitchen.
Xalapa’s character drew from its beginnings as a trackless wilderness along the old Native American Warrior’s Path in an area also known for a buffalo trace and stagecoach route first explored by Boone and companion Michael Stoner, for whom the wide, meandering creek is named.
Boone was thought to have owned Xalapa’s original mill. As a tribute, Simms hired Henry Augustus Lukeman, sculptor of the Confederate Memorial in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to create a seven-foot likeness of Boone on the mill’s stone door.
The farm’s formal roots date back 200 years to around 1820 when racing and breeding in Kentucky was just beginning a renaissance after the loss of horses during the War of 1812.
The family of Virginian William Thomas Buckner built cabins and cultivated the land before constructing a fine brick residence in 1827 that has seen several renovations and is known as Buckner House.
Buckner’s son Henry inherited the property after returning from the Mexican War and named it Xalapa after a Mexican town given the name from the local tribal words meaning “a spring of water in the sand” that were converted into Spanish pronunciation. In the 1870s, the farm was noted for its fine champagne-like wines made from Catawba grapes.
Over the decades, the name Xalapa has confounded many interested in Simms’ property and horses. The correct Spanish pronunciation is “ha-lap-a,” with the X silent. In Central Kentucky dialect, however, pronunciation strayed a bit and started with an unstressed “a” (e.g., as in about, among, ago).
Reporters and editors since the 1920s, including esteemed Lexington Herald sports editor Neville Dunn, also editor of the Thoroughbred Record, found it necessary to school readers on how to pronounce the farm’s name.
“Xalapa,” Dunn wrote in 1938, “(is) pronounced “a-lap-a”, with the accent on the second syllable…”
Much later, when Xalapa hosted Vice President Nelson Rockefeller for a 1976 luncheon, befuddled national news media mangled the name.
Xalapa was long the focus of both news accounts and intriguing rumors under Simms’ ownership.
Stories abounded about goings on at the mill, said to have been a private getaway for Simms, whose main residence was in Houston. He was rumored to have held stag parties, preceded by cockfights, that lasted for days and were followed by serious poker, all while high-dollar business deals were discussed and consummated.
During Prohibition, hidden compartments and secret hiding places on the farm reportedly held plenty of whiskey for thirsty friends.
Simms spent lavishly on Thoroughbreds, and in 1920, he shelled out huge sums to bring a pair of European stallions to head the Xalapa stallion roster. He spent a reported record price of $250,000 for top-class British stayer and stallion *Prince Palatine, who became the great-grandsire of influential *Princequillo, best known as the broodmare sire of Secretariat.
Additionally, Simms spent $150,000 for a half-interest in 1909 French Derby winner *Negofol, sire of 1917 Belmont Stakes winner *Hourless and Simms-bred 1925 Preakness Stakes winner Coventry.
Simms wielded great influence as one of America’s top commercial breeders. Newspapers reported that he owned more Thoroughbreds than any other man in America in 1920, and his successes with horses and oil interests, as well as with sulfur and insurance, led the Houston Post to salute him with these words: “His career was a saga of American accomplishment.”
Born in Paris in 1870, Simms and his brother, William E. Simms, inherited the Xalapa land and wealth when their father, Harrison County, Kentucky, native William Erskine Simms, died in 1898 after acquiring the farm the previous year. The elder Simms, whose own father came to Kentucky in 1809, was a former Confederate officer, lawyer, proud Democrat, and U.S. congressman.
After graduating from Yale with a degree in architectural engineering and from the University of Virginia law school, Simms raced horses in the 1890s with his cousin James Blythe Anderson of the Glengarry estate, now the site of Fasig-Tipton Kentucky, and soon blew through his inheritance.
After borrowing $750 from horseman Thomas P. Hayes (later owner of longshot 1913 Kentucky Derby winner Donerail), Simms struck out for Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico with a vow not to come home until he was rich. On his return in 1915, he bought out his brother’s share of Xalapa with his newfound oil riches.
In the racetrack realm, Simms campaigned horses in the name of Lexington Stable with partner Henry Oliver of Poplar Hill Farm.
Eternal, considered the co-champion 2-year-old male of 1918, was their best runner. The son of Sweep won nine of 18 starts, including that year’s Hopeful Stakes, and famously defeated juvenile nemesis and co-champion Billy Kelly in match race at Laurel Park.
At age three, Eternal won the Brooklyn Handicap and had a successful career as an Xalapa stallion. He most often appears in modern pedigrees through influential foundation mare Grey Flight, who was produced by a daughter of his leading sire son Ariel.
Grey Flight produced nine stakes winners, led by her champion daughter and top producer Misty Morn, and is ancestress of countless more.
At its past peak, Xalapa symbolized Central Kentucky’s Thoroughbred culture intertwined with gracious Southern hospitality. Tea parties, lawn parties, and annual fish fries were among ongoing activities that anchored the farm to the community.
More than just a showplace and cultural landmark, however, the farm was a powerful agribusiness that at one time employed 900 people.
Miles of high stone fences and forbidding iron gates surrounded the heart of Xalapa, which a Kentucky newspaper once called “a perfect wonder place… a place of beauty and a joy forever.”
Such boundaries lent an aura of mystery to the farm, which grew to nearly 3,000 acres. Not much was visible from the road, and for years the limited view fascinated casual sightseers on Sunday drives.
Simms was fanatical about security for the farm, and he took numerous steps to see that his sanctuary was protected.
“Except for the lack of watchtowers, Xalapa from the outside resembles nothing so much as a vast penitentiary,” wrote the late Turf writer Frank T. Phelps, whose father supervised most of the farm’s construction and landscaping projects, in a Lexington Herald newspaper article.
“Within, it is a wooded paradise. For if security was one of Simms’ fetishes, another was trees. He planted every kind of tree that would grow in Kentucky, and many varieties that nobody else thought would survive here,” Phelps reported.
After Simms’ death in 1938, most of his horses were sold and the farm began a gradual slide into semi-obscurity.
By the 1950s, his widow no longer carried on his Thoroughbred business. Hay and farm machinery were stored in the famed training barn while a passel of hogs was lodged in the dust-colored stucco broodmare barn.
A decade later, Simms’ heirs had downsized Xalapa to 1,600 acres, and sheep and cattle grazed on the land once trod upon by blue-blooded Thoroughbreds.
Claiborne’s A. B. Hancock Jr., as he proceeded to expand his own business, stepped up to lease the Xalapa property primarily for a yearling training center, utilizing the farm’s one-mile training track.
As the years went on, graduates broken under the supervision of Hancock or his yearling manager, John Sosby, included a galaxy of stars such as Bold Bidder, Buckpasser, Dahlia, Gamely, Moccasin, Queen of the Stage, Ruffian, Vitriolic, Wajima, and What a Pleasure.
For a time in the 1970s, Claiborne maintained a stallion annex at Xalapa that housed *Ambiorix, Bold Reasoning, Fiddle Isle, *Hawaii, Jacinto, Pago Pago, Sir Wiggle, Tell, and To Market.
Following the bloodstock market crash of the 1980s and the end of the Claiborne era at Xalapa, the farm experienced a brief revitalization. Simms’ granddaughter Lillie Franzheim Webb, a Chicago native, lived on the property and bred several top horses, including 1991 European champion and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Suave Dancer, who had been sold at Keeneland for $45,0000, as well as stakes winners such as Templar Hill, Splendid Spruce, and One More Bid.
Another chapter at Xalapa ended when Webb passed away in 1996. Simms’ descendants sold the property in 2007 and a period of restoration began that has shifted into a higher gear under new owner Sikura, whose aim is to bridge the past and the present while setting a pathway to the future.
“I think it’s the most unique, historically significant horse farm, at least that I’ve been on,” Sikura said. “…I’m trying to make the farm open and inviting, and the more people see it, the more I think they’re going to embrace it.”
Xalapa has taken on a new life even as Sikura has strived to maintain its heritage. The former training barn has been transformed into a handsome stallion barn with the addition of paddocks and a breeding shed.
Seven new barns have been added to the property and renovations have been made to several existing barns while the farm’s infrastructure has been upgraded with water lines and new roads and bridges.
Yet the transcendent beauty that Simms cultivated so many years ago remains, perhaps a foretelling that the once thriving nursery will again rise as a shining hallmark of the Thoroughbred world.