March 30, 2010

Remembering ... Hansel

My recent trip to Turfway Park for Saturday’s Lane’s End Stakes got me into a bit of a nostalgic mood. While I have been to Turfway, or Latonia as it was formerly called, many times in the past, it had been several years since I had been to the Northern Kentucky oval. It seemed smaller than I remembered, a common phenomenon I guess. Being there brought back a flood of happy memories, and in recalling visits of the past, there was one memory that stood head and shoulders above the rest. The year was 1991, and a handsome bay colt’s performance that day was the cause of my vivid memory. In fact, it was not just his huge performance in the Jim Beam, (now called the Lane’s End) but it was also the magnificent year he had following that day at Turfway.

Handsome Hansel was a looker right from the beginning. Hansel (Woodman--Count On Bonnie, by Dancing Count) was owned by Joe Allbritton's Lazy Lane Farm and trained by Frank Brothers. He was the picture of health when he arrived on the scene for a maiden special weight at Arlington Park in early June of his juvenile season. Hansel won easy in his debut under Randy Romero and would never again run in anything but graded stakes. In his next start he was an easy winner in the Tremont Stakes at Belmont Park. The future was bright. Unfortunately, he was still green and could not stick with the lightning quick Deposit Ticket in the Sapling and Hopeful. The season ended on a high note though, when Hansel returned to Chicago to win the Arlington-Washington Futurity, despite traffic problems. It was the second graded stakes win in only five starts for Hansel, and he wintered as one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

1991 did not start well for the beautiful bay. He bled in his first start, the Fountain of Youth, and finished fifth. A few weeks later he bore out on the turn and was beaten easily when third to juvenile champion Fly So Free and Strike the Gold. He left Florida 0 for 2 and fans wondered if he was a true Derby threat. Away from the heat and humidity of Florida, and armed with new rider Jerry Bailey, Hansel was now ready to re-announce himself to the world. I remember it well. Hansel broke from the three hole under rider Jerry Bailey and sat just behind race favorites, Californian shipper Apollo, and classy middle distance specialist Richman, around the first turn as those two set a fast pace on the fast track. He trailed by two lengths down the backstretch before making his move on the turn for home. Richman resisted, but it was clear that Hansel was too much horse. He drew away for an easy score and obliterated the track record by more than two seconds. It was an eye opening score, and everyone noticed.

Following the Jim Beam record breaking run, Hansel was the hot horse. Only three horses challenged him in the Lexington Stakes, and it was a route. Hansel would head to Louisville off a nine length runaway. Off these two wins, he was bet down to the 5-2 favorite in the Derby over such stalwarts as Fly So Free, Best Pal and Strike the Gold. The fans would be right about Hansel, just not on that day. Bouncing around between horses in the large Derby field, Handsome Hansel had nothing when the horses turned for home. The Kentucky Derby favorite checked in a disappointing tenth, but his connections knew that the real Hansel had not showed at Churchill. It was on to Pimlico and a heavy dose of redemption.

In the Preakness, bettors doubted Hansel after the debacle in the Derby. Sent off at a lifetime high of 9-1, those who stuck with the horse who had looked so good at Turfway and Keeneland, but not Churchill, were handsomely rewarded.  It was a good day for horse betting. In one of the most impressive Preakness wins ever, Hansel and Jerry Bailey stalked a fast pace, challenged on the turn and absolutely cantered home the easiest kind of winner. Once again the teletimer would be a big part of the story, as Hansel’s seven length romp produced a time of 1:54 flat. It was one of the fastest middle jewels ever run and it stamped Hansel as a bona fide star.

While the Preakness was an explosive display of Hansel’s talent, it was in the Belmont, where Hansel began to show what he was truly made of. Not favored in part due to the fact that he would not run with Lasix for the first time since bleeding in the Fountain of Youth, Hansel was made a second choice to the stretch running Derby winner, Strike the Gold.  A wager on Hansel and a bet on the Belmont Stakes was once again wise, but it would not be easy.  Hansel would pressure a fast pace, one of the fastest in Belmont Stakes history. He would fight hard to put away the early speed and when he finally did turning for home, it looked like the Derby winner had him in his sights. Strike the Gold had sat way behind the brisk pace and was now flying on the outside passing horses one by one. The Frank Brothers trainee had something left though, and it was a race for the wire. Hansel was striding to the wire, but Strike the Gold was gaining with every stride. Ordinary horses would have succumbed to the fast fractions and demanding Belmont stretch in the grueling 1 ½ miles of the Test of Champions. Hansel was not ordinary though. He dug in and hit the wire a head in front of the Strike the Gold rush. The Derby debacle was a distant memory, Hansel had just run two huge races to win the final two legs of the Triple Crown.

The Belmont would be the last moment in the glow of the winner’s circle for Hansel. He ran only two more times, a troubled and well beaten third place finish in the Haskell, and then a swan song in the Mid-Summer Derby. In the Travers, Hansel showed the heart of a champion as he chased Corporate Report around the entire track. He was beaten that day by a neck, but when you consider he hurt himself in the stretch and still almost got up for the win, you realize just what kind of horse he was. In his game Travers effort, Hansel had tore a tendon. Unable to return to the races, Hansel was retired that Fall. He was voted champion 3-year-old male of 1991 after winning four graded stakes, including the two classics. For his career he won half of his 14 starts and earned just a shade under three million dollars.

At stud, he proved to be a useful sire with 18 stakes winners, and many more as a broodmare sire. His stud career is now coming to an end and Handsome Hansel should enjoy a very nice life in his golden years thanks to his old owner. Joe Allbritton purchased his star in Japan and brought him back to his Lazy Lane Farm in Virginia. Originally, Hansel was bought by Sheikh Maktoum's Gainsborough Farm following his retirement. He first stood at Gainsborough near in Kentucky, and then at Questroyal Stud in New York before being sold to a Japanese stud farm at Hidaka Stallion Station. At the time of the sale in 1999, Allbritton expressed an interest in re-acquiring Hansel in the future. True to his word, Allbritton purchased Hansel back in 2006 after his breeding prospects waned. Well done Mr. Allbritton, this is exactly how a proud and beautiful Thoroughbred should be treated. I remember you Hansel.


william said...

wow....what memories he brings to you...its a wonderful sport when it brings back such happy memories for its fans, and job well done to the owner for rewarding hansel for everything he did for racing..thanks i do remember him too

ja.raymond said...

Thanx for doing this piece on Hansel. He was a nice horse; and its nice to know he's back where he belongs :)

LDP said...

So many horses! So many FANTASTIC stories!

Vivian said...

Thanks for reminding me what a really nice horse he was. After time, you forget these things. And as always, thanks for all the inside stories on these great horses!

D.P. said...

Loved the horse and loved the story. Thanks again Zipse, keep the remembering stories coming.