Hansel at 27: Classic Class Lives On
By Tom Ferry
Last month’s Arlington Million provided racing fans with another chapter in the story of local legend The Pizza Man. Twenty five years ago this summer on these same Arlington International Racecourse grounds, fans witnessed the coming-out party of another racing star when a Virginia-bred dark bay won his inaugural race in early June during his two-year-old season.
|Hansel - Photo courtesy Tom Ferry|
The juvenile colt was named Hansel, and was based in Chicago along with his trainer Frank Brothers. This son of Woodman out of Count on Bonnie by Dancing Count was bred by Marvin Little Jr. and was born just outside of Upperville, Virginia on March 12, 1988. His racing journey began when he was purchased the following year at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale for $150,000. Frank Shipp, now president of Lazy Lane Farm in Upperville, remembers the time well.
“Frank Brothers and I went around to several farms in those days prior to the sales to get an early look at the yearlings,” Shipp recalls. “We saw Hansel and Frank said he made up his mind when he saw that colt that he was going to be his pick. We liked him from the get-go.”
After the sale, Hansel was brought back to Virginia and was raised at Shipp’s Lazy Lane Farm. One year later came the debut success at Arlington Park when he won maiden special weight easily under jockey Randy Romero. It would be the first and only time the horse ran in a non-graded stakes race. The following month saw a trip to Belmont Park in New York for a run in the (Grade III) Tremont Breeders’ Cup Stakes. “As conservative as Frank Brothers was,” says Frank Shipp, “I knew he wouldn’t ship the horse halfway across the country unless he thought he had a good shot.”
Hansel justified that confidence with an easy triumph in the Tremont. With two wins in two starts it was on to Monmouth Park in the (Grade II) Sapling Stakes where Hansel suffered his first defeat with a third place finish behind winner Deposit Ticket. Two weeks later, he competed valiantly against some of the nation’s top juveniles in the (G1) Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga but once again fell victim to Deposit Ticket with a runner-up finish. A return home to Chicago and Arlington Park in September was just what Hansel needed to conclude his two-year-old season on a positive note when he captured the (Grade II) Arlington-Washington Futurity. He came out of the Futurity with an injury, however, and was sidelined for 90 days, thus missing the 1990 Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
What was to become a championship three-year-old season did not get off to the best of starts. Hansel bled during his season debut in the (Grade II) Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and finished a troubled fifth. He remained in Florida and three weeks later in the (Grade I) Florida Derby, he crossed the finish line an unimpressive third behind the previous year’s Two-Year-Old Champion Fly So Free and a budding rival, the Nick Zito-trained Strike the Gold.
In a racing career that would never see a losing streak longer than two, Hansel rebounded resoundingly weeks later in front of crowd at Turfway Park that included former President Gerald Ford when he and new jockey Jerry Bailey captured the (Grade II) Jim Beam stakes by breaking the track record by more than two seconds. Three weeks later he destroyed three challengers at Keeneland by nine lengths in winning the (Grade II) Lexington Stakes and established himself the favorite for the 117th running of the Kentucky Derby. His pursuit of roses was not to be as he finished 10th in the race, 12 lengths behind winner Strike the Gold.
Hansel’s connections could not come up with a reason for the poor performance and cannot to this day, but set their sights on Maryland and the Preakness Stakes next. Dismissed with career high morning line odds of 9-1, Hansel and jockey Jerry Bailey electrified the racing world with a 7-length victory in 1:54. In the 24 Preakness Stakes that have been run since that 1991 afternoon, only champions Louis Quatorze (’96) and Curlin (’07) have run faster.
The Belmont Stakes provided a rubber match of sorts for Hansel and rival Strike the Gold. The result was one of the most exciting Test of Champions ever when Hansel held off a driving Strike the Gold to win his second Classic by a head. What may have been the three-year-old’s greatest victory would also be his last. After a disappointing 3rd place finish in the (Grade I) Haskell Stakes, he journeyed to Saratoga for a run in the 1991 (Grade I) Travers Stakes. While charging down the stretch after leader Corporate Report, Hansel tore a tendon in his leg but demonstrated his heart and courage by driving on and falling just short of the win. A 14-race career that resulted in $2,936,586 in earnings, two Classic triumphs, and six graded stakes victories had come to an end and was rewarded with the 1991 Eclipse Award for Champion 3-Year-Old Male.
A modest stud career that produced 18 stakes winners took Hansel from Kentucky to New York and finally to Japan in 2000. Hansel’s owner, the late Joe Allbritton, had let it be known during the sale he’d like the horse back at the conclusion of his stud career. The wheels were put in motion in 2005 and in 2006, Allbritton reacquired Hansel and brought him back home to Lazy Lane Farm and a life of retirement. Frank Shipp has been there throughout all the significant moments in Hansel’s life.
“When he returned home and the van pulled up here, he was yelling and screaming,” says Shipp. “I feel like horses have a sense of place and know where they come from. He was not only broken here as a yearling but was born five miles away. Once he came off the van, he was happy to be home.”
Today he is America’s oldest living Classic-winning champion at age 27. He goes outside each day and will stay out longer during the fall and winter because of a preference for cooler weather and a hatred for insects, flies and humidity. His health is very good and he shows little sign of slowing down. He still gets visitors throughout the year and from across the country. And the competitive spirit has never really left him.
“We’ll always give him exactly what he demands. He still has his playful moments in the paddock and will take an occasional nip at the staff,” says Shipp. “When guests come around though, he has a sense of who company is because he doesn’t really bite at folks, especially the ladies and the kids.”
The late, great artist Richard Stone Reeves painted Hansel outside his barn at Lazy Lane Farm for his published collection, Royal Blood: Fifty Years of Classic Thoroughbreds. The regal conformation Reeves captured in his 1994 work is still present today and the esteem held by fans ranging from those a quarter century ago in Chicago to those who see him each morning in Virginia can best be summed up by Frank Shipp. “He’s all class. Always has been.”