12/17/2013 10:27PM

Catching up with Gander



Gander (1996 gr.r. g., by Cormorant - Lovely Nurse, by Sawbones) 

The morning that Gander broke down at Saratoga, I never thought I’d see him, around and kicking, nine years later.  

He was an ‘iron horse’ – 60 starts over 7 seasons, with 15 wins, 10 seconds, 9 thirds, earnings of over $1.8 million.  The New York-bred had it all:  a great name, an unusually high head and a near-white coat, a very popular sire (Cormorant), a stellar racing record, a handsome and affable young trainer most of his career (John Terranova) and fun-loving and very proud owners (brothers Michael and Ted Gatsas). 

The grey gelding ran in 40 stakes and, although he ‘only’ won 6, he hit the board in some of the country’s best, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Donn. 43 of his starts came in the Empire State.  

I was at his biggest win, the 2001 Meadowlands Cup (G2).  And I was there for what I’d say was his most memorable race, the 2002 Saratoga Breeders’ Cup.  Gander stumbled leaving the gate, tossed Mike Smith, ran with the pack much of the way, pressed the leader around the final turn and opened up to ‘win’ handily.

Yes, it was easy to see why I, and countless others, were major-league Gander fans.  And although I very rarely show any emotion when cataloguing, I even wrote, “I love this NY-bred!!!!” on a negative sleeve in 2001.

Above/below:  At Saratoga, 2001.

And so the morning of August 31, 2004, was a dark one. While working at Saratoga under his regular morning partner, Simon Harris, Gander suffered a straight-across fracture of the cannon bone – a highly unusual injury.  Harris pulled him up quickly in front of the grandstand.  John Terranova ran over to his horse and held the reins as Harris undid the saddle.  It looked bad.

The surreal scene seemed straight out of a novel. Did other exercise riders know it was Gander standing patiently out there, his near-white coat glistening, his saddle tossed on the ground nearby?  Why did the horse ambulance always take so long?  As Harris cradled Gander’s left front leg, I wondered if such scenes would forever remind me of Chris Antley and Charismatic.  I wondered how many such scenes the ancient Saratoga grandstand had observed over the decades... 

Mike Gatsas told The Blood-Horse that, once surgery was performed at Rood and Riddle, Gander “should be fine. He'll be able to run around in his paddock and enjoy the rest of his life.”

This past Sunday, with the season’s first significant snow in Saratoga, we trekked out to the beautiful Stone Bridge Farm.  There, Gander runs around his paddock and enjoys his life.

Nearly 18, he still holds his head extra high, and his long, slim face has barely changed.  His right eye was removed in 2012 due to infection, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.  His coat’s just a tiny bit lighter, and perhaps he doesn’t move as quickly.   But he spends nights indoors and goes out daily in a sizable paddock with a younger (12-year-old) girlfriend named Seventeen Above.  He can still kick up his heels and act like a kid. 

Among those caring for him is the assistant manager Heidi Fischer, who worked with Gander while he was being rehabilitated in downstate NY in 2004 and 2005.  She was so excited to see her old friend again that she put old photos of him up in her office. 

The Gatsas family visits when they can, although it was easier for them to see Gander years ago, when he lived in their home state of New Hampshire. But now that Gander’s a Saratoga-area resident, the Terranovas – John and his wife Tonja, and their young girls Paulina and Giana – can visit, too.

It’s safe to say Gander changed both families’ lives.  When Gander ran – he and G2 winner Shadow Caster were the first racehorses the Gatsas family bought.  But after Gander?  Family friends wanted ‘in’ – the game was such fun! And Sovereign Stable was born.  

The Gatsas and Terranovas have worked together for 13 years now and had many successes.  But you never forget your first big love.  

Why does the Gatsas family pay for the aging gelding’s care, medical needs and boarding?  Says Matthew Gatsas, Michael’s son and Sovereign Stable manager, “Gander’s such a cool horse and he was really good to us.  He took us a lot of different places in racing that we never dreamt we’d go. 

“It wasn’t even a second thought.  Whatever we could do to save him - to keep him going and make sure he lives out a good, healthy life, the best we could - that’s what we were going to do.

 “He earned it.”

Above:  The first time I remember seeing Gander, winning the Albany H. with Pat Day, at Saratoga on September 2, 1999.  At the time, the 3-year-old Cormorant gelding was trained by Chris Assimakopoulos.  Assimakopoulos trained Gander for his first 25 starts.

Above:  With Simon Harris up, Saratoga 2002.

Above:  Gander, after running second to Lido Palace in the 2002 Woodward (G1).

Above/below:  Gander and Simon Harris, Saratoga 2003.

Above:  Gander sails homeward in the 2002 Saratoga Breeders' Cup, after tossing Mike Smith at the start.  Don't bother teling him Evening Attire was named the winner.  He knows he finished first.

Above:  Paulina Terranova with Gander, at Saratoga, 2004.

Above:  Gander and regular morning partner Simon Harris head into their final workout, Saratoga, August 31, 2004.  

"He was a tough horse to ride," Harris remembers.  "It took me a long time to get him to settle down.  But he was as honest as the day is long and I loved him.  I rode him 4 1/2 years.  

"He will always be close to my heart."

Above:  Gander's final workout.

Above:  Gander, at Saratoga after his career-ending injury.

Above:  Tonja and John Terranova with their injured star, before he was shipped to Rood and Riddle for surgery. 

"He was our first big horse and popular horse," says John.  "He was obviously such a recognizable horse, and at a time when there weren't many top New York-breds.  

"We have pictures of him all over the house, it's almost a shrine to him. It was such a huge thrill for us."

Above:  Gander (Rick Landry) and Seventeen Above (Chris Sgorrano) head to their paddock at Stone Bridge Farm on December 15, 2013.

Above:  BFFs Gander and Seventeen Above.

Above:  "He gets some Cosequin every day," says caregiver Chris Sgorrano.  "He actually gets it at night, because he doesn't finish his breakfast because he's always in a hurry to go out...an old racetrack thing.  He occasionally gets running out there - acts like a youngster sometimes."

Above:  Gander lost his right eye, due to infection, in 2012, but it doesn't seem to impact his life. 

"When cleaning his face, just go extra slowly," says caregiver Rick Landry, the son of well-known horseman Harry Landry who plans a career in geriatric nursing.  "Take your time, and he trusts you."

Above:  Landry gives Gander a friendly scratching on the rump.  Gander approved.

"We treat him like royalty," says Stone Bridge's Heidi Fischer. "He gets his daily supplements, he comes in every night, he has his girlfriend.  He gets hosed off in the summertime, he gets groomed.... Anything he needs, he gets."

Above:  "Sometimes people bring them in and out together," says Sgorrano.  "The mare can be silly and prefers to be lead on the near side.  But Gander's pretty trusting and you can lead him on the off side.  He's fine with that.  He's a good horse to be around."

"They’re great owners,” John Terranova says of the Gatsas family.  “They love horses and always try to look after their retired horses.  And a horse like Gander, who was so good to everybody, they definitely wanted to pay him back and make sure that he has it good for the rest of his life.”

Gander winning the 2002 Saratoga Breeders' Cup, with no need for a jockey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UN2bG90Qxdc

Gander wins the 2002 Empire Classic in more traditional fashion...with a jockey (he also won the 1999 Empire Classic): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czP3xAJ7LXw