06/07/2016 10:13AM

25 years later, Hansel still enjoying the attention


The following is an excerpt from Barbara D. Livingston's upcoming book tentatively titled "Old and New Friends" available this fall from DRF Press.

He’s the country’s oldest classic winner, a stallion so beautiful that, in his racing days, he was dubbed “Handsome Hansel.”

It’s hard to believe Hansel left the track a quarter-century ago. Studying him at his Lazy Lane Farm home in Upperville, Va., his bay coat is rich with dapples, his muscles fit, and his attitude willing – he still looks and acts like a youngster.

“He’s always been happy and playful,” farm manager Frank Shipp said.

Shipp should know. He’s been with Hansel since the aged stallion was a yearling.

Frank Shipp walks Hansel at Lazy Lane Farm.

It was 1989 when he and the farm’s trainer, Frank Brothers, went to scope out yearlings before the Keeneland September sale. Breeder Marvin “Junior” Little told them he had a standout and, as Little ran the world-famous Newstead Farm for more than 20 years, he clearly knew his horses. In fact, Little later said Hansel was the most beautiful horse he ever saw.

The colt’s sire, Woodman, was an Irish champion whose first crop were yearlings. Hansel’s dam, Count On Bonnie, was an unraced daughter of Dancing Count, out of a mare Little had bought for $15,000. Count On Bonnie’s first foal died, and then came Hansel.

The blazed-faced bay Virginia-bred yearling was completely professional, with solid conformation and a startlingly powerful presence. If the colt’s sales page didn’t scream “buy me” loudly enough, his “look of eagles” sealed the deal. Of the 18 yearlings Lazy Lane purchased that year, the Woodman colt was the farm’s first pick. 

In what proved a bargain, owner Joe L. Allbritton, a highly successful financier and publisher, shelled out $150,000 for him. Hansel was soon shipped to Lazy Lane to learn to be a racehorse.

“He was easy to break, but he wasn’t easy to catch a couple of times,” Shipp remembered. “We had him turned out with some other colts, and he was doing great. Then one morning we called them, and they got almost to the gate, and he turned around and took off and ran all the way to the back of the field, just feeling good. The next day, he did the exact same thing.

“So that’s when he went into a smaller paddock,” Shipp chuckled.

The happy Hansel did everything right, including winning at first asking in June of his 2-year-old season. Brothers sent him straight into stakes competition, where Hansel responded by winning the Grade 3 Tremont. Three races later, he added the Grade 2 Arlington-Washington Futurity.

Two-year-olds winning mile races lead to rose-colored dreams, and Hansel was aimed toward the classics. He lost two Florida preps before romping in the Grade 2 Jim Beam and Lexington. In the Jim Beam, Hansel slashed more than 2 seconds from the track record, running 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 3/5. The record still stands.

The media and racing fans were captivated by the talented bay beauty and, with Jerry Bailey up, “Handsome Hansel” went into the 1991 Kentucky Derby as the 5-2 favorite. He ran like a longshot, however. For whatever reason, Hansel finished a lackluster 10th that day, far behind winner Strike the Gold. The chart note read “gave way readily.”

A stellar post-Derby workout convinced Hansel’s connections to try the Preakness anyway. And this time, in Baltimore, the gorgeous colt showed what he was capable of. His trademark blaze led the way home by seven easy lengths in a sparkling 1:54.

The Belmont Stakes, with its classic 1 1/2-mile distance, wasn’t as easy. Hansel’s pedigree didn’t exactly point to a love for distance, but still he led as they entered the far turn. He threw a shoe at the head of the long Belmont stretch and was visibly tired as they headed for home. He was all out to hold off Strike the Gold, but he hung in there by a head. For many, it was Hansel’s most impressive performance.

“None of us knew if he could go the distance, but I figured we’d find out how big his heart was,” Shipp said. “It was huge that day.”

Hansel ran third in Monmouth’s Haskell before heading to Saratoga for the Travers. Hansel’s heart was never more on display than on that August afternoon as he battled Corporate Report to the wire. He fell short by a neck but was pulled up just after the wire. It was a tendon tear, which Bailey felt was likely suffered inside the eighth pole. Hansel left the track in a horse ambulance.

The popular dual-classic winner never raced again, but his 1991 record of 4 wins in 9 starts, with a second and two thirds, earned Hansel the 3-year-old male championship.

Hansel entered stud at the beautiful Gainsborough Stud, where he was ridden regularly to maintain his fitness. Still managed by Gainsborough, he was eventually shifted to New York’s Questroyal Stud, where I photographed him often. I loved having him nearby and, each time I aimed a camera his way, I was reminded of what a class act he was. After two years in the Empire State, he was sold to Japanese interests, and Hansel headed to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Hansel’s stud career never amounted to much, although he sired some very good horses. Fruits of Love was a multiple group stakes winner; Loving Claim a French Group 1 winner. Stateside, Hansel’s seven-time stakes-winning son Guided Tour earned nearly $2 million. All told, from 436 foals, Hansel sired five graded stakes winners – none of which were in Japan.

Allbritton asked Gainsborough’s Allen Kershaw to tell Hansel’s Japanese owners that, should Hansel ever be pensioned, Allbritton would love to bring the horse back home. 

And, so, in 2005, at age 17, Hansel came home.

Allbritton didn’t feel that standing Hansel was the right call, but in early 2006 he bought Hansel a gift: a stakes-producing Polish Navy mare named Rixa. For five consecutive years, Rixa produced Hansel foals. Four of them won. 

Hansel’s final partner, Kate C., also owned by Lazy Lane, produced Hansel’s foal in 2012, a chestnut filly named Precious Daughter. Albritton died later that year, but the family is continuing the farm.

The farm, nestled in Virginia horse country, is classically historic. Much of the property was once Isabel Dodge Sloane's Brookmeade Farm, and every direction you turn resembles a picture postcard. Hansel, 28, resides in a simple, clean three-stall cinderblock barn near a spacious paddock. Since he doesn’t care for other stallions, his friends are human – and they are abundant.

Tony Byington tends to Hansel’s day-by-day needs – care that includes senior feed and regular visits from the vet and dentist. Equine manager Denis Byrne is always at the ready, too, and Shipp stops in regularly. Adoring visitors come by often, many of whom remember “Handsome Hansel” shone in the racing spotlight 25 years ago. Hansel is always happy to meet everybody.

Hansel wears front shoes, as his hooves might otherwise crack. He’s let out early in the morning but doesn’t stay out there long, especially on hot days. He detests flies and makes it clear when he wants to go back in. As he’s led back in, he playfully nips at his best friends, never caring to connect and clearly just enjoying the interaction. His every wish is his caregivers’ command.

Hansel looks remarkably youthful, healthy, and contented. When he looks your way – and he loves posing for the camera – his “look of eagles” reminds you that, although he may be old, he’s still the greatest.

“The Albrittons made it plain that they know he’s a part of racing history,” Shipp said. “They want people to have access to that. As long as somebody will make an appointment, we are happy to show him.

“He loves his stall, he loves his fan, he likes his hay, he likes the attention, he likes his peppermints, he likes his carrots.  He has people doting on him 24-7.  What’s not to like about life?”