06/08/2011 3:16PM

Belmont win offers no guarantee of success at stud


Hansel took the 1991 Belmont by a head over hard-charging Strike the Gold.

About the only thing that gives New York racing an inferiority complex is the Kentucky Derby, which is why, in the face of the Derby’s universal appeal as an American sporting institution, the Belmont Stakes was labeled at some point the “Test of the Champion,” which will be run Saturday for the 143rd time.

In a similar vein, word started getting around that it was really the Belmont Stakes that breeders paid attention to, and that the Belmont was the race any owner, in his heart of hearts, truly wanted to win to prove his horse worthy of passing along his seed. This usually occurred to an owner after either losing or missing the Derby, but never mind.

Of course, neither assumption proved conclusively true. Since 1936, when Granville ground out a tough Belmont decision over Mr. Bones, there have been 35 winners of the Belmont voted divisional championships. Over the same stretch, 31 winners of the Derby earned championship rings.

As for bragging rights in the breeding shed, no single American race can lay claim as a primary indicator of success. Colts who for one reason or another did not win the Derby but snagged the Belmont include Native Dancer, Nashua, and A.P. Indy, all stallions of significance, as well as Afleet Alex, who may join them some day. On the other hand, among the Derby winners who tried to win the Belmont and failed were Northern Dancer, Pleasant Colony, Sunday Silence, and Unbridled. Clearly, the lack of a Belmont bauble did not work against them at stud.

In fact, the idea that Belmont Stakes winners are cherished by Americans as racing icons and pillars of the breed is baloney, or bologna , as they would say in Sicily, where 1986 Belmont Stakes winner Danzig Connection ended his days on Dec. 1, 2010.

Best known as the fifth of five straight Belmont winners trained by Woody Stephens, Danzig Connection, at the age of 27, was servicing only a handful of mares at a farm near the Sicilian town of Ragusa, on the southern end of the island. Since his importation in 2003, the population of his crops had slowed to a trickle.

Among expatriate Belmont winners, Danzig Connection was not alone, although he was the only one doing business in Sicily.

Tabasco Cat (1994), Thunder Gulch (1995), and Empire Maker (2003) all are at stud in Japan. Colonial Affair (1993) and Editor’s Note (1996) are in Argentina. Commendable (2000) is in Korea, and Victory Gallop (1998) is in Turkey. They all got their chance as American stallions – some more of a chance than others – before they were cashed out.

The concern, of course, is that one of them might end up like Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner who was slaughtered in Japan when he was no longer viable as a stallion. Since then, awareness has heightened among American breeders fortunate enough to stand a classic winner, and such a horrible ending is at least less likely to occur.

Hansel, winner of the 1991 Preakness and Belmont, had reached the end of his commercial value as a stallion in Japan when his original owner, Joe Albritton, had his people at Lazy Lane Farm reach out and bring the old boy home to Virginia, in early 2006. According to Lazy Lane Farm manager Frank Shipp, the son of Woodman was in no apparent danger of suffering Ferdinand’s fate. But just the same, they breathed easier when he got off the plane.

“He was in a decent enough place as near as I could tell,” Shipp said. “We followed it as closely as we could. We’d tried to make it known to the people who stood him over there that should a time ever come they might be finished with him we’d be anxious to have him back. What with language differences and time differences, it took a little time to get it done. But we had some influential people in the right places.”

Hansel originally went to stud at Gainsborough Farm in Kentucky, then was transferred to New York, still owned by Gainsborough, before he was sold in 1999 to stand at the Hidaka Stallion Station on Hokkaido.

Now, Hansel is about as retired as you can get. He was bred to a single mare this year, and he’s got one horse of racing age.

“He’s got his own three-stall barn and two paddocks with varying degrees of shade, which we alternate between winter and summer,” Shipp said. “He goes out when he wants to go out and comes in when he wants to come in, and he actually prefers it indoors. I don’t know if that has to do with living in upstate New York and on the northern island of Japan, that he’s become used to cooler environs. But he does not like heat, and he does not like bugs.”

Upon the death of Danzig Connection, Hansel became the oldest living Belmont winner. That alone, coupled with the 20th anniversary of his Belmont victory, is reason enough to tip the hat his way. Hansel’s triumph by a head over the hard-charging Derby winner, Strike the Gold, remains one of the most exciting Belmont renewals in memory. In addition to the winner’s share of the purse, Hansel and Strike the Gold were battling for the $1 million Triple Crown Challenge bonus offered by Chrysler.

“My heart was right up in my throat,” said Shipp, who watched the race with Albritton. “As soon as they passed the sixteenth pole, I could see Strike the Gold coming.”

With Jerry Bailey lashing away, Hansel somehow held on to win by a head. Or, as Jay Searcy wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Hansel won the Belmont Stakes by a heart.”

“It was like time almost stopped,” Shipp said. “Almost surreal.”

Hansel was voted champion 3-year-old, but neither he nor Strike the Gold won another race that year. In a brave performance that echoed his Belmont, Hansel injured a tendon finishing a close second in the Travers, then was retired to begin his travels at stud.

As for Strike the Gold, he lasted into his 5-year-old season before retiring. Just as Hansel is the oldest living Belmont winner, Strike the Gold is the oldest Kentucky Derby winner. But if you want to send him a card, buy plenty of stamps because Strike the Gold is another of those American treasures on display in a distant land. Since 1999, he has been doing business at the Karacabey Pension Stud Farm owned by the Jockey Club of Turkey.