08/02/2012 1:42PM

West Virginia Derby: Hansen hopes to punch ticket to Travers

Barbara D. Livingston
A win in the West Virginia Derby would give Hansen his sixth in nine starts and could propel him to the Travers.

CHESTER, W.Va. – Studious racing fans may cringe at tales of a tail, but isn’t there room for fun in this game anymore? Yes, Kendall Hansen sending over his champion colt with a blue streak in his tail may seem absurd, but when it comes to the business of running around a racetrack, suddenly all the talk about Hansen turns very serious.

Both Hansens have been denied before: the man in getting the tail painted by New York and Kentucky racing authorities, and the colt by his opposition in the Holy Bull, Blue Grass, and Kentucky Derby. But the man is a cinch to finally get his way Saturday when the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby is run for the 43rd time at Mountaineer Racetrack, and many horseplayers will think the same of the speedy near-white colt when trainer Mike Maker sends him out against nine other 3-year-olds in the 1 1/8-mile fixture.

“Mike thinks the horse is better than he’s ever been going into any race, so I’m excited about that,” said Hansen, a northern Kentucky doctor who is a pain-management specialist.

Aside perhaps from the spectacle of Hansen having his tail painted blue, for which West Virginia officials have granted permission, the most talked-about topic going into this race is whether Hansen can become a bonafide candidate for the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes at Saratoga by winning for the sixth time in nine starts. Since incurring three losses after being named a champion last year at 2, Hansen has not often been included in discussions about the best 3-year-olds of 2012.

In his only race since a 10 1/4-length defeat in the May 5 Kentucky Derby, Hansen faced very soft opposition in easily winning the June 30 Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows. He was 1-10 in Iowa, and although he won’t be so heavily backed Saturday, he still will be odds-on, having been pegged as the 3-5 choice on the Mountaineer morning line.

“It would be nice to get another building race under Hansen and then hopefully run him 100 percent in the Travers and see if we can beat the other 3-year-olds there that everybody is talking about,” said Hansen, who is majority owner in the colt, with groups headed by Harvey Diamond and Jimmy Shircliff as partners.

A major enticement for running Hansen in the West Virginia Derby was the fact that the colt can earn a $150,000 bonus in addition to the winner’s share which will be nearly $450,000. Race conditions provide for the bonus going to a horse with a prior Grade 1 win, and as the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall, Hansen is the only horse in the field eligible for it.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has picked up the mount on Hansen from regular rider Ramon Dominguez, who is otherwise committed Saturday at Saratoga. Whether Dominguez might get back aboard Hansen for a run in the Travers is questionable, considering Dominguez won the Jim Dandy last week aboard Alpha, cementing his status as one of the Travers favorites.

Alpha is based in New York with owner Darley Stable and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who also happen to have one of the prime challengers to Hansen in the West Virginia Derby in Le Bernardin, winner of the Grade 3 Pegasus last out. Mike Luzzi has a return call.

“Hansen is awfully tough, and I don’t want to get into a situation where we lose a chance for a nice part of the purse by going out there too fast to challenge him,” said McLaughlin. “So the tactical part, that’s kind of tricky. I’ll just let Mike try to make those tough decisions.”

If Le Bernardin doesn’t take an early fight to Hansen, then perhaps Bourbon Courage will. A phenom of sorts last winter at Fair Grounds, where he earned Beyer Speed Figures of 103 and 101 in starting his career with two sprints for trainer Kellyn Gorder, Bourbon Courage will be making his first start beyond a mile when ridden by Deshawn Parker, the perennial leading jockey at Mountaineer.

Other notables in the cast include Macho Macho, stakes placed in his last two starts, and Called to Serve, a two-time winner on the Southern California circuit, a dominant producer of 3-year-old performers so far this year.

Rounding out the lineup are Macho Bull, Hero of Order, Z Camelot, Morgan’s Guerilla, and Penn’s Grant.

The West Virginia Derby is carded as the eighth of nine races on an outstanding all-stakes program, with purses totaling $1.65 million. Lured by these huge purses, many of the top jockeys in North America will be in for the day, led by Smith, Calvin Borel, Corey Nakatani, and a number of others.

Mountaineer usually conducts racing in the evenings, but first post Saturday is 2 p.m. Eastern, with the feature going at 5:45. Live television coverage is being provided on a one-hour broadcast (5-6) by Fox Sports regional networks.

The Saturday weather forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and high temperature around 90.