When it was announced four days before last Saturday's Preakness Stakes that Hansel was going to ship in from Chicago for the middle jewel in thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, a lot of horse players in Baltimore almost choked on their crab cakes. What was wrong with trainer Frank Brothers, they wondered. Had he drifted off to never-never land just because his colt was named after a character in a fairy tale? Hadn't he learned anything when Hansel, the 5-2 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, finished a dismal 10th in that race, beaten 10¾ lengths by the victorious Strike the Gold?
Last Thursday morning at Pimlico, Brothers defended his decision to enter Hansel in the race. "I still think he can run with these horses," he said. "If I'm right, I'll look smart. If not, I'll look like the dumbest guy in town."
Well, say hello to racing's latest genius. Last Saturday afternoon Hansel redeemed himself and vindicated Brothers's faith by running the sort of race he was supposed to have run two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs. Sent off at odds of 9-1, fourth choice in the eight-horse field, Hansel charged to the lead at the top of the stretch and carried jockey Jerry Bailey to a rousing seven-length victory over Corporate Report in the good time of 1:54 for the 1[3/16] miles. "He just blew 'em away," said Bailey afterward. "All I did today was weigh in and hang on."
Meanwhile, Strike the Gold was as disappointing in Baltimore as Hansel had been in Louisville, beating only Whadjathink and Honor Grades, the two longest shots in the race. Mane Minister came in third, just as he had in the Derby, and Derby runner-up Best Pal finished fifth, just back of Olympio, the Arkansas Derby winner whose trainer, Ron McAnally, had bypassed the Kentucky Derby in order to have a fresh horse for the Preakness. But while McAnally's well-laid plans went awry, Brothers's last-minute scramble had that happily-ever-after ending.
Brothers, 44, is an intense, bespectacled man who served a 10-year apprenticeship under Jack Van Berg, the Hall of Fame trainer who labored for many years in racing's hinterlands before finally winning his first classic when his colt Gate Dancer won the Preakness in 1984.
After Brothers left Van Berg in 1980 to form his own stable, the two men remained close. When Van Berg won the 1987 Derby with Alysheba, he cried when Brothers called to congratulate him. "He had all those cheap horses all those years before he finally was able to get some really good ones," said Brothers.
Fortune smiled on Brothers at an earlier age than it had on Van Berg, mainly because Brothers got hooked up with Joe L. Allbritton, a multifaceted (banking, insurance, broadcasting) businessman who lives in Houston and supervises the 1,700-acre Lazy Lane Farm in Upperville, Va.
On the advice of Brothers, Allbritton purchased Hansel at the Keeneland Fall yearling sale for $150,000. Hansel showed promise as a 2-year-old, winning the Tremont Stakes at Belmont and the Arlington-Washington Futurity in Chicago, but a wrenched ankle kept him out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. This year his first two performances, in Florida, were so ordinary—a fifth in the Fountain of Youth and a third in the Florida Derby—that jockey Pat Day bailed out to ride Richman in the March 30 Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky.
At that point, Hansel didn't look to be a Triple Crown threat. Puzzled but also unwilling to give up on the colt, Brothers was so encouraged by a sharp workout by Hansel in Florida on March 26 that he quickly shipped him to Turfway, where he upset Richman in the Jim Beam. Another impressive win, this one a nine-length romp in the April 21 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, persuaded a lot of sophisticated handicappers that Hansel was peaking at just the right time.
But then came the Derby, where Hansel was eaten alive by the wicked witch of the Churchill Downs stretch. Or the pressure. Or something. When Brothers finally spoke to the media in the wake of the debacle, he was still baffled. "I'd like to be able to give you a reason why he ran so bad," said Brothers, "but I just can't."
After the Derby, instead of shipping Hansel to Baltimore, Brothers sent him home to Chicago and tried to figure out what had caused the poor Derby showing. A replay of the race revealed nothing. Neither did a scoping of Hansel's breathing passage and a blood test. What to do? Be conservative and go for the Jersey Derby or the Ohio Derby? Or risk humiliation and take a shot in the Preakness?
On the Tuesday before the Preakness, before blowing out Hansel in Chicago, Brothers called Van Berg, whose advice was "If he's O.K., run the s.o.b." Then, when the colt worked so well, Brothers called Allbritton and put the choice to him. Allbritton in turn called farm manager Frank Shipp, who reminded him that Snow Chief had won the 1986 Preakness after finishing 11th as the Kentucky Derby favorite. That did it. Allbritton called Brothers back and told him to put Hansel on a van to Baltimore. The colt left that night.
In the Preakness, Hansel sat just off the early pace set by Corporate Report and Olympio. Then Bailey eased him up to second, moving with Best Pal after Olympio began to fade at the six-furlong mark. Turning for home, Hansel literally pulled Bailey to the lead.
"At the three-eighths pole I couldn't believe he was going by horses that easily," Bailey said afterward. "Had I had my druthers, I'd have sat right off the pace until turning for home, but I hate to discourage a horse running so good and so free. On his best day, he's as good as, or better than, any of them."
Including, obviously, Strike the Gold, whose jockey, Chris Antley, allowed Honor Grades to keep Strike the Gold pinned on the rail at the back of the pack through the early going. On the turn for home, when Hansel started to accelerate, Strike the Gold was back in sixth place, a position he held to the wire.
Afterward, some members of Strike the Gold's camp questioned Antley's ride, especially considering that the Derby winner came back to the barn breathing so easily that, according to his vet, Mark Cheney, "he wouldn't have blown out a match." Not exactly rushing to Antley's defense, trainer Nick Zito said, "I didn't get a break today with Chris."
Hansel's victory, the first in a Triple Crown race for Bailey, Brothers and Allbritton, sets up the possibility of a rubber match with Strike the Gold in the June 8 Belmont Stakes. However, while Strike the Gold is almost certain to run, Hansel may not, because he runs on Lasix, the controversial antibleeding medication that is illegal in New York.
But in the afterglow of the Preakness, Brothers didn't want to think about that. He just wanted to savor the moment. As he stood outside the stakes barn talking to reporters between sips of a cold beer, the smartest man in Baltimore smiled and said, "This has been the toughest two weeks of my career. Thank goodness the real Hansel showed up today."