Leaving his rivals to pick up the crumbs, handsome Hansel re-wrote his story in the Preakness. His overwhelming seven-length victory was the widest winning margin since Little Current's in 1974.
"Redemption is not a word to use in the horse business," owner Joe L. Allbritton replied, when asked if he felt his colt had redeemed himself. "You're always going to have more lows than highs." But this had been no ordinary roller coaster ride. Hansel failed miserably as favorite in the Derby, finishing tenth, almost 11 lengths behind the winner Strike the Gold.
"For two weeks, I was as low as a trainer can get," Frank Brothers told reporters. "The worst part was, we couldn't come up with a good, concrete excuse. We couldn't even guess why." Now the soft-spoken trainer, a former assistant to Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, could give up looking for reasons. "That's horse racing," he said. Let the media do its own postmortem of the topsy-turvy 116th Preakness.
Remarkably, the three top finishers—Hansel, Corporate Report and Mane Minister—all started as relative longshots, while the next three in order of finish— Olympio, Best Pal and 9-5 favorite Strike the Gold— had been rated on top. Completing the field were outsiders Whadjathink and Honor Grades.
Predictions became irrelevant when Hansel took command after three-quarters of a mile. "I couldn't believe we were that much the best," commented jockey Jerry Bailey, who worried his colt might be giving too much too soon. "It turned out we were." Drawing out through the stretch, Hansel had no challengers. Corporate Report (ninth in the Kentucky Derby) was best of the rest, prevailing by two and three-quarter lengths over hard-trying Mane Minister, who also finished third in the Derby.
Hansel covered the mile and three-sixteenths in 1:54 and paid $20.20 to win, heading an exacta worth $212.20.
It was a victory filled with Mid-Atlantic connections. Hansel, a Virginia-bred, was the only 1991 Preakness starter bred in this region. His story is better than a fairy tale.
Hansel was bred by Marvin A. (Junior) Little, who for many years managed the late, great Newstead Farm, near Upperville, Va. Little, 53, used his life savings to finance the purchase of a broodmare at the 1980 Maryland Horse Breeders Association fall mixed sale. Her name was Buena Notte. Sixteen years old at the time, Buena Notte (by Victoria Park) had produced a Puerto Rican champion—Shake Shake Shake, a 1975 colt by Dancing Count—and was in foal to that same sire. Little paid $15,000 for the mare.
The following spring, Buena Notte had a filly, whom Little named Count On Bonnie. For years, Little had to live with the consequences of what appeared to be one of the world's worst investments. Count On Bonnie chipped a knee as a 2-year-old, and broke down the following year without ever making a single start. Meanwhile, Buena Notte was finished as a broodmare. She never had another foal, and Little eventually gave her away.
Count On Bonnie got off to a rocky start at stud. Her first foal, a 1986 colt by Five Star Flight, died as a yearling, and she was barren for 1987.
But Little, his fortunes boosted by the tremendous 1985 Newstead dispersal, cast his nets farther afield. In 1986, he paid $75,000 for a share in a Mr. Prospector horse who had just been retired to Ashford Stud in Kentucky. Woodman, out of the Buckpasser mare Playmate, has a solid race record and pedigree. Champion 2-year-old in Ireland, he is out of a half-sister to champion Numbered Account. More importantly, Little was impressed by his looks.
In 1987, Little bred his unraced mare to the unproven stallion, and got Hansel. "He was really something special, from the time he was born," said the man who oversaw the raising of such Newstead stars as Miss Oceana, White Star Line and Mrs. Warren. Although foaled on the Newstead property, Hansel grew up at Little's own Meadowlark Valley Farm, near Paris, Ky.
Little consigned the colt to the Keeneland September Yearling sale. Beauty, as it turned out, was not only in the eye of the breeder. Hansel brought $150,000 on a bid by Joe Allbritton's Lazy Lane Farms, Inc. "We were tickled to death with the price," commented Little.
If Little is the prototype of a working horseman, Allbritton is just the opposite. Listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 400 wealthiest persons in America, Joe Lewis Allbritton, 66, has invested millions and millions of dollars in breeding and racing stock over the last six years. For 14 years before that, he was involved in the horse business on a smaller scale. Allbritton's enterprises include a controlling interest in Riggs National Bank, in Washington, D.C., and ownership of five television stations, including the ABC affiliate WJLA-TV in Washington.
The hub of his horse operation is Lazy Lane Farms, a 1,762-acre establishment near Upperville (Va.). Allbritton began assembling the farm in 1981, with the purchase of 700 acres which once served as Isabel Dodge Sloane's Brookmeade Stable. Since 1985, he has put together a remarkable broodmare band that includes Life at the Top (purchased for $1.9 million in 1988) and Dontstop Themusic ($1.5 million in 1987). One of Allbritton's first expensive broodmare purchases was Miss Oceana's dam Kittiwake, bought at the Newstead dispersal for $3.8 million.
Allbritton reportedly owns 22 broodmares, and has 45 horses, including 16 2-year-olds, in training with Frank Brothers, who is based at Arlington Park.
Lazy Lane farm manager Frank Shipp and Brothers, Allbritton's "semi-private" trainer, selected Hansel. He was one of 18 yearlings purchased at auction by Lazy Lane in 1989 for a total of $3,540,000.
Hansel lived up to hopes from the beginning of his 2-year-old season, winning a maiden special at first asking, at Arlington Park on June 7, and coming right back to capture the Grade 3 Tremont Stakes at Belmont. He finished third in the Sapling Stakes-G2 won by Deposit Ticket and was runner-up to Deposit Ticket in the Hopeful Stakes-G1. Then he won the Arlington-Washington Futurity-G2 at his home track last September, in a superlative showing. Blocked from the quarter pole to the sixteenth pole, he finally found an opening and charged to the wire to win by a neck. "It's not that he won, but the way he ran. That's when I knew he was a good horse," said Brothers. Thanks to Hansel and European champion 2-year-old colt Hector Protector, Woodman was the leading freshman sire in the United States last year.
But it wasn't all smooth sailing. Hansel—then a leading candidate for an Eclipse award—wrenched an ankle on October 14 at Churchill Downs, while training for the Breeders' Cup, and missed the rest of the season. He bled in his first start of 1991, the Fountain of Youth Stakes-G2, in which he finished a poor fifth to Fly So Free. Improving somewhat, he was third next time out behind Fly So Free and Strike the Gold in the Florida Derby-Cl.
Then came two dramatic victories, against lessthan- top-caliber rivals. While capturing the Jim Beam Stakes-G2 on March 30, Hansel took more than two seconds off of Turfway Park's mile and an eighth track record. On April 21—two weeks before the Kentucky Derby—he was ridden out to a nine-length victory in Keeneland's Lexington Stakes.
Would the big, blaze-faced bay hit his peak on the first Saturday in May? Most people believed so. After several others, most notably West Coast challenger Dinard, fell by the wayside with injuries, and Fly So Free's five-race winning streak was ended by Strike the Gold in the Bluegrass Stakes-G2, Hansel went to the post as the 2-1 Kentucky Derby favorite.
But Allbritton had to wait two more weeks before getting a trophy. Hansel's victory in the Preakness gave the owner his first classic win. "The last great experience I had like this was the birth of my son (Robert, now 22)," said Allbritton. "And before that, my marriage (to his wife, Barbara)."
Allbritton said he had "no doubts about the horse" after the Derby. "But I had a lot of doubts about me."
Originally published in the July/August 1991 Maryland Horse
Read our Pensioner column on the remarkable (and remarkably good-looking) Hansel, who is now the oldest living North American classic winner.