Indeed, what is it about the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, the one who beat all those colts that have come back to win graded stakes as 3-year-olds, that fans won’t take quite as seriously as some of his competition, even as this class’s defending champion?
Why is he regarded as some equine novelty? Is it his speedy style that compromises the success of would-be winners of the famed “mile and a quarter without any water?” Is it his some perceived lack of staying power, or the good-trip manner of his Juvenile score over the tough-trip runnerup?
“I understand the game,” said Hansen the bi-ped about Hansen the quadruped. “We know that favorites don’t win the Kentucky Derby very often. But we expect that he will run so well on Saturday that we’ll get a lot more publicity after this weekend.”
Here’s another theory for the superficial lack of respect surrounding a defending champion: For a racehorse, Hansen just might be too damned pretty.
Hansen is listed in the official Equibase databank as gray/roan, but he appears a lot closer to white than gray. And white horses always have been very popular animals.
The Lone Ranger’s Silver of my youth is one that comes quickly to mind, his name a betrayal of his true color. There also was Hopalong Cassidy’s Topper who, as memory serves, was a lot whiter than Silver, which, of course, makes perfect sense.
The only white Thoroughbred I remember seeing was Clarence Stewart, bred by Dr. Leon Star in the early days of the New York-bred program. But with a nondescript mark of 1-for-29, I probably shouldn’t have brought it up at all.
Hansen; dissed again.
But then there was Yukichan, who I had heard of but never saw race. The skinny on Yukichan is that she was an accomplished Japanese filly who won the 2008 Kanto Oaks at Kawasaki Race Course.
Clarence Stewart and Yukichan were registered white horses but grays are another matter, of course. The first famous gray I knew of was Native Dancer, who lost only once in a 22-race career. But it’s the race that everyone, now including Dr. Hansen, wants to win; the Kentucky Derby.
That was 1953, the first race I remember seeing on television. A tough trip and questionable handling got him beat. The celebrated “Grey Ghost,” one of the sport’s first television stars, was upset by a horse called Dark Star. (It’s impossible to make that up).
Since then, however, many grays have gone on to win America’s Race, some of them among the best the game has known; the great Spectacular Bid, the tomboy filly, Winning Colors. There was Silver Charm. Monarchos, too.
With the possible exception of Monarchos, all got more pre-Derby attention than Hansen. And they weren’t as handsome as Hansen, either.
“It was a bit of a shock when he was born since his brother was a bay,” Dr. Hansen said. “We hadn’t planned on getting such a light gray horse. His face seems to be getting cuter, he’s got that white stripe between his nostrils.
“And no one’s been able to knock his confirmation. One of my old trainers told me he has muscles where he hasn’t seen muscles before.”
But the colt’s not just another pretty face and that has Hansen brimming with confidence. “[If all goes well], I’m really looking forward to a rematch with Union Rags. It’ so interesting, that final furlong of the Kentucky Derby.
“He doesn’t breathe hard after his workouts. Ramon [Dominguez] needed help pulling him up after the Gotham. He’s learning to relax more; Ramon’s wants to keep teaching him to tuck behind horses.”
“We’d like Ramon to use his internal clock; if the pace is quicker, take back; if [Hansen’s] going easily, go on with it. I wouldn’t mind seeing him pull a Spend a Buck and wire the field. He and Ramon have a special connection. I think he’ll be a stronger horse in the last furlong.”
First, however, there is the little matter of the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Keeneland Polytrack surface as opposed to the Turfway Park’s.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence that he’ll handle it the same way,” Hansen said, “but I do have confidence that he’s won his two Polytrack races by 12 and 13 lengths. There is tough competition in this year’s Blue Grass. He doesn’t have to win but he has to run well to win it.”
Hansen’s looks make him very popular with children. “He gets fan mail from as far away as Tokyo and artwork from classrooms all around the country, that’s how I got the idea of coloring his tail. Indians used to paint their horses if they were brave in battle.”
The stewards at the New York Racing Association forbade Hansen from adorning the equine Hansen with artificial coloring and neither was Hansen permitted to sell Hansen Tee Shirts, even though the money was earmarked for charity.
“We might do a little something eye-opening on Saturday,” Hansen said. “Stay tuned.
How could anyone not? Hard as one tries, it’s impossible to keep your eyes off a colt we’ll call “Chief White Cloud,” a nickname that Native Americans and children of all ages can rally behind.