They just don't make horses like Gander anymore, at least that's what owner Mike Gatsas would tell you.
The New York-bred son of Cormorant put together a 60-race resume, which included 15 wins, six of which were stakes, and over $1.8 million in earnings. In 1999, he was named New York's Champion 3-Year-Old and the following year was crowned New England Horse of the Year and New York Horse of the Year. Additionally, from years 2000-02, he earned the title of New York's Champion Older Horse.
On Sunday, Aqueduct will host the 15th renewal of the $100,000 Gander, a one-turn mile for New York-bred sophomores.
“He was a lunch box horse. Every time we put him on the track, he performed well,” Gatsas said.
Nearly 16 years since making his final start, fifth as the beaten favorite in the 2004 Evan Shipman at Saratoga, the 24-years-young Gander is pampered daily at Stone Bridge Farm in Schuylerville, New York.
Whatever Gander wants, Gander gets. That includes frequent visits from former trainer John Terranova, his wife and assistant Tonja and their children.
“We always take the kids out and see him every summer when we're in Saratoga,” Terranova said. “They were babies when he was running. Paulina was born in 2001 so Tonja was pregnant with our daughter when we first got him.”
Heidi Fischer, farm manager at Stone Bridge, has been acquainted with Gander since working at Better Days Farm, where Gander called home for a little while following his retirement and says that the gray gelding has managed to stay in touch with his youthful side.
“He is still very spoiled. John and Tonja will come see him from time to time and he still gets exited every time he sees them,” said Stone Bridge Farm Manager Heidi Fischer. “There's a group of other geldings that he goes out with and he can still act like a goofball.
“I can't say that Gander has changed much through the years. He's always kept himself in good shape,” added Fischer. “He never really grows a big, thick, bushy winter coat. He'll come in at night during the winter time. He gets his hay, Idaho alfalfa.”
One of the many reasons Gander was so special is that he stayed competitive at a high level for so long, but also because he was one of the first horses that Gatsas purchased. In 1998, Gatsas and his brother Ted entered Thoroughbred ownership by acquiring five horses, one of which was Gander, whom he bought for $50,000 from the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's March 1998 Sale.
“He was one of two in that group that became a graded stakes winner, so we caught the bug right away,” said Gatsas, who also bought eventual graded stakes winner Shadow Caster from the same sale. “I'm not sure if that was good or bad!”
After making his first 25 starts for the late New England horseman Charles Assimakopoulos, for whom he won the 1999 Albany and Empire Classic, he was transferred to Terranova in the summer of 2000 and won the Evan Shipman in his debut for the young trainer.
For the next few years, Gander was right up there with some of the best older horses in the handicap division. Just two starts after winning the Evan Shipman, Gander entered the Grade 1 Woodward, which that year drew a salty five-horse field and Gander was the only entrant without a Grade 1 win on his resume. Gander entered the gate at 41-1 odds and tracked the early leaders throughout most of the journey but appeared to be dropping out of contention as the field approached the far turn. John Velazquez swung Gander to the outside of 1999 Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid and the gray gelding made a strong bid but came up just three-quarters of a length shy of victory.
“If you watch the whole race, he actually goes by them about five steps after the wire, so he was one step away from being a phenomenal horse that no one would forget,” Gatsas said.
Next out, Gander proved the effort was no fluke when finishing second to Albert the Great in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he registered a 110 Beyer Speed Figure, a number he replicated when third in the following year's Grade 1 Whitney Handicap.
“Albert the Great beat us by a wide margin. Gander ran second, but no one was close to us. After that race my brother and I supplemented him to the Breeders' Cup. My family went and we all had a blast,” Gatsas said of the ninth-place effort.
The following year, after dual Grade 1 placings, he captured the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup with a gutsy rail-hugging effort down the stretch to edge out graded stakes winners and subsequent prominent sires Broken Vow and Include.
“To watch him do what he did down on the inside at the top of the stretch was phenomenal ,” Gatsas said. “Those two [Broken Vow and Include] were just coming at him and Gander was stuck there on the inside and wasn't going to let them go by.”
Gander went on to win five more times in his career, including a second victory in the 2002 Empire Classic.
But Gander's stellar career came to an unanticipated end on the morning of August 31, 2004 when he fractured a cannon bone while breezing at Saratoga in preparation for a final career start in the Empire Classic at Belmont.
At the time of his retirement, Gander trailed only Say Florida Sandy and 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide as the all-time richest New York-bred.
From there, Gander took up residence at Better Days Farm in Bedford Hills, located in Westchester County, before spending some time at the late Peter Fuller's Runnymede Farm in North Hampton, New Hampshire – just 36 miles east of the Gatsas' Manchester residence.
“There had to have been about a hundred people there to welcome him. They came from all over New Hampshire,” Gatsas said. “I can't tell you how many people loved that horse.”
But for over the past decade, Gander has resided at Stone Bridge Farm, where he goes out to the pasture with his buddies Red Zipper and Appian Way.
“It's really fun watching them play with each other and it's really sweet how they get along so well,” Fischer said. “He used to go out with a mare [Seventeen Above] but she got to be too much for him. They would get turned out together for a couple of years, but they were different. Gander is the type that likes to buck and play around but she was more into eating and grazing. I found that putting him with other geldings is better because they're more playful, so that makes us happy. They're a fun little team.”
The toughest part of Gander's life these days is having to get brushed by his grooms, an activity that Fischer says is his least favorite.
“He doesn't love getting brushed, but he knows that it has to be done. He just kind of gives you this look and is like 'If you insist. I guess I have to be pretty,'” said Fischer.
Terranova said having Gander in the barn was one of the highlights of his career.
“He ran against a lot of good ones and held his own,” Terranova said. “It was fun watching him in the Meadowlands Cup at night years back. We had some fun with him. He was in a little tough when he took us to a couple of Breeders' Cups, but he took us all over and ran for a lot of years. It was great fun having him and I'm thrilled that he's still around living a good life.”
Gatsas could not be more pleased with the care that his old warrior is receiving during his golden years.
“He gets tremendous care. We're so happy,” Gatsas said. “They just don't make horses like him anymore. He ran during a difficult time to be an older horse, but he made all the dances and he gave it his all every time we asked him.”
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