When you drive up to Hansel's private pasture here at Lazy Lane Farm, you can see his proud head over the rise of a lush green hill. His ears are pricked as he trots toward the black board fence and the people awaiting him.
At 28, Hansel looks fabulous.
Twenty-five years ago, when Hansel won the 1991 Preakness Stakes (G1), he was a vibrant, fearsome 3-year-old. He stood 16-hands, approximately 5-foot-4, to the top of his withers. Horsemen and race fans couldn't keep their eyes off his well-defined frame.
Today, not much has changed. The bay stallion, who lives about 120 miles from Pimlico Race Course, is still solid, bold and beautiful.
And these days, he has the distinction of being the oldest living Preakness and Belmont Stakes (G1) winner.
“People usually only remember who wins the Kentucky Derby,” said Marvin Little Jr., who bred Hansel. “But that horse, from the moment he was born to this day, he was and is the most beautiful horse I've ever seen.
“When I was selling him, my sales pitch was that he was the only horse I'd ever been around who I felt could win the Derby. He didn't, but he was the 5-2 betting favorite. He just threw in a bad one [race] before going on to the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and proving how great he really is.”
Finding a champion
Lazy Lane Farm president Frank Shipp and trainer Frankie Brothers were looking at yearlings in the early spring of 1989. They were at Little's Kentucky farm when the breeder said they should take a look at his Virginia-bred youngster who would be in the Keeneland Yearling sales ring in September.
“Frank and I were looking at a lot of yearlings for Mr. Allbritton and Hansel just stood out,” Shipp said, referring to banker and media owner Joe L. Allbritton, who would become Hansel's owner. “Hansel had exceptional balance and had a terrific walk. And he acted intelligent. At the sale, we showed him to Mr. Allbritton and he thought so, too. He said. 'I can't tell you anything about a horse's legs, but I can tell class when I see it.'
“We bought him for $150,000 and felt lucky to get him for that.”
Hansel, under Brothers' direction, won three of five starts during his 2-year-old season and then went on to prove himself in prep races leading up to the 1991 Derby, setting a track record in the Jim Beam (G2) and blowing away the competition by nine lengths in his final prep, the Lexington Stakes (G2).
Everyone thought he was ready. To this day Hansel's 10th-place Derby finish remains a mystery to those who knew him best, and nearly cost the colt a chance at the Preakness.
“It was a disappointment and he was shipped to Arlington Park for training,” Shipp recalls. “There was debate [between Brothers and Allbritton] over a Midwest campaign or the big boy races. Nine days after the Derby, he worked 3/8ths in 34-and-change. Mr. Allbritton decided on the Preakness.”
Though Hansel always had a “presence to him” and what Brothers calls “the look in his eyes,” the trainer admits going into the Preakness he wasn't sure what Hansel would do.
“Coming off a bad race, the bottom line is he has to do it,” Brothers said. “You think he's waiting to redeem himself, but if it's a bad race, you are going to look like a fool.”
Brothers needn't have worried.
Though Hansel, with Jerry Bailey riding, took the long, outside path during the 1 3/16th-mile Preakness, he won in 1:54 flat, tying 1971 winner Canonero II for the sixth fastest time in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.
Even today, as the 141st edition approaches, Hansel's time is still one of the seven best in the race. His seven-length winning margin ranks in the top nine.
His two classic victories earned him 1991 Champion 3-year-old honors; and he is one of just 18 to win both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
After his racing career, Hansel went to the breeding sheds for 12 years, after which Allbritton “went out of his way to buy the horse back and return him from Japan” to his Lazy Lane home.
On the Farm
Brothers, 69 and retired from training, continues to do consulting and bloodstock work, and visits Hansel on his trips to Lazy Lane.
“You would never say he was 28,” said Brothers. “You might think 15 or 16.”
Hansel is obviously well-cared for and loved.
“He gets plenty of carrots and peppermints,” Shipp said. “We spoil him.”
And they protect him, too, because “every day after age 20 is a gift,” said the farm president.
Part of that protection is keeping him calm, which is why Hansel is kept on a separate part of the farm, far from the broodmares and everyday activities.
“He's still all boy,” says Shipp of the stallion who no longer has commercial breeding dates. “When the mares are around they drive him crazy.”
It may seem a lonely life for a stallion who lived in the limelight, mobbed by fans and media. But Shipp said he has plenty of visitors. His caregivers, for instance, come so often at night – every 60 to 90 minutes – he barely has time to close his eyes.
And fans come, too. Shipp said the farm welcomes Hansel's visitors as long as they call ahead to make an appointment.
Hansel seems to love the company. Ask him if you can take his “head shot” and he immediately turns his stunning, broad-striped face toward you in perfect pose until the photo is done.
“He was always smart,” says Little, when told of the moment. “The morning after he was born, he came right up to me and started nuzzling. That's unusual for a foal. They're usually afraid of you. . . . He was always special.”
And, obviously, still is.
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