The Day Hansel Defied Lasix

The oldest living Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner has died at the ripe old age of 29. For Hansel, it was quite an interesting journey that saw him retired to stud in Kentucky, being sent to New York State, then to Japan, and finally being purchased by his original owner, Joe Allbritton, to return to his Lazy Lane Farm in Virginia, where he was broken after being purchased by Allbritton at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $150,000.

For the Allbritton family, it was a love affair with Hansel that resulted in his return home in 2005 to live out his days.

That love affair could be seen following Hansel’s courageous victory in the Belmont Stakes when Allbritton’s wife Barbie lavished affection on the colt, much to the amusement of Allbritton.

But to set the stage for Hansel’s Belmont victory, one must go back to Churchill Downs, where the colt had thrown in an inexplicably bad performance in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 10th as the 5-2 favorite after looking like a winner at the top of the stretch. He then threw his head up and began to retreat, much to everyone’s surprise.

Some would eventually speculate that Hansel had been given too much Lasix, but nothing was ever proven, and his performance in the Derby to this day remains a mystery.

Trainer Frank Brothers, baffled by the performance, originally decided to regroup and pass the Preakness, sending Hansel back to his home base at Arlington Park.

When the colt seemed to thrive, bouncing out of the Derby in great shape, Brothers began having second thoughts about skipping the Preakness. After all, Snow Chief, Tank’s Prospect, and Personality were some of the horses that had bounced back from poor performances at Churchill Downs to win the Preakness. Hansel had been scoped after the Derby and hadn’t bled, so that was ruled out.

Brothers intended to work Hansel either a half-mile or five-eighths, but decided to call his old boss and mentor Jack Van Berg for advice. Earlier, Van Berg had told another of his former pupils, Bill Mott, to stop working his 3-year-old colt Richman so fast and often, and Mott responded by breezing the colt only once in three weeks prior to the Illinois Derby. The result was a 6 1/2-length romp in near-track record time.

“He’s my mentor,” Brothers said at the time. “I’ve got all the respect in the world for Jack. I worked for him for 10 years and when I get behind the eight-ball sometimes, I don’t hesitate to call him, He gave me some encouragement by telling me that two of his horses, Gate Dancer and Bold Ego, both ran badly in the Derby, but came back to run big races in the Preakness.

“Jack told me that horses don’t need much work between the Derby and Preakness and suggested I give Hansel a short easy work.”

So Brothers worked the colt three furlongs the Tuesday before the Preakness and he was feeling so good he went in :34 3/5.

“I wanted him to go a little slower than he did, but the track has been very fast at Arlington,” Brothers said. “This horse likes to go fast and I covered my bases by working him only three furlongs. He was very aggressive, which I wanted to see.”

So, it was off to Pimlico for the Preakness, with Brothers not really knowing what to expect.

“For all I know it might be the same story,” he said. “I have no idea why he ran so badly in the Derby. I’ve been in racing for a long time and sometimes horses will do that. Granted, he picked a helluva time to do it. I guess we’re just taking another shot at them. There might be something wrong with him that I haven’t found, but he worked better Tuesday than he did before the Derby.”

And he certainly ran better than he did in the Derby. After going off as the favorite at Churchill Downs, he was sent off at a generous 9-1 in the Preakness. Stalking the pace set by the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Corporate Report the whole way, Hansel, unlike the Derby fiasco, stormed to the lead turning for home and drew off with every stride to score a resounding seven-length victory in a sharp 1:54  flat, the fourth fastest Preakness of all time. Considering how brilliant he was in winning the Jim Beam Stakes in record time and his nine-length romp in the Lexington Stakes, he proved to be one of the great overlays in Preakness history.

The Belmont Stakes, however, was another matter. Earlier in the year, Hansel had bled when finishing fifth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes without Lasix. He then was put on Lasix for his next five starts, including his romp in the Preakness. In addition, it had been a warm, humid day at Churchill Downs when he ran so poorly in the Derby, and the temperatures in New York the week of the Belmont were in the mid-90s with very high humidity.

The initial scuttlebutt was that it was the high humidity that contributed to Hansel’s poor performance, even with Lasix. That scuttlebutt over the years grew into the too much Lasix theory. Sometimes, not even Lasix will help if the humidity is exceptionally high.

In any event, Hansel would now have to race in the Belmont Stakes without Lasix, which was banned in New York.

Brothers had worked the colt a half in :48 2/5 with a final eighth in :11 1/5 the Tuesday before the Belmont. The track was heavy that day and it was unseasonably hot with record high temperatures and high humidity. When Hansel showed no effects from the work, it boosted Brothers’ confidence.

“I’m sticking by my story,” he said. “I just don’t have a concrete reason I can hang my hat on why he ran bad in the Derby. He ran one of his better races in the Hopeful last year, and I don’t think it gets much hotter than Saratoga. It was very warm when he won the Tremont Stakes, and he ran well in the Sapling on a terribly hot and humid day.”

But Brothers did acknowledge that history did not favor horses coming off Lasix in hot, humid weather.

“I guess it could be a factor,” he said. “But we feel good about the horse, and basically, we’re not going to change anything. They don’t allow Lasix in New York and we have to abide by the rules.”

Finally, it was the moment of truth. What were we going to see from Hansel -- the Derby or the Preakness? How would the heat and humidity and lack of Lasix affect him?

Despite his brilliant victory in the Preakness, Hansel was made co-second choice at 4-1 behind Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold, who had turned in a poor effort himself in the Preakness. But it was obvious that the fans could not ignore the Lasix question.

Hansel’s groom, Saturino Lopez, and nightwatchman, Dennis Moore, found a place by the rail. During the running of the race, they had trouble seeing what was happening on the mile and a half oval and had to resort to looking at the placing numbers on the tote board.

Corporate Report was busy on the front end with 99-1 shot Another Review, who was battling with him for the lead. Hansel sat comfortably in third, and for the first half-mile his number “5” remained in third. But after a swift half-mile in :46 3/5, there was a change on the tote board, as number “5” emerged on top.

“Come on, Hansel, stay up there!” Moore shouted. Lopez was straining to catch a glimpse of the horses, while feverishly biting his fingernails.

Coming down the stretch, Hansel increased his lead to almost three lengths and looked to be home free, as Lopez and Moore cheered him on.

But a late threat emerged from the pack, as Strike the Gold began to chop into Hansel’s lead with every stride. It was going to be close. Hansel tried to dig in under Jerry Bailey, as Strike the Gold, under Chris Antley, came flying up alongside. They hit the wire with Hansel holding on by a diminishing head.

At first, Lopez and Moore had no idea who had won, but when they saw Bailey raise his whip in triumph, they began hugging each other.

Following the winner’s circle ceremonies, Hansel was led through the paddock back to the detention barn. Following him was Wayne Lukas, who had seen Corporate Report give his all, finishing fourth after his rapid early pace duel.

“Congratulations, boys, soak it up,” he said to Lopez and Moore.

Lukas then noticed something.

“You guys know he lost his right front shoe?” he asked.

“Yeah, we know,” Moore answered.

“Do you believe that, he lost a shoe and won the race anyway,” Lukas said. “That’s amazing; he won on three shoes going a mile and a half. That’s a helluva performance. Let me tell you, losing a shoe is no small deal on this sandy racetrack, and he tore it up pretty good.”

As the sun began to set behind the barns, Hansel was back in his stall being lavished with affection by Barbie Allbritton.

“Hansel, we’re awfully proud of you,” she said, cradling the colt’s head in her arms. “Give us a kiss. You’re so pretty, yes you are. Aren’t you happy? Sure you are.”

All the time, Joe Allbritton watched with a smile on his face. “I think my wife’s a little off talking to horses,” he said. “She talks to him like he understands every word she says. She tells me they talk back to her, so what are you going to do? He sure looks like he understands her, though, doesn’t he?”

By 8:30, Belmont was once again quiet. Many questions had been answered, especially about Hansel’s need for Lasix. Well, sort of, according to one partygoer.

“I really didn’t think he would win,” she said. “They said he wouldn’t be able to run well without Latex.”

Even Hansel had to laugh at that one.

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