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HORSE RACING TRAVERS STAKES : Hansel: Equal Parts Good, Bad and Ugly

NEWSDAY

The good Hansel is explosive. He will strike quickly, like a cat, and turn the tables decisively in his favor. The good Hansel is willing, determined in the face of challenge, capable of things that seem beyond his scope.

The bad Hansel is disinterested when sent into battle, lethargic, mundane. He has no taste for the fight. Not a flicker remains of the good Hansel’s fire. He is either all there, right there or not there at all.

There is no telling the good Hansel from the bad until the battle is joined or declined. They look alike. His appearance is always that of the good Hansel, but no appearance has ever been more perplexingly deceiving. He always wins the beauty contest and sometimes that is enough for one day.

He baffles his trainer, Frank Brothers, and his owner, Joe Allbritton. He frustrates his rider as no horse of quality ever has. Jerry Bailey mounts Hansel, he says, “expecting the worst and hoping for the best.”

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Only when the gate latch is sprung can his rider identify the Hansel beneath the saddle. At the sound of the bell, Hansel du jour appears, for better or worse. Sometimes he breathes fire and rushes into the fray. Sometimes he just sighs, the fray be damned. Sometimes he screams into the stretch. Sometimes he stutters.

Bailey was not introduced to the bad Hansel until the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs, which is the most inopportune of afternoons on which to discover that the Kentucky Derby favorite has two distinct personalities.

Bailey rode Hansel for the first time in late March at Turfway Park in Kentucky and the colt gave him what was to that point the best effort of his career in the Jim Beam Stakes. The good Hansel then met Bailey at Keeneland for the Lexington Stakes in April and delivered a performance virtually identical to his Beam victory.

The good Hansel trained forwardly toward the Kentucky Derby, a race in which Bailey had ridden twice before vowing not to return until he had a mount with a chance to win. This one was the favorite at post time. Bailey had, he thought, a very big chance. But the bad Hansel showed up that day. When Bailey asked his colt to run on the stretch turn in perfect position, the response was like the air rushing from a balloon.

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Nobody was quite certain what happened in the Derby, but the good Hansel was at Pimlico for the Preakness. Brothers, failing to find the key to Hansel’s disinterest in the Derby, elected to take another look, hoping to find the horse he took to Louisville, not the one he left with. What he saw that day in Baltimore was the good Hansel, whose effort surpassed even his two races leading toward the Derby and resulted in an emphatic seven-length victory.

The good Hansel was also present in New York three weeks later and fended off a determined Derby winner, Strike the Gold, to win the Belmont Stakes by a head in a dramatic, stirring finish. By then, the Derby was appearing more and more to have been an aberration rather than part of a pattern.

But the bad Hansel lives. He would return ugly six weeks later at Monmouth Park to deliver a yawning third-place effort in the Haskell Invitational, a race worse even than his Derby; his worst effort since the Fountain of Youth Stakes in February, a race in which he bled.

“As brilliant as he can be, he can just flip the switch and give you very little,” said Bailey, who is more intimately familiar with the two faces of Hansel than anyone.

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“Why? I can’t figure it out. He had a little (traffic) problem in the Haskell, but he’s overcome adversity before and run good races. In the Lexington he almost got dropped leaving the gate and went on to run a super race. I can’t put a finger on any one thing. When he decides not to run, he decides not to run.

“Horses run good for a while and tail off, but I’ve never known a horse to run two good races, then one bad; two good and one bad. (The Derby) was most disappointing because it was the first time. He was doing great coming up to the race and he didn’t run at all.”

The disappointment was short-lived. As profoundly as the bad Hansel has left Bailey wondering if he may have mounted the wrong horse, the good Hansel has amazed him with a combination of athletic ability, which he demonstrated so emphatically in the Preakness, and determination, which he showed to his rider and everyone who watched the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

“Logically,” Bailey said, “he was the least likely of the top contenders to get a mile and a half in the Belmont. It was beyond what he was really capable of doing, and he did it anyway.”

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But that was the good Hansel, perhaps the best Hansel, and Bailey knew almost instantly. “By the time I get to the first turn,” he said, “I know if he’s going to run or not.”

The Hansel sent to Saratoga after the Haskell to prepare for Saturday’s $1 million Travers Stakes and a rematch with Triple Crown rival Strike the Gold has been acting like the good Hansel. “He’s trained well here,” Bailey said. “He’s been very aggressive.”

But Bailey will walk to the picturesque saddling paddock at Saratoga without a preconceived notion of how the Travers will unfold or even if Hansel will participate in a meaningful sense. He will be expecting the worse and hoping to win the summer’s most important test for 3-year-olds.

If, however, there is one thing upon which Bailey can count as he guides Hansel into the starting gate, it is that there will be no wait for the colt’s decision and no doubt about his intentions. “If he’s going to run his race,” Bailey said, “I’ll know early.”

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