CHESTER - According to the morning line, Hansen should win Saturday's Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby by as far as the average person can throw a rock. He's the prohibitive 3-5 favorite, and his career purse earnings of $1,773,305 surpass those of his nine challengers combined.
Hansen comes to Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort as the reigning North America juvenile male champion. He is the first horse bearing that credential ever to race at a West Virginia track.
He is also the only Grade 1 winner in the field, accomplishing that feat when he defeated Union Rags by a head in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. Hansen's career record includes eight starts, five wins and a pair of second-place finishes. He has thrice triumphed and twice placed in graded company.
Hansen is shown winning the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs (Photo by Coady Photography)
Mike Smith, a 46-year-old Hall of Fame member and two-time Eclipse Award winner, will ride Hansen in the West Virginia Derby, replacing (at least temporarily) Ramon Dominguez. The great jockeys have ways of perfectly synchronizing their abilities with a horse's best stride.
Eddie Arcaro was a master at this, as were Bill Shoemaker and Jerry Bailey. Smith's career achievements - which include victories in all three Triple Crown races and 15 wins in Breeders' Cup competition - strongly suggest he's a rider of similar caliber.
Hansen is an exceptionally handsome Thoroughbred, roan to the point of almost being white. He is trained by 43-year-year-old Michael J. Maker, who is based in Louisville, Ky.
Maker has been a conditioner for two decades. He has registered 70 career stakes wins, the first of which occurred at Mountaineer, with a horse named Freefourinternet in the 2004 Labor Day Handicap.
Kendall Hansen, M.D., bred Hansen in Kentucky, and campaigns him in partnership with Harvey Diamond, whose nom de course is Skychai Racing, LLC. Diamond is the more silent of the partners.
But Kendall Hansen enjoys the public spotlight. He's planning to distribute 1,000 horse dolls at Mountaineer on West Virginia Derby Day, and has announced that the colt who bears his name will run with the end-tip of his tail painted blue, something the earnest doctor was denied by racing officials when Hansen competed in New York and Kentucky.
"I'm doing it for the kids - I want to get young children interest in horse racing," he told Steve Kourpus, a steward at Mountaineer. But Hansen's not viewed as a performer in a Ringling Brothers grand menagerie. Neither is he a knight's charger on his way to a jousting tournament. Hansen is a racehorse with serious credentials, as revealed in his pedigree and past performances, pertaining to both Mountaineer and the national racing scene.
Hansen's sire, Tapit, already has one West Virginia Derby winner among his offspring Concord Point, who was victorious in 2010. And Hansen's dam, Stormy Sunday, won in starter allowance company at Mountaineer back in 2005.
More importantly, go back three generations in Stormy Sunday's family tree and one fines Terlingua. She was one of the earliest graded stakes winners sired by the 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
As a broodmare, Terlingua produced Storm Cat, the most prominent stallion on the globe during the past two decades. His stud fee climbed as high as $500,000. Now retired from Thoroughbred breeding activities, Storm Cat continues to reside at Overbrook Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, in a barn sturdy enough to withstand a Category 4 tornado.
Top and bottom, Hansen's pedigree includes Secretariat and Northern Dancer crosses, along with Seattle Slew, Unbridled, Temperence Hill and Native Dancer, all of whom won one or more Triple Crown events. There are Mr. Prospector and Raise a Native crosses as well. This is the blood that flows through Hansen's veins.
He broke his maiden at first asking at Turfway Park last September, then won Turfway's Kentucky Cup Juvenile by 13 lengths. Next came Hansen's Breeders' Cup win, which locked up his champion status.
Hansen commenced his three-year-old campaign in late January with a second-place effort in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He followed that a three-length victory of the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in early March.
But Hansen has never won at the West Virginia Derby distance of 1 1/8 miles, or beyond that. As the 6-5 favorite, he was second at nine panels to Dullahan in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland's synthetic track in April. And Hansen tired early, and finished ninth in the 1 -mile Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. There have been chinks, some sizeable ones, in the armor.
Maker insists Hansen can win "at any distance on any surface." In some regards, West Virginia Derby history is on his side. The last two winners, Concord Point and Prayer for Relief, prepped for their Mountaineer efforts with victories in the Grade 3 Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows. On June 30, Hansen won the Iowa Derby by ten lengths.
In other regards, history is against Hansen. Three other horses have come to the West Virginia Derby already having won in Grade 1 company. But none of them won at Mountaineer. Hal's Hope, the 2000 Florida Derby winner, finished second. Dominican, the 2007 Blue Grass winner, finished sixth. Mine That Bird, the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, finished third.
Hansen's a front-runner. Speed is his game. On Saturday, he'll be chased by the likes of Le Bernardin, Macho Macho and Called to Serve, all of whom are maturing and have strong closing kicks. This is a horse race, and it should be a very entertaining show.