LOUISVILLE -- He is called Handsome Hansel, and for good reason.
This strapping bay colt, with the broad white blaze, is a show stopper in the looks department.
He is also the horse a bunch of Marylanders back home are rooting for. His broodmare sire is Dancing Count, a gritty purveyor of speed and precocity for more than a decade in the Maryland stallion ranks, who is still breeding mares at age 23 at Shamrock Farm in Carroll County.
"Hansel is the best-looking horse in the Derby field," Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch said yesterday morning, a horse who would turn a few heads away from Tank, Maryland's gorgeous non-Derby starter. And that's saying something.
Hansel is also the colt who ran so poorly in Florida this winter that his Derby-committed jockey, none other than recent Hall of Fame inductee Pat Day, scorned him to ride Richman in other Derby preps.
"It was a mental thing," Hansel's trainer, Frank Brothers, said yesterday about the colt's early losses in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby. "He hadn't raced since September of his 2-year-old year [he had wrenched a hind ankle after winning the Arlington-Washington Futurity] and needed mental sharpening that only comes from competition."
Can Day, who took off Derby winner Unbridled last year to ride Summer Squall, be wrong for a second straight year?
Richman never made it to the Derby. Hansel has been unbeatable since he moved north to Kentucky. And Day is scrambling for any old Derby mount he can get. He ended up with Wayne Lukas-trainee Corporate Report, whose claim to headlines this week is that he bruised his foot.
But back to Hansel.
He has all the right connections. His owner is Joe Albritton, a former member of Laurel's board of directors during the John Schapiro days, chairman of the Riggs National Bank in D.C., and owner of five television stations. Albritton also is proprietor of 1,800-acre Brookmeade Farm, once the nom de course of the late Isabel Dodge Sloan, which is located in the Virginia hunt country near Upperville.
Albritton bought this colt as a yearling for $150,000 strictly off his looks at the Keeneland (Ky.) Fall Sale. His sire, Woodman, a son of prepotent Mr. Prospector, is now one of the hot items for well-heeled breeding aficionados. But when Albritton bought Hansel, the colt was simply from the stallion's first crop. The $150,000 was a lot to pay.
"But we liked him so much, we would have gone much higher," Albritton said trackside.
Albritton got serious about racing in the mid-1980s. He hired Frank Shipp away from the Nelson Bunker Hunt Bluegrass Farm empire, now dispersed, to be his adviser. He retained Brothers, the King Leatherbury of the Midwest, to be his private trainer.
Brothers, 44, is a onetime assistant to Hall of Fame conditioner Jack Van Berg. Since he took out his trainer's license in 1980, he has won 1,467 of 5,914 starts, with purse earnings exceeding $21 million. Clearly, he knows what he's doing. His horses win 25 percent of the time.
Brothers had Jerry Bailey work the colt in Florida this winter as a sort of backup to Day. When Day skipped, Bailey took over the riding chores.
Under Bailey, Hansel clipped 2-2/5 seconds off the Turfway Park track record when he posted a 2 1/2 -length win in the $500,000 Jim Beam Stakes on March 30. He subsequently equaled a stakes record when he won the Lexington Stakes by 9 lengths at Keeneland 13 days ago.
Hansel is one of the "Big 4"-- which also includes Strike The Gold, Fly So Free and Best Pal -- for Saturday's 117th Derby.
All of which is pretty heady stuff for a colt whose roots can be traced to Maryland. Hansel's breeder, Marvin "Junior" Little, bought Buena Notte, the granddam of Hansel, in a broodmare auction at Timonium in 1980 for $15,000 from Thornmar Farm in Chestertown.
"She was in foal to Dancing Count," Little said. "And she produced a filly which I named Count On Bonnie. This was the first and last foal I ever got from Buena Notte. I tried to race Count On Bonnie myself. She was trained by Steve Di Mauro and was fast . . . But she chipped a knee and never raced."
Up to that point, Little's Timonium purchase had turned into a real downer. But he persevered, breeding Count On Bonnie to Woodman a few years later. Hansel is the mare's first foal to live.
"Dancing Count, you know, has turned into one heck of a broodmare sire," Little said. "He produced the dam of Thirty Eight Paces and about 12 other stakes winners."
Should Hansel win the Derby, he'll be the cornerstone for Albritton's budding thoroughbred empire. And he'll thrust Junior Little, a onetime farm manager for Newstead Farm in Virginia, and game old Dancing Count, a son of the late Northern Dancer, into the national spotlight.