Friend and turf writing icon, Steve Haskin, asked me recently why I go down to Turfway Park to see the Spiral Stakes every year. I answered with some standard answers, good race, easy trip, nice day, but it occurred to me the real reason is simply, because I do. Not to say that I don’t enjoy being there, because obviously I do, but I honestly believe why I make the 4 ½ hour drive down to Florence Y’all, Kentucky each year is because it has become part of who I am. That’s how traditions are. They become part of the intricate fabric of who we are as people.
Although I had seen many editions of the race on television before, my first Spiral in living color did not happen until 1990. Soon to be Derby runner-up and Preakness winner, Summer Squall won that day. And for whatever reason, I have not missed too many encores of the race since. Call it the Jim Beam, some furniture company dot com, Lane’s End, Vinery, Horseshoe Casino, 5-way Chili Derby, or whatever; it will always be the Spiral to me. There have been many excellent horses that have won the Spiral over the years; I imagine many more than most people realize, but it was a performance in my second year of visits to Turfway, that stands out as the one I will never forget.
Hansel was a horse I liked as a juvenile. Winning the Arlington-Washington Futurity back then meant something, and with all of my Chicago ties, it meant a little bit more to me. He was a gorgeous bay colt, and I liked his young trainer, Frankie Brothers. So I was a little disappointed when he debuted as a three-year-old with a dull fifth place finish in the Fountain of Youth. A third place result in the Florida Derby to Fly So Free and Strike the Gold was a marked improvement, but still not quite good enough.
I had the pleasure of being joined by my brother and my Dad that afternoon at Turfway. As far as I can recall it remains their one and only visit to the Suburban Cincinnati oval. We all considered the eleven-horse field pretty wide-open, but we all also had a soft spot for the attractive Lazy Lane Farm runner making his third start as a sophomore. Sent off at 9-2, Hansel would make it a memorable day for each of us.
Ridden by Jerry Bailey, Hansel showed good interest early and was much closer to the pace than his two failed efforts in Florida. On the far turn he was third with only the two race favorites, Apollo and Richman ahead of him. It would not take long for him to swing to the outside and announce his attentions. As the California horse faded away, it was obvious that only the very gritty Midwestern colt, Richman would be able to offer Hansel any real competition. As it would turn out, not even Richman could offer much resistance, and Hansel looked absolutely marvelous as he paraded down the stretch to win by 2 ½ dominant lengths. Richman never gave up and finished way ahead of the rest. It was extremely impressive, but the magnitude of the performance was not fully know until looking at the final time on the toteboard.
Hansel’s time of 1:46 3/5 for the nine furlongs did not break the track record, it demolished it by more than two full seconds. I think everyone in attendance, including the three of us, were sold on Hansel that day. A nine-length destruction of a small Lexington field sent him to the Derby as the favorite. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Hansel did not run at all that day, but a seven-length Preakness romp confirmed what we had seen that day at Turfway Park.
For good measure, Hansel would run two of the gamest performance I have ever seen in winning the Belmont by a head, and then running second by a neck in the Travers despite suffering a career ending injury in the stretch of that race. I was lucky to have been there that day in Northern Kentucky when his Eclipse Award winning season really began.
I’ll be heading going down again in a few days, and I’ll see horses like Uncaptured, Mac the Man, Balance the Books, and Fear the Kitten duke it out for the Spiral trophy. I’m not sure if any of them will ever be able to hold a candle to Hansel, but it’s been nice to see the recent resurgence in importance of the race I enjoy attending every year. Going to the Spiral is a tradition for me. It is part of who I am.