And so will the fey gray who's fast and flashy, diminutive but determined, become the next championship embarrassment? Another mincing disappointment with a crown? Will Hansen's journey to Kentucky veer down a byroad that takes him instead to West Virginia?
Or will the admirable little colt who led throughout to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile prove he's got more cards to play? Will he flash his bona fides Sunday at Gulfstream Park in the Holy Bull Stakes, where a powerful victory would make him not only the early Kentucky Derby favorite but also a rock star?
Over the last 25 years, the sport's champion juveniles have been, for the most part, embarrassing.
Hard to say, isn't it? Unbeaten in three races that he won by a total of 25, or so, lengths, Hansen could soon become the most intriguing horse in the country. Or he could become something else entirely, an exploding cigar. The champion juvenile of 2011 begins his Triple Crown trek Sunday at Gulfstream, a venue that has revealed many talents and exposed many frauds.
Like most people eager to see greatness, I'm hoping for a powerful performance Sunday from Hansen, but I'm also sensitive to the possibility of its opposite. And I suspect the truth about the champion, the final measure of his talent, will lie somewhere between mincing disappointment and rock star. If that's as it turns out, well, if his Breeders' Cup victory was more circumstantial than mystical, then Hansen will lose Sunday, which will only mean he's very much like most of the sport's recent juvenile champions.
But about this I'm certain: The Holy Bull Stakes could be the worst possible place for Hansen's seasonal debut; or it could be the best possible place for his seasonal debut. In other words, the Holy Bull will provide one of those Nietzsche moments. The race will be telling.
Over the last 25 years, the sport's champion juveniles have been, for the most part, embarrassing. Some, such as Uncle Mo, Maria's Mon and Vindication suggested a reservoir of profound talent that they never realized. Some, such as Arazi, Favorite Trick and Johannesburg, were just supernally precocious. And some, such as Action This Day, Answer Lively and Anees, simply weren't very good, their championships not so much tributes to their achievement as indications of overall decline.
Where will Hansen figure in all of this?
Recent history underscores an alarming disconnect between juvenile talent and later achievement. Since 1986, not counting Hansen, juvenile champions have won 103 of their 133 races. They won, on average, four of five starts. They were quick, and they matured early. But they generally didn't improve, or didn't improve much. They became equine versions of those sad guys who forever wear their high school letter jackets without ever achieving anything beyond the adolescent touchdown.
After their juvenile campaigns, the champs won only 52 of their next 172 races. The typical champ, in other words, won only two of seven starts after his juvenile triumphs. And the Triple Crown only emphasized an inability to continue their success. In the last 25 years, juvenile champions have won only four Triple Crown races; that's four wins from 17 starts.
And so where does that leave the fey gray champion? Well, it leaves him in a Nietzsche moment. For a speedster such as Hansen, the one-turn mile of the Holy Bull can be especially challenging because of the long run to the turn, which invites, even urges, him to do what he must resist if he's to become successful. That long run to the turn is the ultimate enticement, a wicked temptation. It will invite him to roll; it'll urge him to sizzle. It'll whisper, "Let's go," and then it'll scream, "Step on it."
If Hansen gives in to all of that, he'll probably watch Algorithms win Sunday. If Hansen accepts the invitation and scorches the opening half-mile, he'll probably be on his way to becoming just another juvenile champion destined to leave the scene in an ashtray. But if he resists the temptation, if he's strong but tractable, poised and focused -- well, he could become the fey gray indeed. Hansen could become something very special: He could represent the reconnection between juvenile performance and later achievement.