LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Kentucky Derby has humbled Arab oil sheikhs, British billionaires and every conceivable captain of American industry. Thoroughbred owners who arrive at Churchill Downs accustomed to getting what they want and having every answer routinely walk out beaten and bewildered. Even the winners tend to leave in awe of the moment and reverential of the race.
But the Derby will have its hands full with Dr. Kendall Hansen.
He is the owner of the excellent colt and prime Derby contender Hansen – a horse he named after himself. Humility, apparently, doesn't come naturally to the good doctor, who runs a pain-management practice in northern Kentucky near Cincinnati.
But it's not just the naming of the horse that illustrates the egomania here. No, there is a full body of self-promotional work from the Ke$ha of horse racing. Just look at Dr. Hansen's frantic efforts to make his thoroughbred's 3-year-old campaign all about him instead of his horse.
Hansen the human made a mockery of Hansen the horse prior to his last race, the Blue Grass Stakes, by dying the nearly-white animal's tail blue. Then, fearing the horse might be scratched by the stewards at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, they hurriedly un-dyed the tail prior to post time. It's anyone's guess whether that fiasco was a factor in the favored Hansen being passed in the stretch and upset by Dullahan. Still, only a fool would needlessly aggravate a tightly-wound thoroughbred on the day of a race.
That wasn't Hansen the human's only stunt at the Blue Grass. Three of the female assistants in the 56-year-old's medical practice wore form-fitting white dresses with blue tails attached to them around the Keeneland paddock – a move that surely made the Lexington horse aristocrats spit out their single-barrel bourbon.
And here was the ultimate self-promotion brainstorm from that race: Hansen says he hired a skywriter to spell out his name – oh, and the horse's – over the race track. That got called off, allegedly because of cloudy, mid-afternoon weather, or perhaps because Dr. Show-off was starting to get a sense of how big a sideshow he'd already made of himself that mid-April day.
"That [the skywriting ploy] was way over the top," Hansen the human acknowledged when I talked to him on April 19. "But it was a one-time thing."
Oh, really? Maybe not, because there was the irrepressible Hansen quoted in the Sunday edition of The [Louisville] Courier-Journal declaring that he might hire a skywriter to do some mid-air work over Churchill Downs on Derby day.
"I guess I could be in contact with the plane on the phone and call it off if somehow Hansen doesn't win," Hansen told The Courier-Journal. "Or I could have the name of another winner written up there."
Or Hansen the human could go back to what he adamantly told me 12 days ago that he would do come Derby week: "I'm going to stick my head in the ground and hide behind my trainer. This is all about the thoroughbred and honoring the horse. [Hansen the horse] is going to do the talking. My 10 minutes of fame is over. I'm gone."
But if his horse wins the Kentucky Derby, Hansen's name becomes immortal. You wonder whether he had that in mind when he named the horse after himself.
The owner said he'd kept a shoebox full of horse names for years but misplaced it after a move. When trainer Mike Maker called him about naming his then-2-year-old colt just days before his first race, he was stumped.
Maker left him a voicemail saying the horse would be an "absolute superstar." Hansen suggested naming him just that, Absolute Superstar, but Maker responded that he should name the horse after himself. So he did, according to Hansen anyway.
But here's the key detail the owner left out. According to Maker, Hansen previously had told him he'd always wanted to name a horse after himself. Maker's version of events makes sense – it would be highly unusual for a trainer to unilaterally dream up the idea of an owner doing such a thing.
Maker tells that story but is smart enough to abide by the trainer's credo: never say anything bad about the people who give you horses. Especially really fast horses, which Hansen the horse absolutely is.
"He really, really is a great guy to train for," Maker said. "He knows the business and is appreciative of what it takes. He understands the game."
But ask a trainer like D. Wayne Lukas, who has saddled four Kentucky Derby winners and is old enough to say what he thinks, how he would react if an owner said he wants to dye his horse's tail. Then you find out what a lot of others in the sport are saying about Kendall Hansen.
"The game has already become enough of a circus," Lukas said. "We don't need to go any farther down that road."
Hey, I'm all for fun. Horse racing isn't a celebration of the uptight, to be undertaken with the solemnity of a presidential inauguration. Not even the Kentucky Derby is meant to be taken completely seriously. Sports are supposed to be fun.
And it's true that the flagging horse-racing industry can use a jolt of fresh attention. If all publicity is good publicity, then even the notice that comes via a dyed tail and a trio of babes wearing fake tails is a boon for the sport.
But the 137-year-old Kentucky Derby is something grand, which isn't such a bad thing. At its core, the Derby is a celebration of the horse – not a celebration of the rich dope who owns the horse and can't resist every look-at-me opportunity.
These are multimillion-dollar animals, blessed with breathtaking athleticism, grace, beauty and power. If you cannot resist making your animal look silly, put a sweater on your Pomeranian or reindeer antlers on your cat. Take pictures and post them on the Internet.
Just leave your Derby horse alone.
The great irony here is that Hansen the human already owns the most distinctive Derby horse I've witnessed in 25 years of covering the race. You simply don't see a nearly-white thoroughbred. Hansen the animal stands out spectacularly on his own. There's no need to dye anything, no need to write his name in the sky.
Sometimes, like when I talked to him nearly two weeks ago, it seems like Hansen the human gets that.
"I've been in the game 30 years," he said. "I've never done anything crazy before. It's funny – you get a white horse and think you have an open palette. I don't know what's got into me lately."
Maybe it's just a bad case of Derby Fever. Whatever it is, let's hope it's out of Kendall Hansen's system by the first Saturday in May. There will be more than 150,000 people at Churchill Downs, and none of them are there to see Dr. Show-off.
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