Commentary

Champion Hansen deserves better

Updated: February 13, 2012, 3:20 PM ET
By Paul Moran | Special to ESPN.com

There are 397 3-year-olds -- the most since 2009 -- now eligible to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The fee at first opportunity to nominate is $600, a reasonable if usually ill-conceived gamble. It is anticipated that a few others will be nominated later, at $6,000 apiece, after showing fleeting, unanticipated glimpses of usually empty promise that imperil an owner's grip on reality. This makes the natural odds of any one of these making the Derby's limited field of 20 slightly more than 200-1. At the moment, everyone is a longshot, some more so than others.

Hansen, champion 2-year-old of 2011, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, is about to become a circus horse.

Hansen, the defending divisional champion, Union Rags and the unbeaten Algorithms are most prominent among the contenders. Alpha threw his saddle in the ring on Saturday with an impressive score in the Withers Stakes in New York. There is much more to see.

But this is not about which of the 400-plus will run in the Derby or the rite of spring that revolves around the attempt to identify the winner early enough to profit from one or another of the available ante-post wagering options. More often than not in recent years the Derby winner has been a surprise who faces a limited and usually inauspicious future. Despite initial flurry of polls that now begins in January, it is too early to come to grips with the Derby's myriad and likely unforeseen possibility.

This is about silliness, the ill-considered stripping of dignity from a proud animal by an owner in the earliest rapture of Derby fever, a mighty blow struck on behalf of tastelessness, an affront to the breed. And it's only February.

Most of these horses will be exposed between now and early May. Some will be embarrassed. Only one, however, will be embarrassed in a manner never before seen -- or for that matter imagined -- in thoroughbred racing.

This is about plans for Hansen; not his connections' racing or training plans, but a plan so bizarre that it tests the gag reflex and may in some states qualify as a misdemeanor.

Hansen, champion 2-year-old of 2011, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, is about to become a circus horse.

Hansen, unaware that he will soon to be turned into a sideshow, may not be a horse of a different color but he is indeed a horse of a color rare in young thoroughbreds -- technically grey or roan but in fact almost-white, more typical of a much older grey. He is a striking animal of considerable talent and, left alone, unmistakable charisma. That is the good news.

The bad news is that Dr. Kendall Hansen, the breeder and majority owner, has decided that it is a good idea to color this colt's mane and tail on race days, announcing this jaw-dropping lapse in judgment last weekend in a blog post.

In his next race, Hansen will have a bright blue tail and blue-and-yellow mane to match the owner's silks. Subsequently, Dr. Hansen proposes leaving the decision on color scheme to the colt's fans. "If this is as fun and popular as I hope it will be," Hansen writes, " … perhaps for the Kentucky Derby we will let fans choose the color."

Why stop there?

Feathers in the mane, brightly colored of course (make sure they don't clash), would make a fashion statement. Or, why stop there? A Mohawk? Advertising? Go Daddy.com perhaps? Paint him like a stock car. Piercings? Why stop short of being comprehensively ridiculous?

Hansen, the human, and his partners are entitled to color their horse in any scheme they chose. Taste is not a requirement of licensing in any state.

The thoroughbred is a proud breed, the aristocrat of equus caballus, capable of stirring deeply the human soul. The carousel horse is painted in bright colors and travels short distances in tight circles. The former, the product of centuries of genetic study, is coddled, trained and ridden by hard-working dedicated humans with deep appreciation and respect for the animal. The latter is more closely associated with children and clowns.

Someone with influence should impress upon Hansen, the human, that Hansen, the horse, needs nothing less than having his tail and mane artificially colored. Grey is a color. Alteration serves no serious purpose, is -- really -- disrespectful and only denigrates the animal's -- and owner's -- image.

Hansen, the human, apparently believes that exterior decoration of his horse may be fun.

Fun in racing involves winning and a horse of Hansen's ability has the potential to provide many occasions for celebration even with his tail and mane left pristine. Unadulterated, Hansen, if he continues to win important races, will accumulate many fans. His coloring, untouched, is attractive. The cadre of fans will grow in lockstep with his advance toward the Derby. A win on May 5 at Churchill Downs, even if completely white, would propel him to wild popularity. With the exception of providing fodder for an insipid television sidebar somewhere along the road to Louisville, a colored tale and mane will do nothing to serve Hansen's interests and image or that of the sport.

Hansen, the human, and his partners are entitled to color their horse in any scheme they chose. Taste is not a requirement of licensing in any state. But one of racing's great underpinnings is tradition, of which there is far too little consideration nowadays, and thoroughbreds come in a narrow range of color -- bay, dark-bay or brown, chestnut and grey or roan. What nature has determined appropriate after centuries of selective breeding should remain held safe from human whim gone terribly awry.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.

• Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award among several other industry honors. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby.
• You can email him at pmoran1686@aol.com