The passing of each rain-drenched day at Churchill Downs leading up to the first Saturday in May only boosted the confidence of Washington-based breeder Ray Hanson about the chances of his first classic contender, Lookin At Lee.
"I really thought he could win it," said Hanson, who bred the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) runner-up and son of Lookin At Lucky out of his homebred stakes winner Langara Lass. "Langara Lass liked to run in the mud, and her dam Capilano liked to run in the mud. There was no reason why he couldn’t, and he is a heckuva closer."
Drawing post 1 in Kentucky Derby will elicit groans of despair from owners and trainers. After Lookin At Lucky, the 2009 champion 2-year-old and 2010 Derby morning-line favorite, drew post 1, trainer Bob Baffert commented: "You’'ve got to break well. If he doesn’t break well, then you're screwed." Lookin At Lucky did not get a good trip, getting bumped early and shuffled back in traffic. He did well to finish sixth.
The betting public also was concerned about post 1 this year and let Lookin At Lee leave the gate at 33-1. None of this history concerned Hanson, because Lookin At Lee was not only a closer, but a deep closer who was comfortable with sitting back and waiting. He was up to 15 lengths behind the front-runners in the Southwest Stakes (G3), and rallied to finish third.
"He was going to fall back, like he did, and Corey (Lanerie) gave him the perfect ride along the rail. (Lookin At Lee) did exactly what I thought he would do," Hanson said. "He ran a remarkable race with the mud just caked around him."
Lookin At Lee finished 2 3/4 lengths behind Derby winner Always Dreaming, and five lengths ahead of Battle of Midway. He has become the horse of a lifetime for Hanson, a native of Everett, Wash., who has been breeding and racing Thoroughbreds for more than 30 years.
Even though he grew up a city kid, horses were always part of family conversations for Hanson, because his father was raised on a ranch in South Dakota. Trips to Longacres Racetrack eventually pulled Hanson toward horse racing, and he dipped a toe in as an owner in the 1980s.
"I was real green and bought a couple of horses, and that didn't work out very well," Hanson remembered. "That is when I learned you have to shop and find the right people to do business with."
Hanson walked away from racing for several years to focus on his growing telephone engineering and technical services company, named Atco Communication Services. Then about 22 years ago, he got the itch to get back in the game. The first step involved finding someone in the business he could trust. His research led him to trainer David Forster.
"I talked to a lot of people and his name always came up among the top five. When I decided to get back into it in the '90s, I called Dave," Hanson said. "As far as I'm concerned, Dave Forster was the best in the Northwest."
Forster played a critical role in Hanson's later success as an owner and breeder. Early on, he introduced Hanson to another client—George Gilbert, who lives near Vancouver—and encouraged them to become partners. By working together, they could buy better horses and mitigate the expenses. The two men have now been partners for 22 years.
About the same time Hanson and Gilbert joined forces, Forster picked out a yearling filly by Demons Begone for $17,000 at the 1995 Keeneland September sale along with two colts. The filly was Capilano, who won two stakes at Hastings Racecourse and one at Emerald Downs and earned nearly $114,000. Capilano later transformed the partners' modest breeding operation of about a half dozen mares, which were boarded with Frank Penn at his Pennbrook Farm near Lexington. Forster also recommended Penn's farm to Hanson and Gilbert.
"I can't say enough good things about Dave," Hanson said. "He was a great adviser all the way through for me. He is a wonderful horseman, a great trainer, and a good friend."
As a broodmare, Capilano far outshined her performance at the racetrack. Out of nine foals to race, she produced four black-type stakes winners, including grade 3 winner Madeira Park (by Langfuhr ) and full sister Langara Lass, Overact (Sir Cat), and Ambleside Park (Fusaichi Pegasus ). All were raced by Hanson and Gilbert.
The partners sell commercially, but tend to keep their better fillies and sell the colts. For this reason, John Penn's Penn Sales offered Lookin At Lee at the 2015 Keeneland September sale where Lee Levinson's L & N Racing bought him for $70,000. Hanson said he has no regrets about selling the colt.
"If we'd kept him, we would have brought him to the Northwest, and he would have done well out here but never had the chance to really show his ability like he has," Hanson said. "Hastings is a five-eighths track and it gets pretty crowded; he just would not have been in the quality of races he's been in. That is why we sell our horses at Keeneland, because of the exposure we just don't get in the Northwest."
Now heading into the Preakness Stakes (G1), which Lookin At Lucky won on his way to earning championship honors at 3, Hanson said he feels good about Lookin At Lee's chances. But he's actually more excited about the possibilities ahead in the third leg of the Triple Crown.
"I think he’ll do OK in the Preakness, but the 1 1/2-mile track is what the doctor ordered," he said. "I think his big one will be in the Belmont, if he has one."
Regardless of how the remainder of the Triple Crown unfolds, Hanson is deeply grateful for the ride he's taking with Lookin At Lee. The 75-year-old breeder is thrilled to have a horse he bred finish so strongly in America’s most important race, but more importantly he said he's thankful for being alive to see it.
Hanson recently survived a bad bout of cancer, a battle that required 25 rounds of radiation on top of chemotherapy. Earlier this year he got the good news that he was cancer-free, so just sitting in the grandstand at Churchill Downs on Derby day was in itself far beyond what Hanson could have dreamed.
"It was a wonderful race, surreal," he said about the Derby. "I never thought I would live long enough to see that day. I shouldn't have been there. So between my recovery from cancer and Lookin At Lee, I can't tell you the feeling I had. I'm a very fortunate and blessed man. It's already been quite a year."