As Ray Hanson sat in a private box near the finish line of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, he was overcome by a wave of reflection.
The thoroughbred racehorse breeder and lifelong Everett resident was about to watch Lookin At Lee race in the Kentucky Derby. It was the first time in Hanson’s 33 years involved in horse racing in which a horse he bred was running in one of the Triple Crown races.
But that was only half of the reason for his musings. Hanson also found himself marveling that just two weeks earlier he was eating through a feeding tube, the final vestige of his battle with cancer.
“When I was at the Kentucky Derby, my girlfriend (Doreen Carlson) said I was awful quiet,” Hanson recalled. “I said I’d been doing a lot of thinking. I was through the cancer situation, I was here at the Kentucky Derby, how blessed can one be? It was surreal.”
And it could get even better for Hanson on Saturday as Lookin At Lee looks to claim the spoils at the Belmont Stakes in New York, the third leg of the Triple Crown.
Hanson has been involved in horse racing since 1984. But this is the first time the 75-year-old has had a horse race at the Triple Crown level. And in Lookin At Lee, who finished second at the Kentucky Derby on May 6 and fourth at the Preakness on May 20, Hanson spun gold.
“(Lookin At Lee) is by far and away the best horse I’ve bred,” Hanson said when reached Thursday in Phoenix, Arizona, where he’ll watch the Belmont with a group of friends. “It’s taken me 23 years of selective breeding to get here.”
It may seem unusual for someone like Hanson, who grew up in Everett, to be involved in horse racing. However, Hanson’s father Tyke was a South Dakota rancher, and Tyke’s tales from his ranching days sewed the seeds for Hanson’s interest in horses.
“Although I was a city boy growing up in Everett, my dad would talk a lot about the horses — he’d have tears in his eyes, actually,” Hanson said. “As a little guy I’d ask a lot of questions, I was always interested. Although I was no big gambler, I’d go down to Longacres to watch the races and thought, ‘Why don’t I try to get into this?’”
Hanson tried horse owning for a few years with little success, then took a break to concentrate on his business. But he got back into the sport in 1994, and when a filly he bought named Capilano had success racing at Hastings Park in Vancouver, B.C., and at Emerald Downs, he decided to get into the breeding business.
Capilano begat a filly named Langera Lass, who also won several stakes races. Hanson then mated Langera Lass with Lookin At Lucky, who won the 2010 Preakness. The product was Lookin At Lee, who was bought by Tulsa, Oklahoma, lawyer Lee Levinson.
“I knew he was going to be a good horse,” Hanson said. “He’s a good-looking horse, big and strong, and he’s a rangy horse. He hadn’t really blossomed yet (when he was sold), he was still in the growing stage.
“I’ve been following him very closely,” Hanson added. “It’s very important to me as a breeder to have a horse like that because all of the family will grow in value because of him.”
But Hanson nearly didn’t get his chance to revel in Lookin At Lee’s success. Hanson was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma last September. The tumor was located at the meeting point between his esophagus and stomach. Hanson was unable to eat and had to have a feeding tube inserted to receive nutrition. A long and difficult schedule of radiation and chemotherapy followed.
But Hanson’s cancer is now in remission, and his feeding tube was removed just in time for him to attend the Kentucky Derby.
“(The cancer) was terrible, so (Lookin At Lee) was a real diversion from the illness,” Hanson said. “It’s a real blessing to me. I never thought I’d live long enough to see a horse I bred race in the Kentucky Derby.”
At the Kentucky Derby, Lookin At Lee remained at the back of the pack for most of the race before making a late run along the rail to finish second.
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘My gosh, it’s such a thrill to see him come around like that,’” Hanson said. “My girlfriend could barely see because everyone was standing up, so she was watching the big board and seeing his place go from 14th to 12th to 10th to eighth to sixth and was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was the thrill of a lifetime.”
Now Hanson has a legitimate chance of seeing a horse he bred claim one of the Triple Crown races. Neither Almost Dreaming, the Kentucky Derby winner, nor Cloud Computing, who won the Preakness, are contesting the Belmont. The original favorite in the Belmont, Classic Empire, withdrew this week. The only horse in the field who finished ahead of Lookin At Lee in either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness is Senior Investment, who was third at the Preakness.
In addition, the Belmont may favor Lookin At Lee’s racing style. Lookin At Lee is a closer, preferring to hang back early in the race and make a late run. The Belmont’s longer distance — it’s 1 1/2 miles compared to 1 1/4 miles for the Kentucky Derby and 1 3/16 miles for the Preakness — could work to Lookin At Lee’s advantage.
As of Friday, the oddsmakers made Lookin At Lee the third-favorite at the Belmont at 5-1, behind Irish War Cry (7-2) and Epicharis (4-1).
“I think he stands a decent chance, and I certainly think he’ll be in the money,” Hanson said. “He’s a tremendous closer, he’ll hang way back and then throw in a kick.”
But regardless of where Lookin At Lee finishes, for Hanson he’s been the horse of a lifetime.