ELMONT, N.Y. -- Years from now, Frank Brothers probably still will be wondering what happened on May 4, 1991.
That was the day Hansel turned in a 10th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. And if the colt only had performed close to the way he did when winning the Preakness and yesterday's 123rd Belmont Stakes, he might have become racing's 12th winner of the Triple Crown.
Instead, Brothers and the racing world had to settle for a mere thriller to conclude the 1991 Triple Crown. Hansel surged ahead in the stretch in the 1 1/2 -mile race at Belmont Park, then held off Strike the Gold by a diminishing head.
"He may not have been a mile-and-a-half horse," said winning rider Jerry Bailey, "but his heart got him there."
The margin was the smallest in a Belmont since Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, beat Alydar by a head in 1978. The 12 or so inches were the difference for Hansel in his rubber match with the Derby winner, Strike the Gold -- and in the chase for the $1 million Triple Crown bonus.
Mane Minister finished three lengths behind Strike the Gold, becoming the first horse to finish third in all three Triple Crown events.
Hansel paid $10.20 to win as second choice to Strike the Gold, the $2.20-1 favorite. He finished in 2 minutes, 28 minutes, four seconds off Secretariat's 1973 stakes, track and world record for a dirt course.
Competing before 51,766 fans in 85-degree weather, Hansel raced third in the early stages, then took a slight lead over Corporate Report with a half-mile remaining. At that point, Strike the Gold began to make up ground from last place, a position he assumed soon after breaking from the far outside post in the 11-horse field.
In midstretch, Hansel opened a 2 1/2 -length lead, but Strike the Gold was moving fastest of all after angling to the outside in the final turn.
"I started getting into him in the turn," said Chris Antley, Strike the Gold's rider. "He fought all the way and ran his race. He just got beat."
Bailey said he sensed a horse cutting into his margin. "I had an idea of who it might have been," he said. "But, to tell you the truth, I didn't know exactly who, and I didn't think it was a good time to turn and look."
Hansel, owned by the Lazy Lane Farms of Joe L. Allbritton of Houston, was racing without the anti-bleeding medication Lasix for the first time in six starts. In the days leading to the Belmont, and even afterward at a news conference, Brothers was adamant in his refusal to elaborate on Hansel's use of Lasix, which he says is a non-issue.
Hansel's performance proved Brothers correct, but the 44-year-old Louisiana native still has no answer for the Derby, in which Hansel tired badly to finish 11 1/2 lengths back.
"I'd like to tell you I did something to turn him around [for his last two races]," he said. "But I kept doing the same things, kept his training regimen the same."
Hansel, a son of the Mr. Prospector sire Woodman, became the " 15th Preakness-Belmont winner and the first to accomplish the double since Risen Star in 1988.
The colt's spurt in the upper stretch "may have seemed a little premature in a mile-and-a-half race, but I thought it was the thing to do," said Bailey. "I thought it would take an awfully strong kick from a horse to catch him. I really believe the last eighth of a mile his heart got him home."
Mane Minister (17-1), a long shot in each Triple Crown race, raced in fifth early, then fourth, then third.
"He never quits trying," said his rider, Alex Solis, "but I just couldn't catch those horses in front of me."
The biggest Belmont disappointments were Green Alligator and Smooth Performance.
Green Alligator, a surprise third choice at 4-1, made a brief move on the backstretch, then faltered to finish 10th, 46 lengths behind. He beat only 99-1 shot Another Review, who was eased.
Smooth Performance (7-1) was making his first start in the U.S. after arriving Wednesday from Ireland. The colt was trying to duplicate the victory of Go and Go, who won the 1990 Belmont for trainer Dermot Weld and jockey Michael Kinane, but could do no better than eighth, beaten 23 lengths.
Brothers said Hansel will be rested briefly before racing again "probably later in the summer or in the fall." The trainer said earlier in the week that the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 2 is his ultimate goal.
At Churchill, home of the Derby, Hansel could gain a measure of glory he missed capturing so badly -- and so mysteriously -- before becoming the most accomplished horse of his generation.
Horse.. .. .. .. ..Lengths behind
Strike the Gold.. .. .. .. ..head
Mane Minister.. .. .. .. .. .. 5 1/2
Corporate Report.. .. .. .. .. .8
Scan.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..18 3/4
By a nose
Here are the shortest winning margins in the Belmont Stakes since 1905:
Year.. ..Horse.. .. ..Margin
1936.. ..Granville.. .. nose
1962.. ..Jaipur.. .. .. nose
1908.. ..Colin.. .. .. .head
1978.. ..Affirmed.. .. .head
1991.. ..Hansel.. .. .. head