Little Current far from Triple crowd

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MONROE, Wash. - Regal in bearing and regally bred, a late-flying dynamo named Little Current reigned over the Preakness and Belmont in 1974.

He might have been forever revered among Triple Crown winners of that decade - linked with Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed - had it not been for a fluky field in the 1974 Kentucky Derby.

The centennial edition had attracted 23 horses, the most in Derby history. After finishing a frustrating fifth in that impenetrable crowd, Little Current won the second and third legs of the Triple Crown with such ease that racing changed its rules. Because an apparently deserving Triple Crown winner had been denied, Churchill Downs, site of the Derby, limited the field of its glamour race to 20.

"If I'd gotten any break at all, I could have won the race," says Bobby Ussery, the jockey who rode Little Current in the Derby. "He was good enough to win the Triple Crown - with a break."

Now 30, Little Current is the oldest living winner of a Triple Crown race. Next is Seattle Slew, 27, the oldest living winner of the Triple Crown.

Seattle Slew resides at Three Chimneys Farm in the heart of Kentucky bluegrass country. About 10,000 people visit Three Chimneys every year, nearly all asking to see Seattle Slew.

By contrast, Little Current lives northeast of Seattle, so far off racing's beaten path that fewer than a dozen people each year go out of their way to see him. Here in his remote paddock, Little Current remains a proud and personable horse, the one who in 1974 electrified thousands with his dramatic bursts of closing speed.

Ussery, 65, retired and living in Florida, foresaw what likely would be Little Current's greatest obstacle in the Kentucky Derby. The colt's style was to break slowly, lag behind the field and then shift into overdrive and pass horses as if they were stuck in mud.

For the 100th Kentucky Derby, 23 horses and 163,628 patrons - both records that still stand - descended upon Churchill Downs. And sure enough, when the starting gate opened, Little Current broke last.

Twenty-two horses raced in front of him. The traffic was thick. Ussery hoped the field would spread out. He hoped to find seams through which he could thread Little Current.

"I never got the chance to make my move with him," Ussery says. "I just couldn't get him going. Every time I started to get him in full stride, I had to wait for an opening. I certainly couldn't fly over anybody. There was just nowhere to put him that day."

Around the final turn, astride an eager horse unable to break through, Ussery jerked Little Current to the outside. He went practically to the middle of the track. Clear, Little Current charged down the homestretch. He passed a dozen. He would have passed four more, but he ran out of ground.

Little Current crossed the finish line fifth, 6 1/2 lengths behind the winner, Cannonade.

For the Preakness, Little Current's trainer changed jockeys. Lou Rondinello chose Miguel Rivera to ride the horse in the field of 13. Little Current beat just one horse out of the gate, and that was Buck's Bid, who had stumbled and dropped his jockey. Little Current was last again.

This time, however, when Rivera searched for an opening in the homestretch, a crack appeared along the rail. Little Current barreled through like a bully and surged home like a sprinter. He won by seven lengths. Cannonade, the Derby winner, finished third.

Little Current matched Nashua (1955) for the third-fastest Preakness (1 minute, 54 3/5 seconds) at the time, behind Canonero II in 1971 and Secretariat in 1973.

The '74 Derby and Preakness winners met again in the Belmont. And again, Little Current with Rivera prevailed by seven lengths, dropping far back in the nine-horse field and roaring wide for the victory. Cannonade again was third.

The commanding triumph clinched divisional honors for Little Current. At the end of the year, he was named champion 3-year-old colt or gelding.

A second career

The Belmont was his last victory. After a two-month break and two narrow losses - one by a nose, one by a head - he raced on soggy turf at Belmont Park. He finished sixth, 19 lengths behind, and emerged from the race with a chipped bone in his right front ankle. He was retired.

After 15 races on dirt, Little Current competed that last time on grass because his owner and breeder, John W. Galbreath, wanted to see how the colt took to turf. He had hoped to fly Little Current to Paris for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, one of the world's great races. Instead, Little Current returned to Kentucky to Darby Dan farm, his birthplace, to begin a career as a stallion.

Galbreath, who owned the Pittsburgh Pirates and Hialeah Park racetrack, had built Darby Dan into a pre-eminent breeding farm in part by leasing stallions from Europe. One, Sea-Bird, was regarded as Europe's best racehorse of the 20th century. Sea-Bird sired Little Current.

So it was with great fanfare that Little Current went to stud. Galbreath had syndicated him for $4 million, placing him eighth on the list of most expensive syndicated stallions at that time. Although Little Current produced stakes winners, he failed to match in the breeding shed his prowess on the racetrack.

The highlight of his sojourn as a stallion was a visit from Queen Elizabeth in the mid-1980s during a tour of Kentucky farms. She had followed the career of Sea-Bird two decades before and had bred one or two of her mares to Little Current.

"He was a grand horse. He should have been a Triple Crown winner," says Galbreath's grandson, John Phillips, managing partner of Darby Dan. "Hall of Fame status and greater glory were denied him by the vagaries of fate."

In 1988, Doug Arnold bought Little Current, stood him at Arnold Farms in Kentucky for four seasons, and then sold him to a breeder in Louisiana. There, Little Current's stud fee was a paltry $1,500.

He was largely forgotten - but not by Mark Hansen. Now 46, Hansen was 19 in Little Current's heyday. He watched the fiery finishes on television and studied photos in racing magazines. The hard-luck horse became an equine hero.

"I was in awe when I first saw him," says Hansen, who visited Little Current in 1990 at Arnold Farms. "I had that feeling you get when you're around a great animal. He just had a presence about him. Even then, it seemed that he had so much personality."

Even then, Hansen dreamed about someday owning Little Current.

Hansen grew up around horses. His father raced quarter horses and thoroughbreds off their farm in Oregon. Hansen galloped them. He worked as a hot walker and groom for Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens. Hansen became a veterinarian, specializing in cattle. He married a veterinarian, specializing in horses. Ann and Mark Hansen settled in Monroe, Wash.

Mark Hansen had become friends with Arnold, Little Current's second owner, who helped the couple obtain the horse at the end of his stud career in Louisiana.

That was in 1995. Little Current was 24.

Mark Hansen declines to say how much they paid for Little Current. But he says he'll never forget the day Little Current walked off the horse van onto their farm.

"He took two steps and stopped," he says. "He looked around as if to say, 'This is my place now. I'm the boss.' He's always been the boss."

The Hansens bred Little Current to a few mares. But in 1998 they pensioned him. Now, he resides in a large stall in a small barn next to the vets' clinic. He spends part of nearly every day in a paddock out front.

Visitor from Maryland

Only about 10 people a year come from out of state to visit Little Current. One is Kevin Grace, who works for the Maryland Racing Commission in its licensing offices at Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Grace is Little Current's No. 1 fan, and he is leading a campaign for Little Current's election into racing's Hall of Fame. Working against Little Current is his overall record of four victories in 16 starts, even if two of the four were Triple Crown races.

"Unfortunately, it looks as if Pete Rose will be in the Hall of Fame before Little Current will," Grace says.

The Hansens let Grace lead the campaigning. They prefer talking about Little Current as if he were their pet.

"He is like Mr. Ed," Mark Hansen says. "He looks you right in the eye. He makes an impression on you. He's always interacting, always communicating. For his entertainment, he'll try to aggravate you."

Little Current will stand in the part of the stall Mark Hansen is trying to clean. The horse will block the way to the muck bucket.

The Hansens have developed a special feed for Little Current. They support his feet with protective shoes. Ann Hansen monitors his health. She says he has a severe heart murmur.

"If he's fortunate, that will be the cause of his demise," she says. "If his heart just gives out, that would be the nicest way for him to die."

When the time comes, the Hansens plan to bury Little Current in Kentucky at Arnold's farm, now called Buck Pond Farm. Arnold says he will erect a monument.

But for the time being, the horse thrives in the Northwest. His coat shines. His back sways only slightly. He jogs along the fence, but not for long. His joints ache.

Every now and then, Mark Hansen slips a tape into a VCR outside Little Current's stall. Races appear on a TV screen. In some, the Hansens' horses run at local tracks. But in others, the images are from long ago, as Little Current wins the Preakness and the Belmont.

The old chestnut champion darts to the front of his stall. With pricked ears and penetrating eyes, he watches his moments of glory as they unfold once more.

Race facts

What: Second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

When: Saturday, 6:04 p.m. post

Where: Pimlico Race Course

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

Purse: $1 million

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 5 p.m.)

Prospective field

Horse Trainer Last race

A P Valentine Nick Zito 7th, Kentucky Derby

Bay Eagle H. Graham Motion 3rd, Lexington Stakes*

Congaree Bob Baffert 3rd, Kentucky Derby

Dollar Bill Dallas Stewart 15th, Kentucky Derby

Griffinite Jennifer Leigh-Pedersen 2nd, Lexington Stakes*

Marciano Tim Ritchey 1st, Federico Tesio Stakes

Monarchos John Ward Jr. 1st, Kentucky Derby

Mr. John Elliott Walden 8th, Lexington Stakes*

Percy Hope Tony Reinstedler 1st, Lone Star Derby

Point Given Bob Baffert 5th, Kentucky Derby

Richly Blended Ben Perkins Jr. 1st, Withers Stakes

*-In the Lexington Stakes, Mr. John was disqualified from second to eighth for impeding another horse. Griffinite was moved up from third to second, Bay Eagle from fourth to third.

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