As a juvenile, Gato Del Sol's potential was evident when he captured the Del Mar Futurity-G2 in September of 1981. Although it would be his last victory until the Run for the Roses, the gray colt was runner-up in the prestigious Blue Grass S.-G1 as his last prep race for the Derby and also had placed in the Norfolk S.-G1, San Felipe H.-G2, and Hollywood Prevue S. No race carries quite the impact as the Derby, however, and Gato Del Sol, rallying from last in the field of 19, crossed the wire first in the most coveted race in North America.
Gato Del Sol raced until the age of six for Hancock and Peters, eventually switching to the turf. Before his racing career concluded, he won or placed in 17 stakes events and earned $1,340,107. When he retired in 1985, Gato Del Sol had tallied seven of 39 starts and a place in history as the 1982 Kentucky Derby winner.
Standing at Stone Farm, Gato Del Sol never lived up to expectations at stud, although he did sire some useful horses. He was sold to stand in Germany beginning in 1993, as it was hoped that European breeding would nicely compliment the strong turf and distance aspects of his pedigree. Six years later, after hearing the disturbing news of Exceller's untimely death in a Swedish slaughterhouse, the Hancocks bought Gato Del Sol back and immediately pensioned him. The Derby winner now enjoys his days in retirement, spending his time in a paddock at his birthplace and enjoying the attention of visiting fans.
By C. RAY HALL
BY KEITH WILLIAMS, THE C-J
Staci and Arthur Hancock found Gato Del Sol, now 25, was living in Germany and brought him back to their Paris, Ky., farm in August 1999.
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PARIS, Ky. — Gato Del Sol's hair has turned white. This probably can be laid more to his age — 25 — than to, say, worry.
But it was worry that brought the 1982 Kentucky Derby winner home to Stone Farm after a decade in Europe.
Gato Del Sol, who was gray in his youth, went off at 21-1 odds and won the Derby in shocking style. On the track he never again approached such eminence, retiring at age 6. His second career, as a stud, was uninspiring, to put it kindly.
"A failure," as his owner, Arthur Hancock III, put it on a rainy afternoon last week.
Hancock sold Gato Del Sol to a German breeder, hoping he would turn out distance runners fit for European grass courses. But Gato became a flop on two continents.
When Exceller, a prime racer and a disappointing stud, ended up in a Swedish slaughterhouse, Arthur's wife, Staci, began to worry. She fretted that Gato Del Sol might meet the same fate.
"The shock of that ... really moved me and gave it some sense of urgency," she said. "It was Exceller that prompted me thinking, `I want to keep an eye on him (Gato), and I want to know where he is at all times.'"
Her worries were not misplaced, her husband said.
"He was a failure as a stallion over there, same as Exceller," Arthur Hancock said. "It certainly could have happened.... It happened to Exceller, who was a great horse. It happened to Ferdinand and probably has happened to a lot of horses ... that don't have the stature."
The Hancocks found that Gato Del Sol had been sold to a farm in Germany. They plunked down about $5,500 to buy him back — and another $12,500 or so to ship him back to Kentucky. He's one of about 200 horses on their 2,000-acre farm.
When he arrived on an August afternoon in 1999, the Hancocks were in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for the Haskell. Soon as they got back home, they headed to the barn to check on their new old horse.
When she saw him for the first time in a decade, Staci was surprised to find he had gone white.
"He still had that great look in his eye," she said. "It's some kind of knowing look, I think. It's a wise look."
Her husband added: "He seems sort of nostalgic. Maybe that's the right word for the look in his eye."
Gato Del Sol has plenty to be nostalgic about.
As a yearling he didn't particularly impress his owner.
"He was a nice-looking yearling, but actually I didn't see anything special about him," Hancock said.
But the assistant yearling manager, Sam Ransom, did.
"Sam was a great horseman," Hancock said. "When he was a boy he had ridden Count Fleet."
Ransom also was a pretty good prophet when it came to Gato Del Sol.
"Sam would say, `That's a Derby hoss right there,'" Hancock recalled. "He just kept saying it over and over. So one day Sam kept saying, `That hoss is a Derby hoss.' I said, `Sam, if that horse wins the Derby, I'll get you a brand new car.'"
Eddie Gregson trained Gato Del Sol, and Eddie Delahoussaye rode him. In the Derby their horse went off as a long shot from a seemingly impossible post position — 19 — and won by 2½ lengths over Laser Light.
"It was the only time I've ever had an out-of-body experience," Hancock recalled last week. "I really felt like I could walk on air when they presented the trophy. ... You feel like you could float right up in the air, just hover. It's a strange feeling."
Seven years later the Hancocks won the Derby with Sunday Silence. But without levitation.
"Gato was like a fairy tale," Hancock said. "It was like seeing a vision."
Gato's victory meant it was time to reward Ransom. The boss had a Chevy in mind. Once again, Hancock and Ransom were not on the same page.
"Sam looked at me — and he had these eyes, the most expressive eyes — and he said, `You know, Boss, all my life I've wanted to get a Cadillac or a Lincoln,'" Hancock said.
Ransom got his Lincoln.
The Hancocks brought Gato Del Sol home five years ago, and some people still are talking about it.
"It turned out people thought it was just really something wonderful," Arthur said. "Somebody about a week ago said, `I think y'all bringing him back was the most wonderful thing.' And I said, `Well, Staci deserves the credit.'
"At Staci's insistence, we got him back, and now he's got a good home for the rest of his life....
"There's a saying in Bourbon County amongst us farmers. I heard it from older farmers. `If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.' And I think with horses, it's the same. If you take care of your horses, your horses will take care of you."