USA: The feelgood story of New York champion Gander, living the good life at 24

Gander, a standing dish in New York for several seasons. Photo: Adam Coglianese/NYRA

By Ryan Martin/NYRA

USA: They just don’t make horses like Gander anymore. At least that’s what owner Mike Gatsas would tell you.

The New York-bred son of Cormorant put together a 60-race résumé, which included 15 wins, six of them stakes, and over $1.8 million in earnings.

In 1999, he was named New York’s champion three-year-old and the following year was crowned New England Horse of the Year and New York Horse of the Year. Additionally, from years 2000-02, he earned the title of New York’s champion older horse.

On Sunday, Aqueduct will host the 15th renewal of the $100,000 Gander, a one-turn mile for New York-bred sophomores.

“He was a lunch box horse,” says Gatsas. “Every time we put him on the track, he performed well.”

Nearly 16 years since making his final start in 2004, the 24-years-young Gander is pampered daily at Stone Bridge Farm in Schuylerville, New York.

Whatever Gander wants, Gander gets

Whatever Gander wants, Gander gets. That includes frequent visits from former trainer John Terranova, his wife and assistant Tonja and their children.

“We always take the kids out and see him every summer when we’re in Saratoga,” says Terranova. “They were babies when he was running. Paulina was born in 2001 so Tonja was pregnant with our daughter when we first got him.”

Heidi Fischer, farm manager at Stone Bridge, has been acquainted with Gander since working at Better Days Farm, where Gander called home for a little while following his retirement and says that the grey gelding has managed to stay in touch with his youthful side.

“He is still very spoiled,” says Fischer. “There’s a group of other geldings that he goes out with and he can still act like a goofball.

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“I can’t say that Gander has changed much through the years. He’s always kept himself in good shape,” adds Fischer. “He never really grows a big, thick, bushy winter coat. He’ll come in at night during the winter time. He gets his hay, Idaho alfalfa.”

One of the many reasons Gander was so special is that he stayed competitive at a high level for so long, but also because he was one of the first horses that Gatsas purchased. In 1998, Gatsas and his brother Ted entered thoroughbred ownership by acquiring five horses, one of which was Gander, whom he bought for $50,000 at Ocala in March 1998.

“He was one of two in that group that became a Graded-stakes winner, so we caught the bug right away,” says Gatsas. “I’m not sure if that was good or bad!”

After making his first 25 starts for the late New England horseman Charles Assimakopoulos, for whom he won the 1999 Albany and Empire Classic, Gander was transferred to Terranova in the summer of 2000 and won the Evan Shipman Stakes in his debut for the young trainer.

A star of the handicap division

For the next few years, Gander was right up there with some of the best older horses in the handicap division. Just two starts after winning the Evan Shipman, Gander entered the G1 Woodward, which that year drew a salty five-horse field and Gander was the only entrant without a Grade 1 win to his name. Gander entered the gate at 41-1 odds and tracked the early leaders throughout most of the journey but appeared to be dropping out of contention as the field approached the far turn.

John Velazquez swung Gander to the outside of 1999 Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid and the gray gelding made a strong bid but came up just three-quarters of a length shy of victory.

“If you watch the whole race, he actually goes by them about five steps after the wire, so he was one step away from being a phenomenal horse that no one would forget,” Gatsas recalls.

Next out, Gander proved the effort was no fluke when finishing second to Albert The Great in the Jockey Club Gold Cup; he was also third in the following year’s Whitney.

“Albert the Great beat us by a wide margin,” says Gatsas. “Gander ran second, but no one was close to us. After that race my brother and I supplemented him to the Breeders’ Cup. My family went and we all had a blast.”

A gusty rail-hugging effort

The following year, after dual Grade 1 placings, he captured the G2 Meadowlands Cup with a gutsy rail-hugging effort down the stretch. “To watch him do what he did down on the inside at the top of the stretch was phenomenal ,” Gatsas said. “Those two [Broken Vow and Include] were just coming at him and Gander was stuck there on the inside and wasn’t going to let them go by.”

Gander went on to win five more times in his career, including a second victory in the 2002 Empire Classic.

But his career came to an unanticipated end on the morning of August 31, 2004 when he fractured a cannon bone while breezing at Saratoga in preparation for a final career start in the Empire Classic at Belmont.

At the time of his retirement, Gander trailed only Say Florida Sandy and 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide as the all-time richest New York-bred.

From there, Gander took up residence at Better Days Farm in Bedford Hills, located in Westchester County, before spending some time at the late Peter Fuller’s Runnymede Farm in North Hampton, New Hampshire – just 36 miles east of the Gatsas’ Manchester residence.

“There had to have been about a hundred people there to welcome him – they came from all over New Hampshire,” Gatsas says. “I can’t tell you how many people loved that horse.”

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But for over the past decade, Gander has resided at Stone Bridge Farm, where he goes out to the pasture with his buddies Red Zipper and Appian Way.

“It’s really fun watching them play with each other and it’s really sweet how they get along so well,” Fischer says. “He used to go out with a mare [Seventeen Above] but she got to be too much for him. They would get turned out together for a couple of years, but they were different. 

“Gander is the type that likes to buck and play around but she was more into eating and grazing. I found that putting him with other geldings is better because they’re more playful, so that makes us happy. They’re a fun little team.”

Gatsas could not be more pleased with the care that his old warrior is receiving during his golden years. “They just don’t make horses like him anymore,” he says. “He ran during a difficult time to be an older horse, but he made all the dances and he gave it his all every time we asked him.”

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Learn more about racing in New York at nyra.com

For Barbara Livingston’s photo essay on Gander, visit drf.com