Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Chariot Racing World Champ Finds Success With Thoroughbreds - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Chariot Racing World Champ Finds Success With Thoroughbreds

Ryan Hanson with daughter Olivia

Trainer Ryan Hanson was excited to earn his first graded stakes win with Thoroughbreds at Del Mar recently, saddling Weston to victory in the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes, but it was hardly the first major horse racing victory for the 39-year-old native of Idaho.

Hanson conditioned multiple graded stakes-winning Quarter Horses, and he is also a World Champion in the sport of chariot racing.

“In my office, the chariot racing photos are the ones that get the most people talking,” the trainer said. “It's the one thing I really miss about being in the northwest; I don't miss the snow or the cold, but I miss chariot racing.”

Both Hanson's father and grandfather also earned World Champion titles in chariot racing, which is conducted by hitching two horses side-by-side and competing over a quarter of a mile. Hanson won the title in 2006, just before the family moved to Southern California.

“It's a really, really huge family activity, but it's still ultra-competitive,” Hanson explained. “By the time I was doing it, we were claiming Quarter Horses from Los Alamitos, hooking them on the chariot and racing in Idaho.”

Unfortunately, it was hard to make a living during summertime Quarter Horse racing in Idaho, and chariot racing is exclusively a winter activity. Hanson's father James “Jim” Hanson moved the family racing operation to Los Alamitos in 2006, and everyone pitched in to help climb the ranks.

A jockey for his father from age 16, Ryan Hanson outgrew those boots and became his father's assistant and top exercise rider. Eventually Hanson took the horses under his own name, saddling 2013 AQHA World Champion Distance horse Honoroso, who the family had claimed for $6,250 in 2012.

Ryan Hanson in a 2006 chariot race

In 2015 Hanson went home to Idaho for the summer, racing at what turned out to be the final season in Boise. Returning to Southern California that winter, Hanson made a change. He took a job galloping Thoroughbreds for trainer Robertino Diodoro, and worked his way up to assistant.

“It's really hard to make a living in Idaho,” Hanson explained.

Two years later, Diodoro left California, and Hanson felt he didn't really have a choice but to try to make a go of it on his own. He hung out his shingle over a single horse, True Ranger, a $12,500 claimer.

That chestnut gelding may not have won a race for Hanson, but he did hit the board in most of his starts at Santa Anita and Del Mar. Hanson would win just one race in 2017, with a horse he co-owned with his father named Poshsky, but he started to make his presence felt on the Southern California circuit.

In 2018 Hanson began to train for outside clients, first in partnerships between his father and Robin Dunn. Dunn recommended Hanson to an owner named Chris Drakos, who had actually lived 15 minutes away from Hanson in Idaho, but the two had never met face to face.

Drakos took a chance and sent Hanson four horses, and the two are now co-owners of Grade 2 winner Weston.

Weston and Drayden Van Dyke after the Best Pal

“It was nice of Robin and dad to partner with me, but I wasn't able to make it on that alone,” Hanson explained. “I'm so appreciative of Drakos, because not too many people want to give a young guy a chance, and he did.”

Hanson started winning a few more races, and today he conditions a 25-horse string at Del Mar alongside his wife, Michelle Yu. Yu works afternoons as an on-air handicapper at Santa Anita, and the couple have two children under the age of four.

“They're my pride and joy,” Hanson said. “They get to come with us to the ranch, and before COVID, they'd come to the track in the afternoons as well.”

Every morning, seven days a week, Hanson rides at least 10 horses over the track before heading out to a ranch in Pico Rivera, where he, Yu, and a couple exercise riders spend another two hours or so starting babies and riding out the young horses in the river bottoms.

“Riding them yourself, I just think you get a better feeling of the horses, you can see how they're doing,” Hanson said. “When I'm getting on them, I can make split-second decisions. When I'm out there we take them two at a time, so if I see the horse next to me doing something and think he needs to do something different, we can make that decision on the track right then.

“I do think Quarter Horses are a bit smarter than Thoroughbreds, because the Thoroughbreds you have to get out on the track every day. We try to do something different with them every day, gallop in a different way, or jog them, just something different to keep them thinking differently.”

Weston, a $7,000 purchase at the Keeneland September yearling sale, was one of those started through Hanson's program at the ranch.

“Honestly, he was miserable to break and miserable to ride,” Hanson said. “We brought him in (to the track on) April 1, and I remember thinking I couldn't wait to get him into the track and geld him. It didn't really help.”

Hanson rode the 2-year-old son of Hit It A Bomb for his first several workouts but didn't think too much of the gelding, so he decided to turn the reins over to exercise rider Emily Ellingwood. Now Ellingwood gallops Weston every day, and the gelding seems pleased with the new arrangement.

He won his debut on June 21 at Santa Anita by 1 1/4 lengths, then came back on Aug. 8 to win the G2 Best Pal by a neck.

“I was happy to win it for Ryan Hanson,” jockey Drayden Van Dyke told Del Mar publicity after the race. “He's such a kind man and a good horse trainer. And this horse showed some class, too. Ryan told me he never got to paddock him (prior to the race), but he was just standing in there like an old pro. I knew I got there in the end and I'm real glad I did.”

Hanson was thrilled, of course, but the pragmatic trainer not sure what the next step will be with Weston.

“I'm happy we got the race, but I don't know how good of a horse he is,” Hanson said honestly. “We caught the right field, and we were very ready. I'm not happy that we don't have another place to go with him besides the Del Mar Futurity, but if he continues to do well, I want to take advantage of it.”

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