Gander Still Great for Gatsas Family

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Gander winning the 2002 Empire Classic | Adam Coglianese

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The Gatsas Family, who have been invested in the Thoroughbred game for decades, are thrilled with their first Kentucky Derby starter, Vekoma (Candy Ride {Arg}). But as electrifying as this multiple graded stakes-winning youngster is, it’s their old warrior Gander who tugs hardest on the heartstrings.

“He hasn’t run in a long time, but my brother and I have always taken care of Gander and we always will,” said Mike Gatsas of Gatsas Stables, who with brother Ted Gatsas operated Gatsas Thoroughbreds. “It’s a real emotional bond with us and Gander.”

The New York-bred son of Cormorant, now age 23 and two decades older than the R.A. Hill Stables co-owned Vekoma, was an iron horse on the track. In a career spanning seven seasons from 1998-2004 he made 60 starts, ran in 40 stakes races, and earned $1,824,011 with a record of 15-10-9. Along the way he won the GII Meadowlands Cup and took on the handicap division’s best with on-the-board finishes in the 2000 GI Jockey Club Gold Cup, the 2001 GI Whitney H. and 2002 GI Woodward S. and with appearances in the 2000 and 2002 GI Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Gander, both the 2000 New York and New England Horse of the Year, had his career cut short August 31, 2004 at Saratoga when he fractured a cannon bone in a workout. The Gatsas Brothers never hesitated or spared a dime when it came to life-saving surgery, nor to securing his cushy retirement, first at the late Peter Fuller’s Runnymede Farm in New Hampshire and now at Stonebridge Farm in Gansevoort, New York.

“When he got hurt, he got the very best care possible. It was the same when his infected eye had to be removed (in 2012),” said Mike Gatsas. “My brother and I have never forgotten him. He’s always been close to us and is in our hearts, that’s for sure. He’s like us. He’s a lunch bucket type of horse. When he ran he always showed up. He showed up for work every day. It was a blessing to have him and to watch him run. It was so cool.”

It was also beginner’s luck in the way Gander came to carry the Gatsas Thoroughbreds colors. Purchased by Ted Gatsas, who was the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, from 2010-2018 and now serves on the state’s five-member Executive Council, for $50,000 at the 1998 OBS March Sale, Gander was the start of something big.

“He and Shadow Caster (Future Storm) were the first horses we got,” Mike Gatsas said. “We bought five horses that year with (the late New England Hall of Fame trainer) Charlie Assimakopolous, and two out of the five won Grade IIs. Shadow Caster won the Forego (when it was it was a Grade II) and ran in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2000. Those were our first two graded stakes winners and the way it worked out got us to stay in the game. Thank God it did.”

Gander, Shadow Caster and other stablemates were so dominant in New England that Assimakopolous told the brothers the time had come take their horses to New York, and that’s where they connected with trainer John Terranova. At the time, the young conditioner quadrupled his stable when the 15 Gatsas runners walked into the barn.

But Gander was always a favorite. The handsome gray gelding has always been quite the ladies’ man, too.

“When he was with John, he had a girlfriend named Heather’s Promise and I got very friendly with her owner, Al Frassetto,” Mike Gatsas said. “When we were going to the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs in 2000 John said, ‘What are we going to do? He’ll go crazy if he doesn’t have Heather’s Promise nearby,’ so I asked Al if I could take her with us, and he said absolutely. We shipped her with Gander. Like I said, there was nothing ever spared on him. Whatever he wanted, he got.”

While retired at Runnymede, his lady love was Fuller’s homebred Mom’s Command, the 1985 Triple Tiara winner, 3-Year-Old Filly Champion and Hall of Famer, until she died from old age in 2007. Matt Gatsas, Mike’s son and a major force in the operation, said Gander now has a new girlfriend at Stonebridge Farm. There, he charms everybody.

“He’s just a nice, nice animal to be around,” said Mike Gatsas, who won the 2009 GI Darley Alcibiades S. with Negligee (Northern Afleet) under the family’s Sovereign Stables syndicate. “Whenever we’re in Saratoga, I go over to the farm to see him. My brother takes a trip up and we all go. Matt and my daughter, Amanda, bring their kids to visit and they all love him, too. The farm sends pictures at Christmas time with different blankets on him and ornaments on the fence around his stall. He gets turned out and still runs around. It’s cool to watch him enjoy himself. Whatever Gander needs, he gets. That is the standing order there. Whenever somebody new comes to work at the farm that’s what they’re told. Whatever that horse wants, that horse gets. No exception.”

Mike Gatsas, who owns a national payroll company and lives in New Hampshire, has been at in Florida for every one of the George Weaver-trained Vekoma’s works this year and was eagerly anticipating Friday’s breeze under Kentucky Derby partner Javier Castellano at Palm Beach Downs.

“Vekoma is Vekoma is Vekoma, but Gander has always touched our hearts and is very special. Vekoma is starting to get there, though,” he said with a laugh.

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