A Classic Finish
Awesome Again lived up to his name in a wild Breeders' Cup finale
As he swept off that final bend at Churchill Downs, his feet still on the breaks while he rocked on the back of Awesome Again, Pat Day felt the power of the horse beneath him and sensed that all he needed to get to the wire first was an unobstructed path. The horse was running fluidly, with his head in to the bridle and the bit between his teeth, waiting for Day's command to begin the final charge.
Looking straight ahead, Day saw the big gray, 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, under Gary Stevens, and just to Silver Charm's outside the crack British invader, Swain, with Frank Dettori up. There were about 400 yards to run in last Saturday's 1�-mile Breeders' Cup Classic, and Day had arrived at one of those bends in time when, it often seems, the whimsical goddess of racing chooses to intervene. "Watching Swain and Silver Charm in front of me, I was thinking that I'd ease outside of them, get in the clear and run 'em both down," Day says.
What happened next, in the fading light of five o' clock, led to one of the strangest finishes in the 15-year history of the race, a stretch drive that looked more like the end of a quarter-horse race at Ruidoso Downs, with horses running all across the track, than the climax of a historic Classic. Not only was this the richest horse race of all time, with a total purse of $5.12 million, but its collection of 10 runners was also the strongest ever assembled for this event.
Skip Away had won nine straight stakes since the fall of 1997, including seven Grade I races, before meeting defeat in the slop at Belmont Park on Oct. 10 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Facing him now, aside from Silver Charm and Swain, were the hard-driving campaigner, Gentlemen, and two proven 3-year-olds, Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop and Travers winner Coronado's Quest. And, of course, there was Awesome Again, unbeaten in five '98 races. He had been training like a beast for Patrick Byrne, but except for a one-length victory over Silver Charm in the June 13 Stephen Foster Handicap at the Downs and a three-length win in the Whitney at Saratoga, he had been feasting on underachievers.
By the time Awesome Again turned into the final straight, Gentlemen was being eased because of pulmonary bleeding, and Skip Away was drifting back to sixth in his final race. Coming to the eighth pole, as Day was about to swing his mount to the outside, Swain started drifting way right, toward the fence. Silver Charm tends to run harder when he's next to another horse, so Stevens angled him right, to stay at Swain's side, a maneuver that left Day facing a wide open track. Day hit the gas, and his mount, joined by Victory Gallop inside, took off.
Stevens straightened out Silver Charm and glanced left. "I saw a black flash on the inside," he said. It was Awesome Again drawing off to win by three quarters of a length. Horses were all around at the wire—Silver Charm and Swain outside, finishing second and third, respectively, and Victory Gallop and Coronado's Quest behind on the inside. Skip Away remains the consensus horse of the year pick A (he regularly whipped the toughest competitors in 1998, winning seven stakes at six tracks), but there is no denying Awesome Again's gifts. His Classic victory is the crowning achievement of his owner-breeder, Frank Stronach, who presides over one of racing's fastest-growing empires. He has spent millions buying horse farms in Florida and Kentucky and acquiring quality bloodstock. After the Classic it was announced that he signed a letter of intent to buy Santa Anita Park, the crown jewel of California tracks.
Not a bad day for a man who started out washing dishes in an Ontario hospital. "I consider myself very lucky," Stronach said. This was his first victory in the Classic, and it was accomplished by a horse who is a product of his vast breeding operation. Luck be damned. The bet here is that this win will not be his last.
Da Hoss and Da Man
More than 100 Breeders' Cup races have been run, but few have created the buzz that Da Hoss's win did in the Mile. The 6-year-old gelding took the lead mid-stretch, lost it to Hawksley Hill at the 16th pole, then regained it to win by a head. What drew attention, though, was not the finish but the fact that Da Hoss, who had won this event two years ago, had raced only once in the intervening time, winning a modest allowance race on Oct. 11 at Colonial Downs.