By Katie Ritz
All eyes will be on Santa Anita for their opening weekend feature in the GI Awesome Again S. as Bob Baffert trainees Maximum Security (New Year's Day) and Improbable (City Zip) go head to head for the first time since that consequential first Saturday in May last year.
The $300,000 Breeders' Cup “Win and You're In” contest could mark the emergence of an unusual stablemate rivalry.
Over two decades ago, the race's namesake was part of a different rivalry– one for 1998 Horse of the Year.
Awesome Again had gone undefeated that year, claiming five consecutive victories in the GII Stephen Foster H., GI Whitney, GII Saratoga Breeders' Cup H., GIII Hawthorne Gold Cup H. and finally the GI Breeders' Cup Classic.
While his chief competitor Skip Away ended up finishing sixth in that year's Classic, his five Grade I wins from earlier in the year were enough for Skip Away to be named Horse of the Year.
Adena Springs Stallion Manager Bill Drury admits his bias, but he said he still believes Awesome Again should have received the title from his Classic victory.
“That year's Classic was the strongest field of horses ever put together in the same race,” he said. “I think he should have got Horse of the Year off that. Had he beat Skip Away twice, he would have.”
To prove his point, Drury can rattle off the field's Grade I winners by heart: Awesome Again, Skip Away, Silver Charm, Arch, Gentlemen (Arg), Coronado's Quest, Touch Gold, Swain (Ire) and Victory Gallop.
The horseman remembers being in the Churchill Downs' grandstand that day.
“I didn't see him cross the finish line because I knew I wanted to be in that winner's circle,” he recalled. “When I saw Pat Day lead him between those horses, I knew he had it. It was such a thrill. I knew he was coming to my stallion barn and I was on cloud nine when he won that race.”
Drury said that Awesome Again got his Horse of the Year vengeance soon after taking up stud duty.
“I tell people that when he didn't get it, it ticked him off so he said, 'I'll make my own Horse of the Year,' and he produced Ghostzapper in his first crop.”
2004 Horse of the Year and Hall of Fame inductee Ghostzapper is one of the 14 Grade I winners, 13 millionaires and four Breeders' Cup Champions that Awesome Again has produced. Ghostzapper's win in the Breeders' Cup Classic made his sire the first Classic winner to also sire a Classic winner.
After 21 years at stud, Awesome Again was officially pensioned last year from stud duty.
“After all that he's done for us, we decided to let him enjoy his retirement,” Drury said. “We had people begging, 'I've got a mare I want to breed to Awesome Again,' and we literally had to keeping saying no. He deserved retirement.”
Even still, when Drury introduces guests to the farm, the homebred for Frank Stronach is still the headliner.
“I always start by telling my visitors to Adena Springs, 'Welcome to the house that Awesome Again built.' He's our corner-post stallion. He's still a crowd favorite when people come. He's our first homebred champion and we've gotten several champions by him.”
Drury and Awesome Again have formed a close bond over their many years together, and the 26-year-old bay will always have a place in Drury's heart.
“We're pretty good buddies,” he said with a smile. “I believe the saying that cream rises to the top. Well he's got to be one of the sweetest creams there is. His personality is one in a million. He's got the heart of a champion and he's just a classy horse.”
Adena Springs Stallion Sales Manager Ken Wilkins spoke on the success the farm has had with the son of Deputy Minister.
“A phenomenon you don't see that much anymore is people taking the time and patience to develop sire lines,” Wilkins said. “Deputy Minister had a huge impact in Canada and of course in the United States. Awesome Again was one of our foundation sires and that led to Ghostzapper, who's been a star in his own right.”
Wilkins noted that the sire line has come full circle at this year's yearling sales.
“This will be Awesome Again's last crop of yearlings that will go to sale. But at the same time, the sire line has been carried on by our Shaman Ghost (Ghostzapper), whose first crop of yearlings are offered this year. So it's kind of a transition. Our hope is that Shaman Ghost will carry the baton.”
Wilkins added that he expects breeders will soon find many of the same characteristics in Shaman Ghost as they did in his grandsire.
“Breeders recognized the quality and consistency that Awesome Again had as a sire,” he said. “One of the things he brought to the table was that he was a proven bet. We certainly bet on him over and over again, and we cashed a lot of tickets from making those bets.”
Game on Dude, an eight-time Grade I winner and record three-time GI Santa Anita H. winner, is Awesome Again's leading earner and one of his five multi-millionaires.
“Game on Dude is probably Awesome Again's fan-favorite offspring,” Wilkins said. “It seems like a week doesn't go by without someone coming out here and mentioning him. The career that horse had was tremendous.”
Awesome Again's four other multi-millionaires include Ghostzapper, Eclipse Champion Older Mare Ginger Punch, GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Champion Wilko and Awesome Gem.
Drury explained that he has found a common trait in many of his charge's top progeny.
“He's not a big horse, but he put a giant's heart in his horses,” he said. “Ginger Punch, Wilko, Game on Dude- they're not big horses, but they could run. You can't even see Ginger Punch in the photo finish [of her win in the 2007 GI Breeders' Cup Distaff] because she was behind the horse that came in second. If there was one trait he passed on more than anything, it was the heart he put in the horse.”
In recent years, Awesome Again's most successful progeny include last year's GI Belmont S. winner Sir Winston, as well as Grade II winners Bravazo, Always Shopping and Something Awesome.
“That's the sign of a great sire,” Wilkins said. “Great sires keep coming up with good horses. Then the next thing you see from a great sire is that they become a great broodmare sire.”
Awesome Again's daughters have produced six Grade I winners, including Eclipse Champion Accelerate (Lookin At Lucky). Ghostzapper looks to continue the trend as the broodmare sire of Triple Crown hero Justify (Scat Daddy) and champion sprinter Drefong (Gio Ponti).
With Awesome Again's final crops now hitting the track, Adena Springs hopes he can pass on the baton to the stallion empire he has constructed.
“He's the center post of my stallion barn,” Drury said. “We've got his son, we've got his grandson and we have his half-brother Macho Uno (Holy Bull). He's Adena Springs' legacy, and I'm proud as I can be to have been with him.”