Making Claims: A Closing Argument To Put Awesome Again In The Hall Of Fame

In “Making Claims,” Paulick Report bloodstock editor Joe Nevills shares his opinions on the Thoroughbred industry from the breeding and sales arenas to the racing world and beyond.

From the centuries-old nurseries to the furthest-flung outposts, the goal of Thoroughbred breeding is to get a horse like Awesome Again – the kind of horse that secures a legacy for decades.

Awesome Again laid the foundation for over 20 years of high-level success for the Adena Springs operation as a runner and a stallion, and he provided one of the biggest victories in the storied career of owner Frank Stronach when he took the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Though he stood just 16 hands tall, the 26-year-old left a massive footprint on the breed, and a hole just as big when he died on Dec. 15.

It sure feels like Awesome Again should be in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, but he isn’t. In fact, he’s been eligible for 17 years, and he’s still on the wrong side of the velvet rope.

Awesome Again’s recent death has the Thoroughbred world reflecting on his life and accomplishments, which means this is as good a time as there’s going to be to stage a “last stand,” and make one final case for putting a deserving horse in the Hall of Fame.

To be sure, Awesome Again suffered no shortage of acclaim over the course of his life. He was named to Canada’s Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Ontario-bred’s achievements were so great, he was given a Special Sovereign Award in 1998 when he didn’t have enough starts in his home country to qualify for the regular run of Sovereign Awards. More than two decades after making his final start, he remains the highest-earning Canadian-born Thoroughbred of all-time, amassing earnings of more than $4.3 million.

To determine why Awesome Again belongs in the Hall of Fame, I have identified some of the factors that go into my own Hall of Fame selection process when the ballot comes in the mail (chiefly, sustained high-level success and dominance over his opponents), and some potential shortcomings on Awesome Again’s resume that have apparently kept him out. Then, I examine “The Bar:” the horses in the Hall of Fame who are perceived to have the least acclaim in a given category while still getting enshrined; and I identify how Awesome Again meets or exceeds that standard.

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that Hall of Fame credentials are based on racetrack performance, meaning Awesome Again’s outstanding stallion career, and his role in maintaining Adena Springs’ high standing in the business, cannot be taken into consideration. Since 1990, the only horses to claim both a Hall of Fame spot and the leading North American sire title were Alydar and A.P. Indy; both of which earned their spots in the pantheon for their on-track exploits.

With that out of the way, let’s poke some holes in the case against Awesome Again’s Hall of Fame bid.

Standard: Sustained Success
Perceived Weakness: Awesome Again didn’t beat Grade 1 competition until age four.
The Bar: Lava Man and Waya

It’s easy to argue that Awesome Again had a lopsided career over the course of his two seasons on the track. He was a perfect six-for-six as a 4-year-old, and he didn’t have a Grade 1 victory during his sophomore campaign. That 3-year-old run included wins in the Queen’s Plate and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes, compared with five graded wins the following season.

It’s unusual for a Hall of Famer to get in without a Grade 1-caliber 3-year-old campaign, but it has been done. Lava Man didn’t win his first graded stakes race until the middle of his 4-year-old season, while the French mare Waya, a 2019 inductee, didn’t get her first Grade 1 triumph until the end of her 4-year-old season. Like Awesome Again, both horses went on to become top-shelf runners once they matured.

The Hall of Fame loves a precocious horse, but that’s not the only way through the door.

Standard: Sustained Success
Perceived Weakness: Awesome Again only had one season at the highest level
The Bar: Dance Smartly, A.P. Indy, and Winning Colors

Awesome Again was a Queen’s Plate winner and took home a Grade 2 victory at three, and it’s fair to count that as supporting evidence for a Hall of Fame resume, but not the meat of it. His ascent to the top of the handicap division took place during his 4-year-old season, when he went a perfect six-for-six. Among those wins during his 1998 campaign were triumphs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the G1 Whitney Handicap, the G2 Stephen Foster and Saratoga Breeders’ Cup Handicaps, and the G3 Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap. Then, he retired, essentially leaving one season where he was a top threat.

One season at the very top of the mountain is admittedly pretty light for a Hall of Fame resume, but not entirely unheard of. Fellow Ontario-bred Dance Smartly was very good on her home turf at two, but she didn’t hit her true ascent until age three when she won the Canadian Triple Crown and capped her season off with a Breeders’ Cup Distaff score. She fell back to earth at four, and never won another graded stakes race.

Similarly, Winning Colors earned her first stakes victory in January of her sophomore season, and she never won another graded stakes race after she wowed in the Kentucky Derby, missing out in her next nine graded tries.

Just so we’re not just picking on the fillies in this segment, consider A.P. Indy. His first graded stakes win came in the G1 Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 22 of his juvenile season. His run between that win and his Horse of the Year-clinching triumph in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Classic was remarkable, but it all happened within the span of less than 12 months.

If Awesome Again needed to stay competitive at the top for at least a calendar year, it’s fair to start the clock with his third in the G1 Travers Stakes as a 3-year-old and run through his Breeders’ Cup Classic score the following year, and that leaves his Queen’s Plate and Jim Dandy out of the conversation. If one year at the top is enough, he’s got it.

Standard: Sustained Success
Perceived Weakness: Awesome Again raced only 12 times
The Bar: 11 current Hall of Famers; Justify and American Pharoah in the near future

Yes, Awesome Again would be on the lower end of the spectrum among the Hall of Famers, a group that has eight members with 100 or more starts, led by 1899 Horse of the Year Imp with 171. However, he’d be far from the least experienced member of the group.

The great A.P. Indy made the cut with 11 starts. Ghostzapper, Awesome Again’s greatest son, got the call to Saratoga Springs with the same number of starts.

The average is probably going to get even lower in the coming years, as Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify all but certainly get their invitations. American Pharoah retired with 11 career starts, while Justify raced just six times. If and when Justify gets the call, he will have the fewest starts of any Hall of Famer, usurping 1800s stars Lexington and Sir Archy with seven each.

Standard: Dominance Over Competition
Perceived Weakness: No Eclipse Awards
The Bar: Alydar, Lava Man, Lure, Best Pal, Ancient Title, etc.

Sometimes, an all-time great has the misfortune of being in the same division as another all-time great, and there are only so many year-end honors to go around. There are a lot of good horses in the Hall of Fame without Eclipse Awards on their mantles, and there are a lot of good horses who might never get in who have one or more on their resumes – even Horses of the Year. Having one always helps, but it’s not a prerequisite.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that Awesome Again finished second in the voting to Skip Away – a horse he beat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – in the 1998 Horse of the Year voting.

To save us all some writing and reading, this answers the question “Was Awesome Again considered at any point to be the best horse in his division, if not the best horse in training?” At least 34 voters thought so in 1998. For at least his straight-arrow stretch drive in the Classic, they were absolutely right.

Standard: Dominance Over Competition
Perceived Weakness: He only has two Grade 1 wins
The Bar: Xtra Heat

This is one of the biggest factors keeping Awesome Again out of the Hall of Fame, and it’s understandable. There are Grade 1 win machines out there who would get laughed out of the building if they were considered for this lofty spot. Even though one of those wins was in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, two Grade 1 victories would put Awesome Again near the bottom of the list if he made it in the club – counting horses that ran after the modern graded stakes system was implemented, of course.

But he wouldn’t be at the very bottom.

Xtra Heat, who earned the champion 3-year-old filly title in 2001, was enshrined in 2015 with just one Grade 1 win to her name – the 2001 Prioress Stakes.

Granted, there are some other factors to consider here. Xtra Heat won loads of other graded stakes races, and she got achingly close to Grade 1 glory elsewhere, including missing out by a half-length when she tested male competition in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The mare more than earned her spot among the immortals, but if the bar to get in is one Grade 1 score, Awesome Again doubled it.

Standard: Dominance Over Competition
Perceived Weakness: Who did he beat?
The Bar: We don’t need no stinking bar.

Here is a list of the horses Awesome Again beat in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic alone:

– Hall of Famer and eventual 1998 Horse of the Year Skip Away
– Hall of Famer and dual classic winner Silver Charm
– Champion and Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop
– European champion Swain
– Argentine champion Gentlemen
– Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold
– Grade 1 winners Coronado’s Quest and Arch

Of course, if we let horses into the Hall of Fame off a single victory, even if it’s against an incredibly deep field on the biggest stage, we’d be celebrating the career of figurative Hall of Famer Arcangues, and then we’d have to re-examine the entire admission process. So, I’ve put together a tale of the tape to display just who Awesome Again beat over the course of his career:

– Two Hall of Famers (and he beat Silver Charm twice)
– Three Eclipse Award winners (and he beat Silver Charm twice)
– Three international champions
– Three U.S. classic winners (and he beat Silver Charm twice)
– One Canadian classic winner
– 13 Grade/Group 1 winners
– 31 total graded/group stakes winners

Only two horses in that distinguished group got their revenge and finished ahead of Awesome Again in races he didn’t win: Grade 1 winners Behrens and Precocity.

That’s a lot of winning crammed into 12 races.

Make no mistake, Awesome Again is a fringe Hall of Fame candidate. He wouldn’t still be waiting on his call, and I wouldn’t have to argue this hard, if he wasn’t. Still, if we’re looking at what makes a Hall of Famer, it’s fair to say he’s at least done the minimum to get over the line, based on the ones already on the other side.

It’s time to finally lift the hook off the velvet rope and let Awesome Again into the Hall of Fame club. Let’s take one more look and see if he’s on the list.

The post Making Claims: A Closing Argument To Put Awesome Again In The Hall Of Fame appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

DYFD Winter - 300x90

Comments are closed.