PARIS, Ky. — It was yet another milestone in a career not the least bit lacking in achievements. Considering the subject's history, it also was fitting that it ended up a little lost in the shuffle.
After years of being among the industry's most consistent producers of top-level runners, Awesome Again — the 19-year-old dean of the Adena Springs stallion roster — was represented by his first winner in the American classics when his son Oxbow recorded an upset victory in the 138th Preakness Stakes. And if ever a single performance could sum up Awesome Again's legacy, his headstrong colt's 13⁄16-mile trek around Pimlico Race Course was it.
As has been the hallmark of his sire's offspring, it took equal parts talent and fortitude to keep Oxbow out front.
The fact Oxbow took the racing community by surprise with his big-spot ability further reinforces his lineage. When Awesome Again entered stud 14 years ago following his victory in the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic, many pegged his on-track rival Touch Gold as the one who would eventually prove the more impactful member of Frank Stronach's Adena Springs Kentucky roster.
With 52 stakes winners, two champions, and progeny earnings of more than $65.7 million from 12 crops of racing age, Awesome Again has bucked his own share of obstacles and sometimes spotty commercial respect to become one of the go-to stallions for those seeking longevity, stamina and a dash of brilliance in their runners.
Whereas he was sent off at 15-to-1 odds for the Preakness, Oxbow will likely earn more respect at the betting windows when he makes his planned start in the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, this coming Saturday.
After years of rewarding those who supported him, recognition as a breed-shaping stallion may finally be coming Awesome Again's way as well.
"I think we tagged the line a long time ago that (Adena Springs) is the house that Awesome built," said Eric Hamelback, general manager of Adena Springs Kentucky. "You look at horses we've bred — Ghostzapper, Game On Dude, Ginger Punch, his three top earners — they are bred for distance, and it's not necessarily what the commercial market sometimes pushes for.
"We've seen some ups and downs with his commercialism but we've never seen ups and downs with his average (earnings) per runner. Oftentimes in sports, there's always those underappreciated athletes that get the job done but never seem to get the limelight. And I still have people telling me he's the most undervalued stallion around."
The field Awesome Again bested in the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic — his sixth win in as many starts that year — is still regarded as arguably the best in the event's history with all but one in the 10-horse bunch a champion or Grade I winner.
Still, the Horse of the Year accolades eluded the bay son of Deputy Minister with Skip Away taking said honor. And when Awesome Again and Touch Gold, also a son of Deputy Minister, both started at Adena with advertised fees of $50,000, initial market support seemed to lean toward the beautifully built winner of the 1997 Belmont Stakes — who now stands under the Adena banner at McMahons Thoroughbreds in New York.
When those first babies started hitting the ground and hitting the track, they showed Awesome Again's mettle and fluid movement. In the first crop of runners was both the precocious Toccet, winner of the Grade I Hollywood Futurity and Champagne Stakes in 2002, and his brilliant Hall of Fame son and fellow Adena stallion Ghostzapper, who would make his sire the only Breeders' Cup Classic winner to also sire a Classic winner when he won the same race in 2004 en route to Horse of the Year honors.
"You know everybody was really high on Touch Gold because they had seen so many stallions who were moderately sized, somewhat plain Janes with a great race record that didn't necessarily pan out," Hamelback said of Awesome Again. "I think Awesome Again's success took people by surprise. It's a credit to Frank (Stronach) in particular because he believed in the horse and he still supports the horse.
"But the commercial side of it seems to hurt somewhat because his horses don't necessarily look the pretty part per se. That's why I feel he kind of took some people by surprise because we still say when we see his babies, he's a plain brown wrapper."
Even though his offspring have never lit up the sales arena — i.e. champion Ginger Punch failing to meet her reserve after bringing a bid of $27,000 at the 2005 Adena 2-year-olds in training sale — Awesome Again has been a favorite of those who breed specifically for the racetrack. Currently standing for $75,000, he commanded as high as $150,000 in 2008 and 2009 only to have the market correction hit just as he was reaching his top level.
The commonality seen in virtually all of Awesome Again's best offspring is tenacity in the face of adversity. At no time did that prove a more invaluable trait for the bay stallion than in the fall of 2011.
On the morning of Sept. 13 of that year, Awesome Again went under surgery at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital for a severe bout of colic. The complications from the strangulating lipoma (fatty tumor) of the small colon had stallion manager Bill Drury and his crew literally taking turns sleeping outside the stall of the four-legged member of their extended family.
"It was probably more (stressful) for us than him because he's such a cool natured horse," Drury recalled. "I've got some good horses in the barn but I can't name another horse that I would have rather worked on. To this day, he gets eye medication twice a day and he handles it like a champ because along with the heart and the determination there is the intelligence."
His colic surgery ended up being yet another battle in favor of Awesome Again. Still, there were questions of whether he could physically resume his stud career without aggravating his prior condition.
Even with veterinarians giving the green light on the matter, there was more than a little breath holding during Awesome Again's first mating of 2012.
"He had two incisions and they had healed, but you still run that risk of him jumping up on a mare and the pressure of what it would do," Drury said. "But him being so smart, he has a smooth glide mount, he just went out, slid right up on the mare and there was hardly any taxing to his other side."
The only Adena Springs stallion to lead all sires in North American earnings was the late El Prado who notched that feat in 2002. With Oxbow now a force in the 3-year-old division, Game On Dude still among the leading handicap runners, and Grade I winner Paynter making his own remarkable comeback from a life-threatening illness last year, Awesome Again is well positioned to go head to head with current leader Malibu Moon for the North American sire crown in the months ahead.
And as his crew points out, everyone is well versed in what often happens when Awesome Again's bloodlines are called upon for more.
"We had the exact same scenario with El Prado. El Prado was as solid as a sire and as non-commercial until 2002, then he exploded," Hamelback said. "He was younger than Awesome is now, but if Awesome is fortunate enough to get leading sire, I think you will see more of a public acceptance of him as that breed-changing or breed-shaping sire.
"He is feeling as good as you would want a horse to be and nothing seems to be stopping him right now."
When: Saturday | Where: Elmont, N.Y.Distance: 11/2 miles | TV: NBC-18
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.