10/25/2012 3:26PM

Hovdey: Roll of Breeders' Cup absentees filled with the good and great

Shigeki Kikkawa
Awesome Gem ran four times in the Breeders' Cup but couldn't make it for No. 5 last year.

It is probably best to get this out of the way early, before the real fun starts. Each year, the Breeders’ Cup is defined by the horses who don’t run as much as by those who do. Then comes the end of the big day, and the names of the absent are all but forgotten, relegated to the mists of time recalled only in terms of, “What if?”

There was heartbreak from the start, when the first Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1984 at Hollywood Park lost both John Henry, the American superstar, and Seattle Song, Europe’s leading light, to injuries after pre-entries were taken.

The letdown was even worse 13 years later, also at Hollywood Park, when each news cycle leading up to the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Classic seemed rife with bad news. First to go was Gentlemen, winner of the Pimlico Special, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic, who was out with a fever. Then Formal Gold, winner of the Woodward, the Donn, the Iselin, and the Brooklyn, fractured an ankle. When Skip Away arrived safely in California, pretty much all he had to do to win was make the course, which he did.

[BREEDERS' CUP 2012: Pre-entered fields with odds and comments]

Calling an event “World Championships” raises certain expectations that – given the obvious limitations – can never be met. Still, hope springs everlasting, and when it comes to a Breeders’ Cup, fans rightfully feel they deserve to see the horses they’ve been following religiously throughout the year.

It is of little consolation that from the moment he won the Preakness Stakes last May, I’ll Have Another was less than 50-50 to even make the Classic, at least according to historical trends. Since the Breeders’ Cup era began in 1984, there have been 10 horses who have won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, counting I’ll Have Another. Only four of those 10 were willing and able to run five months later in the Breeders’ Cup, and only two – Alysheba and Sunday Silence – brought their Triple Crown form to the dance.

Okay, we can deal with that. I’ll Have Another had a fantastic five months, which is about as much of a season as most good horses put together these days. But be honest. At one time or another any one of the following horses had the look of a runner who figured to have the right stuff to perform on the 2012 Breeders’ Cup stage, and fingers were crossed they would make it.

Out in California, besides top dog I’ll Have Another, there were the talented 3-year-olds Out of Bounds and Creative Cause, not to mention champion Acclamation, the versatile Caracortado, the exciting Ultimate Eagle, the turf mare City to City, and a whole phalanx of Bob Baffert stable stars like Plum Pretty, The Factor, Ellafitz, Secret Circle, Mamma Kimbo, Bodemeister, Rolling Fog and the brilliant, unlucky Paynter.

It took awhile to get over losing Union Rags, and Hansen was always entertaining, but neither was it unreasonable to pin early Breeders’ Cup hopes on Todd Pletcher runners like Broadway’s Alibi, Awesome Maria, Gemologist, and Algorithms, or such accomplished standouts as Take Charge Indy, Get Stormy, Aruna, Redeemed, Nates Mineshaft, and Winter Memories. Right up to not long ago, Alternation, Casino Host, and It’s Tricky – runners with a solid following – looked like they would be in the thick of the Breeders’ Cup mix. And then they weren’t.

In the end, you go to the Breeders’ Cup with the army you’ve got, without regret or recrimination over those who did not survive the march. The no-shows all have legitimate excuses – they are, after all, fragile Thoroughbreds – and we enjoyed them while we could. It’s just too bad there are not more of them like Awesome Gem.

This guy was a warrior, one of those horses who survive shipwrecks and pitched battles. Terry Finley, ex-Army and head of the West Point Thoroughbreds partnerships who raced Awesome Gem for seven seasons, likens him to the soldier you’d want at your side in a foxhole.

“Good horses in and of themselves are very tough to come by,” Finley said. “To get one that stays around as long as he did is something very much out of the ordinary.”

In a career of 52 starts that took him from his California home to Kentucky, Chicago, Texas, New Jersey, New Orleans, West Virginia, Iowa, the Pacific Northwest, and Hong Kong, Awesome Gem brought home a piece of the purse 40 times for total earnings of nearly $2.9 million. He won 11 races and finished second in 15. His finest hour came in the 2010 Hollywood Gold Cup, when he defeated heavily favored Rail Trip. Once he became a winner, in September of 2006, all but six of Awesome Gem’s races came in stakes events, and four of those were at the Breeders’ Cup.

As a 4-year-old Awesome Gem finished third to Curlin and Hard Spun under stormy, sloppy conditions in the Classic at Monmouth Park. As a 5-year-old he was sixth to Goldikova in the Mile at Santa Anita, beaten less than a length for third. As a 6-year-old Awesome Gem tried the Classic again, also at Santa Anita, and finished seventh, although he had a great view of Zenyatta as she blew through the field.

In 2010 Awesome Gem’s people tried something different and tossed their 7-year-old into the Breeders’ Cup Marathon at Churchill Downs, thinking his class would carry the day. It didn’t, and they apologized to the old boy all the way back to the barn. Then last year, at a ripe and rowdy 8, Awesome Gem appeared in top form to try the Breeders’ Cup again, especially after losing the Goodwood at Santa Anita by only a nose to Game On Dude. But then something went wrong behind and he needed a few months off, while Game On Dude went on to finish second in the Classic at Churchill Downs.

In what turned out to be his final race, Awesome Gem finished a close third in defense of his title in the Longacres Mile, on Aug. 19. He was training for a try in the Hinds Memorial at Fairplex Park in September when trainer Craig Dollase detected soft tissue damage in a front wheel, and that was that.

“He’s still being let down at Craig’s barn,” Finley said. “The people at Hollywood Park will be giving him a real nice going-away tribute in November. After that, we’re still figuring it out. He might go to the Kentucky Horse Park. He might go to Old Friends. He might stay with Craig as a lead pony.

“I got a note from Craig’s daughter Alyssa, who is 8, asking me to please not take Awesome Gem away. Basically, she grew up with him.”

Alyssa was not alone.