There was no shortage of superlatives tossed around before, during, and after the 1998 edition of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and for good reason.
“Best field I’ve ever seen,” Seth Hancock, president of Claiborne Farm on co-owner of one of the 10 Classic runners (Arch), told BloodHorse before the race. “You put up the money and you are going to get the best of the best.”
1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic
The money Hancock referred to was the $5.12 million Classic purse that made it, at the time, the richest race ever run, and the deep cast of standout racehorses sent to post was worthy of the “All-Star Field” designation bestowed upon it.
There was much hype to live up to Nov. 7, 1998, at Churchill Downs, and the World Championships delivered then-record handle and attendance (80,452). The star-studded cast for the Classic followed suit and served up a heck of a grand finale.
The 1998 Classic field was headlined by two-time Eclipse Award winner Skip Away making his final career start and Silver Charm, winner of 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and the 1998 Dubai World Cup. The former was bidding to repeat in the Classic, but despite an uncharacteristically dull performance in his final race, he still won the Eclipse Award as the 1998 Horse of the Year and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2004; Silver Charm’s Hall of Fame induction came three years later in 2007.
European star Swain, a four-time Group 1 winner in Europe making the final start of his career, shipped over for the 1998 Classic, which also drew 1997 Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold, 1998 Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop, and 1998 Haskell and Travers winner Coronado's Quest.
Then, there was Awesome Again, who had won the Queens’ Plate and Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes while posting three victories in six starts in 1997. Trainer Patrick Byrne and owner-breeder Frank Stronach took a patient approach to his 4-year-old season, giving him an extended break of more than five months before resuming training in March 2018.
Awesome Again opened the year with an allowance win May 22 at Churchill Downs and became a serious player in the division with back-to-back clear victories in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster and Grade 1 Whitney Handicaps, using a 14-pound break in weight assignments to beat Silver Charm by a length in the Foster. He remained unbeaten in 1998 by adding open-length wins in the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap and Grade 3 Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap in August and October, respectively.
All told, the 10-horse field had amassed just under $30 million in combined purse earnings and 31 Group or Grade 1 wins entering that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic – and the race would not disappoint.
Coronado’s Quest got off to an alert start and went right to the front, while Skip Away was shuffled back a bit but moved up to third as the field passed the finish line for the first time. Skip Away settled into second, just behind Coronado’s Quest entering the backstretch, but Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey had a strong feeling this was not his day.
“I knew 50 yards into the race I was in trouble,” Bailey told BloodHorse. “He just could not handle the track.”
As Coronado’s Quest led the field through a half-mile in a :47.69 – an honest but not especially taxing pace – Silver Charm was loaded under Gary Stevens while stalking from fourth on the outside, just a length behind through the first three-quarters of a mile. Swain tucked in behind Skip Away early before jockey Frankie Dettori angled him a few paths out on the backstretch, and the European invader also was in ideal position just a few lengths back entering the final turn. Meanwhile, Awesome Again and Touch Gold were rated near the back of the field ahead of only deep closer Victory Gallop.
As the field turned into the stretch, Silver Charm swept to the front with an explosive rally as Swain, too, unfurled a powerful bid to his outside. Swain began lugging out noticeably while still finishing determinedly through the stretch and Silver Charm seemed to follow him out into the middle of the racetrack while Coronado’s Quest fought on gamely from the rail.
Dettori aboard Swain (after being tossed twice in the post parade) said his horse veered out toward the lights set up near the winner’s circle for the NBC television crew.
A gaping hole about five paths wide thus opened up for closers Awesome Again and Victory Gallop, with both surging into contention with plenty of momentum.
While Victory Gallop could not sustain his rally, Awesome Again leveled off powerfully and reeled in the top two with ground-devouring strides under Pat Day to win by three-quarters of a length.
“He was so far down inside, I don’t think Silver Charm ever saw him,” Stevens told BloodHorse. “I never even saw him until it was too late.”
Silver Charm edged the wandering Swain by a neck for second with Victory Gallop another nose back in fourth, while 3-year-old Coronado’s Quest ran a monster race against older horses and had to settle for fifth, beaten by only two lengths. Skip Away faded to sixth in his final start.
Awesome Again completed a perfect 6-for-6 season, capped by a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but he did not take home a single Eclipse Award when Skip Away swept the older male and Horse of the Year championships. Awesome Again also closed out his career in the Classic and went on to a terrific second career as a stallion for Stronach, including siring 2004 Classic winner and Horse of the Year Ghostzapper.