Five years ago, in the absence of trainer Bobby Frankel, who remained in California to attend to his sick dog, assistant Chad Brown slapped the saddle on Stronach Stables' Ginger Punch, who promptly went out and won the Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) by a gutsy neck at Monmouth Park.
Much has changed since 2007. The legendary Frankel has passed from the scene. Brown hung out his own shingle right after that victory and now runs one of the premier stables on the continent. And the Distaff is now known as the Ladies' Classic.
Some things have stayed the same. Namely, Brown will once again try to win the race with a Stronach Stables runner Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park when he sends out the lightly raced, undefeated Awesome Feather to do battle with such heavyweights as defending champion Royal Delta, Questing, Grace Hall, and the undefeated My Miss Aurelia. The lattter won the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), a race taken by Awesome Feather in 2010.
That triumph was the last race that Awesome Feather ran in the colors of her breeder, Fred Brei, and under the care of trainer Stanley Gold. Frank Stronach bought the filly days later and transferred her to Brown at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida. There was just one catch: the filly arrived with a significant tendon injury in her left foreleg, and Brown didn't get to do much more than look at her for six months.
"It was frustrating," said the 33-year-old Brown, "to get an undefeated horse that talented and not be able to train her, but I had the support of the Stronachs and the entire Adena Springs team to take my time with her. Everyone understood that the chances of her coming back the same horse after an injury like that weren't good. We went with what we felt had the best chance to work while being the least invasive into the injured areas. Collectively with our veterinarians, we came up with a plan of therapy and giving her the proper time, and thankfully it worked.
"But the most important part of the equation was Awesome Feather. She is a special horse who was able to overcome this and come back better than ever. That rarely happens, but she is a rare horse and she is responsible for the success she's had."
Brown is being humble there. It takes a, well, awesome training job to accomplish what he has with the now-4-year-old Awesome Feather. It wasn't until October 2011 that Brown was able to get her back to the races and a victory in the Le Slew Stakes at Belmont Park. The following month Awesome Feather won the Gazelle Stakes (gr. I) by 5 1/4 lengths, and was then put away until January of this year, when she took the Sunshine Millions Distaff, her ninth victory in as many starts.
Brown got another unwelcome surprise after that effort. Awesome Feather injured a suspensory ligament in her right foreleg, and back to the shelf she went. Brown and a medical staff again mapped out a plan, and again it worked.
They aimed for an autumn return, and Awesome Feather roared back Sept. 20 to take the Nasty Storm Stakes at Belmont by 11 1/4 lengths.
"There is never a long-term plan for her," stated Brown. "We take it day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and race-to-race. We try to manage her as wisely as we can and monitor her every day to make sure she is healthy and happy, and then we go to the next race."
That next race for the brilliant Awesome of Course filly is the Ladies' Classic, where Awesome Feather will face the toughest competition of her career.
"If she goes out to Santa Anita and runs the way she's been training, she's going to run a big race," said Brown. "I can't speak for her competitors. They come in with credentials and good race records. It's going to be some race, but I wouldn't trade places with anyone. If you see me saddling her that day, you'll know that I think she's coming with her 'A' game."
As for comparing his current Ladies' Classic star with Ginger Punch, Brown allowed that both possess tremendous heart,natural talent, speed, and the will to win.
"These two fillies are in a dead heat as far as their natural energy level around the barn, how they train, and the way they run. They're like a time bomb ready to go off when you walk them over to the paddock. You can literally feel it on the other end of the shank."