With Awesome Gem arriving at his new home at Old Friends April 7 I thought it would be an appropriate time to reprint a column I wrote in 2010 on this old warrior and the person whose life he changed.
Clyde Haugan always said: "Don't let the bastards get you down."
Haugan, a longtime resident of Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., began suffering from skin cancer at the age of 51 and had to undergo more than 100 procedures to have them removed, extensive lymph node surgery, and high dose radiation therapy.
Despite his ordeal, he never stopped having a positive attitude. His doctor, Jeannine Stein, was amazed at his tenacity and nicknamed him "Cantankerous Clyde." She kept telling him, "If you weren't so cantankerous, you wouldn't be here today."
Haugan decided about five years ago it was time to enjoy life to its fullest, and one day he gave his wife Doris the surprise of her life. He had bought an interest in a racehorse named Awesome Gem through the West Point Thoroughbreds partnership, who eventually would name one of their horses Cantankerous Clyde.
Doris was the one who always had a love of horses. When she was a young girl growing up in Chicago she told her parents she wanted a horse. Her mom told her if she saved $100 she could have one.
"I don't know how many years it took me, but I remember telling her I had the $100, where's my horse," Doris recalled. "Of course, living in Chicago, I never did get the horse.
"But, finally, after all these years, I finally got my horse in Awesome Gem. That was such a surprise to me when Clyde did that."
When Awesome Gem started to develop into a good horse, despite some early behavioral problems, Clyde was totally hooked and gave Doris another surprise.
A good friend of his from Greensburg, Ind. had a neighbor, Leonard Schoettmer Jr., who dealt in hog feeders, but carved carousel horses as a hobby. During a visit to Indiana, Haugan learned that Schoettmer had just finished one for his daughter who was about to be married. Haugan told him, "Hey, I got this horse; how about making one up of him."
Schoettmer agreed, and Haugan sent him a variety of photos of the horse from every possible angle. Schoettmer made drawings of Awesome Gem and scaled everything down proportionately so that all the dimensions were correct.
Schoettmer began working on it in November, 2006, and in August, 2007, a 480-pound crate, measuring six feet by four feet by eight feet, arrived at the Haugans' home. Inside, wrapped in plastic bubble wrap, was "Awesome Gem" in full stride, his mane blowing in the wind. The wooden sculpture was built on a platform with casters, so that it would be easy to move around. Like all carousel horses, it had a pole that extended from the platform into the bottom of the horse. Schoettmer included photos of his work in progress, before it was painted and still carved in sections.
The Haugans, who have five daughters, kept "Awesome Gem" in their living room in front of the fireplace, for several weeks before moving him into their sun room.
Clyde continued to buy shares in West Point horses, owning a piece of top horses such as Lear's Princess, Macho Again, El Gato Malo, and Tropical Storm. He always laughed about it, blaming Jeff Bloom, West Point's executive vice-president of West Coast operation, for talking him into buying horses.
But it was the horses, especially Awesome Gem, that helped Clyde through a lot of rough times, and he never lost his enthusiasm for the sport or his love of Awesome Gem, the horse that started it all.
"I've been blessed," Clyde said two years ago. "The best thing I ever did was getting involved in this."
Sadly, Clyde lost his battle with cancer in December of 2008, but it's difficult to think of Awesome Gem without thinking of Clyde.
"It was so emotional," said Doris after watching Awesome Gem score his first grade I victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup. "I immediately thought of Clyde and thought, ‘I hope he's watching.'"
As for the other "Awesome Gem," he currently sits right next to Doris' bed.
"I know it sounds strange, but I pat ol' Awesome a couple of times a day as I go in and out of my closet," she said. "He's still my baby. Behind him on the wall I've started hanging family photos from the different races we've gone to. I have some wonderful photos of Clyde and Awesome at the Breeders' Cup. I guess you can call it my memory wall."
It was not difficult becoming attached to Awesome Gem. He was that kind of horse.
You wouldn't have known that early on, as the son of Awesome Again was a bit of a rogue and tough to manage. Trainer Craig Dollase remembers him having an attitude even at the Barretts 2-year-old March sale when he was purchased for $150,000 by West Point president Terry Finley and bloodstock agent Buzz Chace. He was so tough there was no other choice but to geld him. After that, his attitude improved immensely other than a few quirks he had on the racetrack.
As a young horse at John and Jerry Amerman's Peacefield Farm in Temecula, Cal., he would refuse to load on a van, an odd habit considering how much traveling he would do throughout his career. But at the farm it would take two hours before they could get him on a van. When he arrived at the track, Dollase would arrange to get a special van for him. But as he matured he changed dramatically and no longer became a problem.
In the starting gate, he was always the perfect gentleman, but on the track he was difficult to handle and dumped many a rider. One morning at Hollywood Park when Awesome Gem was a 3-year-old, Bloom, who would often gallop the horse, and Dollase were watching him out on the track, and were delighted to see him galloping along and doing everything perfectly.
Bloom turned to Dollase and said, "My gosh, it's amazing how good this horse is now. He's really settled down and is so easy to manage." Dollase agreed that he had showed a great deal of improvement. As Awesome Gem was pulling up from his gallop, Bloom and Dollase walked down the stairs from the clocker's stand to wait for the horse and walk back to barn with him. As they waited, here came Awesome Gem...with no rider on his back. No sooner had they said how good he was doing, he dumped his rider, as if on cue.
"He's such a character," Bloom said several years ago. "He can be in the shedrow rearing up and strutting his stuff, but in his stall he's the barn pet. You could bring little kids up to him. I have two daughters and he's their favorite horse. He drops his head down and is like a little kitten in terms of petting him and feeding him carrots. He'll nibble the carrot in your hand. He just loves people and loves attention.
"This horse is such a great story. Sometimes, there's a certain thing about a horse that you can't put your finger on. You can't explain it; they just have it, and he's definitely that kind of horse. He just sparkles."
Throughout his career, Awesome Gem has had his share of bad luck and setbacks. In 2008, two weeks after running in the Santa Anita Handicap, he came down with an illness and initially was only going to miss a day or two. The next thing anyone knew he was in the hospital.
"We weren't sure we were going to be able to save him," Finley said. "He had an intestinal virus; it wasn't colic, but he got very sick and lost a lot of weight. He spent about a month at the clinic and when he came back we took our time with him."
Bloom added, "He bounced back a lot faster than we thought he would. He just loves training and being at the track."
In many of his races, he's been the victim of traffic problems, wide trips, and slow paces, but never failed to give his all.
"He's had some tough losses, but always bounces out of them well," Dollase said prior to the 2007 Breeders' Cup at Monmouth. "I thought we had it in the Pacific Classic, but as long as they come out of it good and live to fight another day that's all you can ask for. He's picked up some nice checks along the way. We're excited to be in the Classic with him and we feel he deserves a chance to run here."
Despite being up against one of the most talented Classic fields ever, with the likes of Curlin, Street Sense, Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday, Lawyer Ron, Tiago, George Washington, and Diamond Stripes, Awesome Gem closed from eighth to finish third behind Curlin and Hard Spun at odds of 28-1, the second longest price in the race.
Tough defeat after tough defeat followed, whether on sloppy and fast dirt tracks, turf, or every kind of synthetic surface. He closed fast to finish second in stakes at a mile on the dirt and on the grass, as well as 1 1/8 miles on dirt and grass, and as mentioned, narrowly missed in a grade I going 1 ¼ miles on dirt.
Then came a breakthrough race, winning the 2009 Hawthorne Gold Cup in the mud. This year, as a 7-year-old, he was third in the New Orleans Handicap in Louisiana, second in the Charles Town Classic in West Virginia, and third in the Lone Star Park Handicap in Texas.
Last fall, Terry Finley said, "He deserves to get one of these and have everything break in his favor. He shows up every time. It's obviously disappointing, but how can you be frustrated with a horse who tries so hard every time? We're not frustrated, just disappointed for him and for the partners. He's such a joy to be around. I just hope before he retires we have a chance to get him in the winner's circle in one of these big ones."
That chance came on Saturday. There he was in the Hollywood Park winner's circle after blasting through an opening on the rail to defeat (ironically) Rail Trip, the 2-5 favorite and one of the fastest rising stars in the sport.
Awesome Gem finally had some luck go his way and took full advantage of it. This was his day. This one was for West Point and Craig Dollase for their patience; for all the partners who rode along for the entire journey; for Awesome Gem himself; and finally for Clyde Haugan and a wooden carousel horse that kept alive the image of the owner's first and favorite horse until the day he died.