The margin after a mile and a quarter was a half-length, Rail Trip finishing in the center of the track, and Awesome Gem completing the course in a spot that a horse named Rail Trip might figure to occupy. John Henry was a horse who, if he could see you, wasn't going to let you outrun him, and he lost an Arlington Million once when his view of the winning horse, Tolomeo, was blocked by a third horse between them. I'm not saying that Rail Trip has the grit of a John Henry, but it looked to me that after he made the lead, he didn't spot Awesome Gem coming. Rafael Bejarano, Rail Trip's jockey, didn't say anything about this possibility after the race, and Hollywood Park didn't make Rail Trip available for an interview.
This year's older-horse division is hardly a bunch that gets the heart pounding. They run these races, and someone has to win them, and then these someones move up in the rankings, but from week to week no giants of the turf emerge. Rail Trip was still below the radar before the Gold Cup, even though his record of eight wins, two seconds and one third in 11 starts was impeccable. The trouble is, he's taken four years to run those 11 races, and now he's taken a half-step backward.
If these horses meet again at Del Mar, in the Pacific Classic, Rail Trip will again be the favorite and will probably win, but meantime Craig Dollase, the trainer of Awesome Gem, can be congratulated for his pursuit of a Grade 1 with his veteran. This was Awesome Gem's 13th start in a Grade 1, and his first win. "He's like fine wine," Dollase said. "He's just getting better with age."
Dollase may have figured that there had to be a Gold Cup out there someplace with his name on it. In 2002, Dollase saddled Momentum, whose nose wasn't long enough to beat Sky Jack, and the year before that Dollase's Futural was disqualified from the win after being first across the line. The Hollywood Park stewards' ears are still ringing over that one.
In the last 12 months alone, Dollase has shipped Awesome Gem from pillar to post in search of wins. The gelded son of Awesome Again has visited eight tracks, five of them outside California. All Dollase had to show for it was last year's Hawthorne Gold Cup. Awesome Again travels because the underfooting is not a consideration. "Synthetic, grass, mud, you name it," Dollase said.
Seventeen times, Awesome Gem has been second or third in his career. In the Hollywood Gold Cup, the longshot Tres Borrachos (translation: three drunks), who might have been one of the pace horses in a six-horse field, broke poorly and then there was only one horse, Compari, to make the pace. The plodding fractions were ludicrous, and the winning time, 2:03.31, was the slowest since Seabiscuit in the first running, in 1938.
Rail Trip is a stalker by reputation, but this time he was asked to play grinder, and still almost pulled it off. He had the widest trip, the winner the shortest, and there was the sense that Ron Ellis, Rail Trip's trainer, was not thrilled by Bejarano's ride. "I don't know why (the horse was wide)," Ellis said after the race. "You would have to ask (the jockey)." Bejarano had won twice with Rail Trip at this Hollywood meet, but not this time. Rail Trip needed a rail trip to win, and he got something far worse.