Let’s talk about… Hawk Wing - was he monster or meh?

Hawk Wing: Monster or meh?

In the first of our new series, designed to provoke some light discussion while all UK racing is off, Ben Linfoot and Richard Mann debate Hawk Wing. Was he monster or meh?

We want your feedback on Hawk Wing - check out details of how to contact us towards the foot of the article - and the early views from our readers.

Ben Linfoot - Meh.

I didn’t expect to be writing about the merits of Hawk Wing’s career in the aftermath of Cheltenham 2020, but this is where we are. Strange times indeed.

Of course there are more important things concerning our lives at present but this ‘Let’s talk about’ series is designed to be a bit of light relief for the racing fan as we discuss some topics from horse racing’s great and glorious past.

All subjects are open and we want you to get involved – see information on that below – and please do get in touch with your own views on the day’s talking point.

Hawk Wing may seem a strange starting point for the series but we on the Sporting Life racing desk quickly realised that he still polarises opinion almost 20 years on.

While Rich still has posters of the mercurial son of Woodman on the walls of his bedroom in Goole, I remain happy to label him as one of the great underachievers of the modern game.

Five wins from 12 runs was a less-than moderate return for a horse of his ability, a horse, as Rich states below, who ended up being rated a whopping 137 following that 2003 Lockinge romp.

Yes, he should’ve beaten Rock Of Gibraltar in the Guineas and yes, he did really well to finish second in the Derby against a stout stayer in High Chaparral, who went onto win four more races at the very top level.

But the fact is he didn’t win either of those races and he was hardly impressive in his sole win from six outings at three, when winning one of the worst renewals of the Coral-Eclipse that there has ever been.

He was a good horse, not a great horse, but there is no denying he was absolutely brilliant that one day at Newbury, on his seasonal reappearance as a four-year-old, when blasting away to win the Lockinge by 11 lengths.

It was a small-field race run in driving rain on good ground and he got an easy lead. You can sort of see how a wide-margin win came about. But it was a power-packed victory run in a great time and it does remain one of the best miling performances of the 21st century.

Even watching that race back, though, you look at that high head carriage and think how enigmatic he was, even in his finest hour.

But for me, if anything, he’s probably remembered too favourably because of that Lockinge win.

Put it this way, if Frankel had to give him 3lb in a handicap over a mile you’d be getting a big price about Mann’s ‘monster’.

Hawk Wing- 2003 Lockinge Stakes

Richard Mann - Monster.

Why is it that when we talk about the great Flat horses of the last 20 years or so, we talk about the brilliant Frankel, Enable, Sea The Stars, Zarkava even, but never Hawk Wing?

In fact, many wouldn’t even put him at the top of the pecking order of those to have come through the hands of master Ireland trainer Aidan O’Brien. That honour might fall to any of Australia, Henrythenavigator, Minding or even two from Hawk Wing’s own generation, Rock of Gibraltar and High Chaparral.

It seems strange to think that Hawk Wing has never got the recognition he deserves. Maybe he was an easy target; another Ballydoyle talking horse who was beaten in the 2000 Guineas and the Derby. But he still finished his career with an official rating off 137 – just 3lb shy of Frankel – and there wasn’t a soul in Newmarket who would have argued he wasn’t an unlucky loser on May 4, 2002.

Nor would anyone argue he didn’t run a mighty race in the Derby just a matter of weeks later, stepping up four furlongs and making the aforementioned stamina-laden stablemate, High Chaparral, pull out all the stops on Epsom Downs having travelled through the race like much the best horse.

Hawk Wing gets knocked for following his subsequent Coral Eclipse victory with two defeats at odds-on before being asked to go to the well again before his three-year-old season was out, this time on dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in late October. And all this at a time when O’Brien was powerless to stop a bug running through Ballydoyle.

It would have been enough to finish most horses but Hawk Wing returned the following spring to produce a performance of spellbinding brilliance in the Lockinge Stakes, routing QEII winner Where Or When by 11 lengths with leaving Breeders’ Cup Mile hero Domedriver trailing a further eight lengths back in fourth.

It was barely believable to all but O’Brien, who maintained after the race that his faith in his charge had never dimmed and that Hawk Wing was a horse with an ‘unbelievable amount of natural ability’ who ‘always quickens your heart.’

It was that performance in Berkshire that ensured Hawk Wing would retire to stud with an official rating of 137, his final start at Royal Ascot seeing him suffer a career-ending injury, but it is a number that very few racing fans are willing to believe.

Why is that? Maybe racing fans don’t like hype and revel when a bubble is burst, but surely Hawk Wing deserves credit for finishing second to two wonderful racehorses in two different Classics – Frankel didn’t go further than 1m2f in his all whole career and ran exclusively in England – before overcoming his setbacks to blow apart a strong Group One field the following season? Surely that was the performance of a champion?

He wasn’t perfect, that’s probably why I loved him, but Hawk Wing was a monster and I’ll never forget him.

Send us your thoughts on Hawk Wing

What did you think of Hawk Wing? Monster or meh? Does he deserve to be rated just 3lb shy of Frankel? Or was he a one-hit wonder with too many imperfections to be considered a modern great?

Send your comments into racingfeedback@sportinglife.com and if you’ve any ideas for topics you want covering over the coming days and weeks please let us know.

George Goodenough: Never got to see Hawk Wing in the flesh but my brother was paddock-side at Epsom. When the rug came off there was an audible gasp from the crowd, for before them stood an equine Adonis. So for me it's Monster for his appearance as much as his ability.

Neraj: I would say Hawk Wing was a monster on his day, as has been said before he should have won the Guineas and probably would have won it by a good distance, the ground went against him in the Derby and I’m not entirely sure he stayed the trip as well as the winner, class alone allowed him to travel so well and go with the winner until the end when High Chapparal pulled away. A lot of horses don't recover after a tough Derby, I dont think he was the same after that race. The Lockinge was what he would have done in the Guineas.

Andrew Pelis: Enjoying the various angles covered in the Hawk Wing debate. Of course this all boils down to how you define "great". Undoubtedly Hawk Wing was a smart horse but each year produces smart horses. But the bottom line is he did not dominate his own generation, at two, three or four.

He was infinitely beatable and by horses who were very good, but not greats. There was a lack of consistency overall. In the pantheon of Aidan O'Brien's very best horses handled, I suggest he might struggle to make the top ten.

Very hard to consider him a great in a generation - and stable, that also contained seven-time Group One winner Rock Of Gibraltar and dual Derby and Breeders' Cup Turf winner High Chaparral.

It comes down to racecourse achievement ultimately and is easy to see how the above two are better-remembered for their accomplishments over several races, where they beat far more Group One winners than Hawk Wing managed.

Nostalgia makes one misty-eyed and the manner of his Lockinge win burns deep in the memory but in many cases, perhaps also clouds the truth. He did not replicate that run before or after, meaning the jury is out. Much for me like Harbinger's King George. But it was in many ways a one-hit wonder when all the stars aligned just right for him on the day.

Mick Kinane rode many top class horses and whilst I am sure he would include Hawk Wing among them, it would be stretching it to think he would suggest he was a "great".

Ratings, much like this debate, are down to personal opinion. Is it possible for a horse to receive an excessive rating or to be underestimated? Yes! It is questionable to think that Newbury rating was entirely in keeping with the rest of his career.

I in no way am denigrating a magnificent horse, who gave his all and risked all for our enjoyment. He absolutely deserves to be remembered but sadly I think the rating he received caused enough controversy to override what else he did on the track. It has left the wrong memories for me.

David Parker: Great idea interesting reading about a very talented horse who sadly was very unpredictable from a form and punters view one can only imagine he must have been very difficult to train. Look forward to the next instalment hope your going to preview some of the jumping greats from years gone by to.

Brett Armstrong: Being a Hawk Wing fan I’ve got to defend the great horse Although it’s always said that great horses always find a way to win, the hand that HW was dealt as a 3yo was hard to overcome. The 2000 Guineas was split into 2 packs with all the pace on the rail.

A really poor ride by Spencer who only realised he was behind way too late for the horse to peg them back, coupled with a horse that went on to record multiple g1 races on the best part of the course.

As I remember, the derby was run after a week of horrible rain, a distance HW was only going to stay on good ground, against a horse who won multiple g1 at his minimum distance and it’s more forgotten how far the first 2 pulled away from the rest of the field.

Take High Chaparral out and HW was a 18 lengths winner of the derby. The only objections I would give about him his his rating. I bet O’Brien and Coolmore couldn’t believe his rating when it was released and retired him as soon as any niggle came about 137? Frankel would give him 3 pounds probably 5 but not 7.

Thomas in Dublin: Hawk Wing is surely the go-to case study for the ratings enthusiasts who (in my view rightly) argue that a horse can be rated as an all-time great on the back of one or a handful of exceptional performances. He was utterly jaw-dropping in the Lockinge but also ran a top-class figure in the National Stakes at two and in the 2,000 Guineas, when he won his side by daylight and nearly ran down an all-time great miler in Rock Of Gibraltar, who had a hugely more favoured draw. Added to that, he beat the rest of the field by a postcode in a Derby in which his stamina only ebbed away late behind another monster in High Chaparral. I have no doubt in my mind that he was one of the greatest Flat horses of the last 20 years.

Thomas McCullough: I had the privilege of witnessing him as two year old winning the National Stakes that day he was a monster.

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