With an eye on Horse of the Year honors, Rick Porter pushed all his chips into the center of the table when he decided to send his prized four-year old filly to run against the boys for the first time in the $750,000 Grade-1 Woodward Stakes.
Porter’s buccaneering attitude paid off as Havre de Grace roared down the stretch and pulled clear defeating seven male rivals by a comfortable 1 1/4-length margin at Saratoga on September 3.
The classy daughter of St. Liam became only the second female winner in the 58-year history of the prestigious race, joining Rachel Alexandra who parlayed her Woodward into the 2009 Horse of the Year award. Another powerful filly, Zenyatta, won the HOTY honors last year.
Porter and trainer Larry Jones would like to keep that trend going.
“Obviously, we think we have a chance to be Horse of the Year,” said Porter, sporting his trademark red bow tie in the winner’s circle. “After we got beat a nose in the Delaware Handicap, we thought we had to do something aggressive, either run against Blind Luck again in the Personal Ensign or take the boys on. We had to do something to get everybody’s attention.
“She deserved a chance to show it and she showed it today. Larry had her in peak form. The timing was right. The spot was right. We looked at the numbers after the Whitney. I thought we could beat these horses.”
Jones wasn’t taking any chances. He personally drove Havre de Grace to Saratoga Racecourse a few days before the race from his base at Delaware Park.
"She's really special, just fantastic," said Jones, clamping his wide-brimmed Stetson on his head. "We're as good right now as anybody and I think it does move us back in front in our (filly and mare) division," he added.
Owned by Porter's Fox Hill Farm, the multiple Grade 1-winning Havre de Grace has scored in four of five starts this year. The Woodward helped erase the disappointment of the Delaware Handicap (run at 1 ¼ miles) in mid-July when she was nosed out by arch rival Blind Luck at the wire while conceding two pounds.
Sent off as a slight favorite in the Woodward, Havre de Grace broke alertly under Ramon Dominguez and settled into a stalking trip following Rule, Mission Impazible, and just to the outside of Convocation as the field made its way down the backstretch.
In the stretch drive Havre de Grace steadily cut into Rule’s margin, then easily surged past in the final furlong drawing clear by 1 ¼ lengths as she hit the wire. Havre de Grace ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.18 and earned a career-best 111 Beyer Speed Figure.
“On the backside she found herself in a beautiful spot,” Dominquez said. “She had a great stride on her, very relaxed. As soon as I started pressing, which was kind of early - at the three-eighths pole - she just kept coming for me."
"You never know how they are going to fare with the males,” said Alexis Solis, runner-up Flat Out’s rider. “and she proved today that she's a great horse,"
The easiest route that day would have been to run her an hour earlier in the Personal Ensign Stakes versus six fellow fillies. Instead, Havre de Grace faced a true test in the Woodward and she handled it like a champion.
“Winning the Woodward is not easy, especially with a filly, but she’s a special horse,” Porter said.
The last time Porter and Jones ran a filly in a high-profile race was 2008 when Eight Belles ran a game second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby. Eight Belles tragically broke both her front ankles while galloping out, and was euthanized on the fabled Churchill Downs dirt.
As for Jones, he entered the Woodward more concerned about the seven-week layoff and an altered training schedule at Delaware Park due to seven inches of rain from hurricane Irene.
"I'm impressed with her because I know how long it's been since we ran, but I knew she came out of the Delaware Handicap very good," he said. "She was ready to move forward off that race and I think she has."
“I felt pretty good at the three-eighths pole when we were coming and I wasn’t seeing anyone making a huge move. About the sixteenth pole Flat Out started leveling off and stopped chasing us. We felt pretty good it was going our way.”
With the $450,000 payday Havre de Grace pushed her bankroll to $1,986,175. She has never been off the board in 13 lifetime starts with a career record of 7-4-2. She was a $380,000 Keeneland Yearling Sale purchase in 2008.
Havre de Grace concluded her sophomore season in 2010 with a respectable third in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic and was transferred from Tony Dutrow’s barn to Jones for her four-year old campaign. The Woodward was the fourth win from five starts this year and her second in a Grade 1 - she also won the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. She has split decisions with Blind Luck, trouncing her in the Azeri at Oaklawn in March and losing a nose decision in the Delaware Handicap. The latter is considered the best race run anywhere this year.
The powerful filly is named for a town in Maryland which was once home to one of the sport’s top racetracks where famed gangster Arnold Rothstein was part owner. From 1912 through 1950 it spotlighted racing by the likes of Man o’ War, War Admiral, Seabiscuit and other elite runners.
At the Woodward an enthusiastic crowd of 24,430 turned out on a glorious Saturday and cheered boisterously as Havre de Grace was led into the winner’s circle.
“Like I kept trying to tell her, I’ve never seen what men could do well that there isn’t some girl out there that thought they could do it just a little bit better,” maintained Jones. “I kept trying to tell her, ‘Hey, you could be that girl.’”
“She just doesn't have a weak link. She does it on all occasions. Where some of them have so much heart and courage to do it, others have pure speed and class, she's got it all. And when you look her eyeball-to-eyeball-- she just gets tougher."
The day after the Woodward Jones reported Havre de Grace came out of the race in good order and gobbled up extra grain that the trainer put in her tub before heading back to her stall at Delaware Park.
Classic or Ladies Classic
More than likely she will make her next start in the Grade 1, $350,000 Beldame Stakes against females on Oct. 1 at Belmont Park, according to Jones.
“Our next race will be against the girls because we don’t want to knock her out before the Breeders’ Cup.”Following the Beldame, the plan is to ship Havre de Grace directly to Keeneland and train over the Polytrack leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, which will be run over Churchill Downs’s dirt surface.
“I think there’s an advantage to doing the Poly to dirt thing,’’ Jones noted. “We had good success doing it with Hard Spun before the Derby.’’
Jones indicated that Havre de Grace will likely be pre-entered to both the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5 and the $2 million Ladies' Classic a day earlier. Thoroughbred racing fans will be pulling for her to take the Classic route.
Right now her main competition is Tizway and Blind Luck. Both of those horses are expected to be in action on Oct. 1 as well. Blind Luck is slated to start in the 1 1/8 miles Lady’s Secret at Santa Anita while Tizway will try to prove himself at 1 1/4 miles in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.
“I’m going to let Rick tell me where he wants to run, and I’m going to try to have her ready,’’ Jones said. “He’s talking about entering in both races. If Blind Luck decided to run in the Classic I think that would be all it would take to have us run in the Classic.’’
Zenyatta was the first female to win the Breeders Cup Classic. Rachel Alexandra was the first filly to capture the Woodward. Havre de Grace is shooting for both of them. And, she’s half way there.