Another girl! Havre de Grace

| October 20, 2011

The lesson is pounded into our skulls spring after spring as promising 3-year-old thoroughbreds careen off the road to Louisville and Churchill Downs while trying to negotiate the almost impossible journey into the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle.

But it’s tough to scale to the top of the peak in any sport, and especially so in Thoroughbred racing. Last week, I penned a column that looked at a list of the “most compelling horses” pointing toward the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs on Friday, Nov. 4 and Saturday, Nov. 5. Less than 24 hours after I turned the piece in to Voice-Tribune editors, two horses from a short list had been declared out of the championship weekend.

Another injury

One, the German-bred Arc de Triomphe winner Danedream, will simply eye other targets. The other, the California-based grass star Acclamation, was felled by injury. Not a career-ending injury, mind you. Just a poorly timed one.

On Saturday, Britain’s first Qipco Champions Day – the start-up of a multi-race day in that country built to rival some key races of Breeders’ Cup – included at least one horse that could emerge as a major player for the U.S. races at Churchill Downs with a big victory in the day’s key event, the Champion Stakes.

That horse was international star So You Think, already a Group One winner in Europe and Australia, whose trainer Aidan O’Brien was eyeing a date on the Churchill Downs dirt – So You Think’s first try on the surface in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

So you think?

So You Think could still come to the Cup, but his star lost some of its glimmer when he was upset in the Champion by French-based longshot Cirrus des Aigles. It’s not clear if So You Think’s runner-up finish will be enough to merit a quick trip to Louisville, but he won’t be quite the incoming presence he would have been had he managed to win the Champion.

He seemed to be in a perfect spot throughout the race, but was not good enough in the run to the finish.

While the difficulty in simply getting to the starting gate is a struggle that is as old as racing, another relatively recent trend remains strong and it could be good news for the current favorite for the Nov. 5 Classic.

Havre de Grace, a 4-year-old filly trained by Hopkinsville native J. Larry Jones, remains the early choice for her expected run against males in the 1 ¼-mile Classic. If she pulls that off, the daughter of the ill-fated sire Saint Liam, the winner of the 2005 Breeders Cup Classic who sired only one crop of foals before he lost his life after being injured in a freak farm accident.

Another female?

If Havre de Grace wins the Classic, she’ll be just the second female in 28 years to whip the boys in the race. But she would be the second in three years, following the lead of Zenyatta’s history synthetic track win at Santa Anita in 2009 and a near-miss by that star last year at Churchill Downs, where she lost by a head to Blame.

A win by Havre de Grace’s owner would probably earn the filly an Eclipse Award that would honor her as Horse of the Year, and she would be the third straight female to earn that honor – an unprecedented string that started when Rachel Alexandra nipped Zenyatta for that honor in 2009.

Girl power needed

Havre de Grace must seize her day and earn that honor, but the Girl Power that seemed to fuel the heroics of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in their campaigns is still very strong. Havre de Grace just isn’t as well known, thanks in part to the fact that she might have been the second-best 4-year-old filly in training. Blind Luck, winner of the 2010 Kentucky Oaks, beat Havre de Grace straight up in their last meeting, but her career is apparently over after running the only poor race of her three-year career in her most recent start in California.

But females have had a great year against the boys. Havre de Grace beat older males in the Woodward at Saratoga, joining Rachel Alexandra as the only females to accomplish that feat.

In the spring, a filly named Inglorious beat the boys in Canada’s Queen’s Plate, the north of the border version of the Kentucky Derby.  Nearly three weeks ago, Danedream demolished the men in Paris in the Arc de Triomphe – a rare feat for females, but an unprecedented fate for a German female.

The roll continued last Sunday when the Irish-bred Sarah Lynx, a 22-1 shot and the only filly in a field of 16, shot through along the rail to win the Pattison Canadian International on turf at Toronto’s Woodbine.

Although she’s been retired for nearly a year, Zenyatta remains the focus of the Breeders’ Cup ad campaign as the event searches for a star to draw the fans through the Churchill Downs admission gates next month.

Havre de Grace doesn’t have time to become that marquee star going in, although she is sure to pick up increased press coverage and visibility in the days leading up to the race. And she will surely be a media favorite if she gets the job done in the twilight on Saturday, Nov. 5 beneath the Twin Spires.

She’s fast enough and more than held her own with the brilliant Blind Luck. The only major questions going into the Classic would appear to be her ability to win at a mile and a quarter against an international group of male stars. And, like all other horses, she must have a good journey in that race.

But American racing’s unprecedented three-year run of Girl Power remains very much alive with just over two weeks to go before the Breeders’ Cup. If she runs her race and has just a little luck on her side, Havre de Grace could be worthy of an ad campaign of her own once the 2011 Classic is run.

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Category: Horse Sense

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