Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ode To Grace

What is Havre De Grace to this writer, this fan? I believe at this point this filly is pretty much the center of my racing world, and with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic she will be a landslide winner of Horse of the Year and the most talked about horse in training and possibly reach status that only the Black Caviers, Golidkovas, Rachel Alexandras, and Zenyattas were able to achieve.  Let’s go back just a bit to get an understanding of the importance that Havre De Grace, we’ll call her Gracie, has had on the game of horse racing as a whole in 2011, on the lives of her connections and fans also.
2010 was a very good year for the filly, stepping into a rivalry with Blind Luck the talented little filly from California started a following of this rivalry that we’ve never seen before, why you might ask.  Mostly because we’ve not seen a rivalry of this nature actually takes place on the track here in the United States.  Tackling Blind Luck 4 times in 2010, Gracie lost to Blind Luck twice and beat her once, and both lost the Ladies Classic to Unrivaled Belle at Churchill Downs.  Being totally honest about things, although I followed her races in 2010, it wasn’t until the news that she was being turned over to Larry Jones and headed to my home track Oaklawn that I really took notice of the filly.  After being given ample time to rest and recharge her batteries after her sophomore season, Havre De Grace started her training at Oaklawn in the most bizarre of fashions. You could say very lazily.  Her 4 furlong work over the Oaklawn course was slow, quite slow, how slow you might ask, slow enough that Jones worked her again 4 days later.  This is the type of training that makes Larry Jones stand out as a true horseman; he doesn’t plug in numbers into a database or spreadsheet to get an indication as to when a horse should work.  He looked at how Gracie got nothing at all out of the slow breeze and decided they would not wait another 6  days.  This type of thinking is impressive and not seen nowadays, this trainer was going to make sure that his horse was fit going into her prep, even if that meant asking a bit more than what was normal.  The rest as they say is history.  6 starts later, 5 wins-3 in Grade 1 races and we are looking at the completion of one of the great campaigns by a filly or mare.
The statement that Gracie had a great deal to do with reviving a year of racing that to many was going to fail miserably when compared to the past few years is an understatement.   The outlook was bleak as the defending Horse of the Year and 2009 Horse of the years both fillies or mares were retired in 2010. That left a weak handicap division and still developing 3 year olds with much potential but with very little ability to bring attention to the sport other than the Triple Crown.  With the departure of Uncle Mo from the Triple Crown trail that left two horses that would battle it out for supremacy.  And in the end the best horse, the horse that was giving time to rest in the correct manner, and the horse that was campaigned as a champion in Gracie is still thriving.
For me personally, Gracie has meant everything and the fact that I have been privileged to enter the winner’s Circle for both of her victories at Oaklawn meant the world to me.  It was amazing to be close to her like that, to be in the presence of greatness.  Now don’t get me wrong it would take quite the filly, no quite the horse to tear me away from the love of the Greatest filly I’ve every seen in person in Rachel Alexandra. But Havre De Grace is certainly knocking on the door of that type of greatness.  
As I get ready to embark on my trip to the Breeders Cup in Louisville in a few hours, I think back to the many wonderful memories of 2011 and what a spectacular year this has been, and I look forward to 2012 with anticipation.  First things first though, there is some unfinished business that must be attended to by many of my favorites this weekend, but none more than the Super Star Filly, Havre De Grace.  I want to thank her owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm for allowing us to fall in love with this filly and even more so for campaigning her in a way that will allow her to show her greatness and class to the world.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Havre De Grace finishes Beldame Preparations

Leading Horse of the Year Candidate, Havre De Grace put the finishing touches on her preparations for Belmont Park's Grade 1 Beldame at Delaware Park this morning.  Completing a 5 furlong workout in 1:02.20.  The daughter of 2005 Horse of the Year, Saint Liam has won 4 out of 5 races in 2011, previously taking down handicap males in the 2011 edition of the Historic Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. 
Havre De Grace will carry 123 lbs when facing possible rivals: Royal Delta, Its Tricky, Superespresso, Payton D'oro and 2010 Beldame winner Life at Ten. 
Havre De Grace is owned by Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm and Trained by Larry Jones.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Simply Put -Opportunity Missed

By: Wesley D. White

Will this continue to be the statement made regarding horse racing? Will the leaders that govern the game of horse racing continue to drop the ball? The spectacle that is The Triple Crown, The Breeders Cup, in America at least seem to be so far removed from the reality of the way that this great sport should be treated. Curlin Vs Big Brown, Rachel Alexandra Vs Zenyatta, and now Havre De Grace vs. Blind Luck. Rivalries that either never materialized on the track or while being contested on the track have gone virtually unheard and ignored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

The decree from the NTRA and its governing body and many others in the industry is that people are not there in the stands to support the sport. People don’t put their money into the product, but what product are we supplying them. What mainstream publicity & marketing is there to hold on to as fans, and non fans of the sport?

Thinking back to 2008 when Big Brown was making his splash on the national scene, the publicity was horrible for his group of owners, they were viewed as crooks. Then to be trained by a conditioner with a laundry list of violations as long as most convicts rap sheets didn’t help the situation. But a budding rivalry was there for the taking. Curlin the defending HOY and top rated horse in the world was going about his business, as consistent as ever, Big Brown going into the Derby and Preakness undefeated stubbed his toe a bit in the Belmont, but lost nothing in defeat, he was a champion race horse. And what did the NTRA and their governing bodies do to put these two competitors on the national stage & on the track. Absolutely nothing, we know there was plenty of banter as Rick Dutrow talked the talk, remember his statement after the Haskell win, "Curlin couldn't win the Derby, we could, Curlin couldn't win [the Haskell], we could. Curlin got beat [by] a filly. We haven't. Our horse is undefeated on the grass. Curlin isn't. I don't know why people think Curlin is such a good horse. We're way better than Curlin."

Jess Jackson principle owner of Curlin came back in a statement and showed his hand when saying: "I don't know that there is any horse his equal right now and I loved to match Big Brown," said Jess Jackson, owner of Curlin. "I never thought he (Big Brown) was as good but I've always wanted to find out? At the wire you find out. That's when you know what you have."

So the setting was there, the table was set everything was in place for the NTRA to communicate with both sets of connections, set up the race, there were plenty of options and ample time before the Breeders Cup for the two warriors to square off a couple of times before the Cup. The Woodward run at Saratoga and the JCGC run at Belmont were both the most logical spots, and that is where champion horses run. But there was no movement by the NTRA or anyone else for that matter; they both went their separate ways. We all know what happened, as BB suffered an injury and Curlin finished out his career at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

What are we to make of these developments, or the lack there of? Well the industry is suffering, and it seems as if someone is waiting for some miracle to occur that fixes the problem. Instead of being proactive and jumping at the opportunity to put our stars on the front page of the media and engage the general public, those that govern horse racing figure that it should stand on it’s on. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, and what better way to invigorate the industry than to start with the body that governs horse racing. The game previously was for the older, upper class citizens who would spend their time and money at racetracks across the country. It seems as if this is the demographic of those on the committees making decisions for the ntra. I would see the need for some younger blood or move innovative thinking members to take the reins. Forward thinking, now that’s a concept that we’ve not seen in a very long time, anticipating what might work out much better in the future. Therefore putting a vice grip on the younger audience and those women that have always thought that horse racing was a man’s pastime.

Innovative thinking is what propels great companies to do even greater things in the future. Innovative thinking means making it more attractive to place your horse in a certain race to run against another that would be considered a rival. The NTRA could step in and state that if both Big Brown and Curlin entered the starting gate of the Woodward that: all nomination fees, all shipping fees, all vetting fees and a 50,000 incentive check would go to each set of connections, advertise the race and purchase an hour on a national television station. The buildup would have been amazing. The race would have been something for the ages. More than anything though horse racing would have been center stage on a Saturday night with the two top horses in the world or at least the Unites States running at Saratoga. Is this Missed Opportunity instead of Forward or Innovative thinking?

We won’t rehash the Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta situation. I believe there was some form of ducking and rightfully so coming from each side. The consensus nationwide though especially after Rachel garnered the attention she did by winning the Oaks by 20 and then wheeling back two weeks and defeating males, was that these two super stars needed to meet a couple of times at the very least. Missed opportunity, absolutely, the only races that would have been appropriate for these two would have been the Personal Ensign and the Beldame. Both of these races could have easily been on the schedule of both superstars. There didn’t need to be much forward thinking with this one, it just needed to be common sense and the will power to make it happen. Instead of doing that the powers that be sat on their hands and allowed both fillies to go their way and missed most likely the greatest opportunity and spectacle in the history of the sport. Incredible Kudos to Charles Cella to try to make the super race happen at Oaklawn, unfortunately both stars were not at full steam by Mid April. Is this missed opportunity instead of forward or innovative thinking?

Moving forward to 2011, and coming out of 2010 two fillies, one on the East coast and another on the West coast had met a few times on the track. This rivalry actually took place on the track in 2010 with Blind Luck having a 3-1 edge over all and a 2-1 edge in races which one of the fillies triumphed. It really wouldn’t have taken a great deal in 2011 to get this rivalry budding and on the thoughts and minds of people. The First matchup at Oaklawn Park went by with very little if any fanfare, as Havre De Grace triumphed by almost 4 lengths in the Azeri Stakes. Opportunity Missed, to the fullest, but there was plenty of time left in the year of racing. Going forward the two fillies went their separate way for the next race, prep for the Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park. One would assume with such a colossal clash of the titans ranked #1 and #2 in the NTRA poll that the industry would show by means of publicity and marketing that they wanted to get behind these two great horses prior to this race. Unfortunately not, nowhere in the main stream media was this race made mention of, and what an opportunity lost here as these two dueled with each other double digit lengths in front of the nearest competitor to the finish line with Blind Luck winning by the length of a nose over her rival. Stuff of legends, easily, unfortunately only, and I repeat only die hard race fans were able to witness such a stirring renewal of the rivalry. What makes it worse is the fact that the race was not guaranteed to go off until the weights had been released by the racing secretary and one set of connections received the two pound allowance that was afforded their filly. The Trainer stating in an interview afterwards: “I thought she should get some weight from Havre de Grace,’’ Hollendorfer said. “I wasn’t going to run if they put me at equal weights or gave me a pound. They gave us two pounds. We’re coming into her backyard.’’ This did not deter either side as they both showed up and gave a performance that will go down in history as one of the great female 1 ¼ races in history. Where was the national media, where was ntra with the marketing and promotions and publicity. They were nowhere to be found.

This article is being written on August 9th of 2011, and as of approximately less than a month ago the NTRA released a website promoting the rivalry. I again give a great deal of credit to Bob Ehalt a writer at NTRA who has kept the rivalry on the front page of that website as much as possible, but in viewing the website created for the rivalry, I wonder if there wasn’t a more professional way to put this together, this showcase of the top two runners in America. Is this missed opportunity instead of forward or innovative thinking?

As a lover of the sport of Kings, myself like many others only want what’s best for the game and for the industry as a whole. The problem we are faced with right now is not an insurmountable one; it’s one that needs fixing by means of some shake up at the core or foundation of the entities that govern the sport. As of right now they are doing so in a very passive manner, the sport should have new blood willing to take chances, yes mistakes might be made, but that is going to be considered better than not doing anything at all. Promote big days of racing, and I am referring to more than just the “Summers’ at Saratoga” campaign, although a wonderful program, there are times when racing dates like this just don’t fit the regular mold of what one would consider a marketing bonanza. These two fillies Havre De Grace and Blind Luck, they are your marketing bonanza, there for the older and more experienced race fans, they are there for the young fans or newbies if you will and they are there for the ladies to latch onto, and be diehard fans of both. I would hope that we see change in the future so that the game can progress by means of innovative, forward planning and thinking, why, so that main stream America can know exactly who these superstars on the race track are and therefore giving the game the chance to not only be known as the “sport of kings” but the “Sport of the people”.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Statement on the passing of Jess Jackson

Reading the words "Jess Jackson dead at 81" stopped me in my tracks this morning. As a huge fan of his race horses, his attitude towards the game and the ambitiousness he showed in campaigning his horses to be the best horses on the planet, it hurt to consider the fact that he is no longer with us.  My thoughts, very selfish indeed, at first then were diverted to his family, Barbara Banke, his children, friends and acquaintances who knew this man all are in pain due to his passing. Jess Jackson campaigned 2-time Horse of the Year Curlin, and the 2009, 3-year old filly champion and Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra.  Many questioned his decisions, but Jackson always put the welfare of his horses and the fans first. Allowing fans at numerous venues to see his horses up front, taking on challenges that included running his horses on turf, and synthetics that they were not accustomed to and even taking Curlin to Dubai, this showed him to be a true sportsman.  Taking chances, and enjoying watching his horses develop into champions.  This attitude towards competition will be missed.

Rest In Peace Mr. Jess Jackson:
                My sincerest condolences go out to Barbara Banke, the rest of the Jackson StoneStreet family, friends and employees of this great man.  From the very beginning Mr. Jackson was a throwback to the old school owners that said: “My horse is faster than yours”.  The confidence he showed in campaigning his charges to be a champion race horse no matter the gender is something that will never be forgotten and will go down in Horse Racing lore.  Imagine a filly taking on males 3 times during the sophomore season. Imagine an owner allowing the fans to vote on the next start for his horse, imagine the owner of a Horse Of the Year bringing the horse back for another year.  These things are unfounded, but the norm for such an ambitious, courageous man, who by means of his stature brought fans back to the game like we’ve never seen before.  As a horse racing fan, and as a human being, I am very saddened to hear of Mr. Jackson’s passing.  And more importantly as a family man, prayers go out to his family due to grieving his passing.  You’re sportsmanship and ambitiousness will be sorely missed Mr. Jackson. Rest  In Peace.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Triple Crown Trail/Train Wreck

Normally the trail to the Triple Crown gives us exciting finishes in the top prep races run throughout the early portion of the winter/spring. This years renewal of the preps for the Triple Crown has done just the opposite.  Some say that this is the worst crop of 3 year olds since 2008 when Big Brown won the Derby from the 20 post, I would tend to agree that these colts are at least that mediocre, and one of the worst groups of 3 yr olds we’ve seen in quite some time. Some say run a filly in the Derby, their times are very similar, as a matter of fact R Heat Lightening ran her Oaks Prep a full second faster than Dialed In in the Florida Derby 24 hours later.  The banter for a filly to run in the Derby is legitimate, and two that I think would stand a fantastic chance of doing well are Zazu and Joyful Victory. Both are horses that relax and rate and would not find much trouble running past this group of Grade III 3 year olds.

Here are a few topics that really matter this time of year when it comes to dealing with those who should be considered as Contenders compared to Pretenders.

“Consider the times” – some people want to throw out times, especially when their favorite horse wins a race in a mediocre time or is just simply a slow horse, Dialed In falls into this category, the fact that Nick Zito is able to sell a dime store horse for a million dollar price to some on these blogs and horse racing fans in general gives indication that more and more are thinking with their hearts and not their heads. Closing the final 1/8th of a mile in almost 14 seconds took me off this horses band wagon, and well actually it should have knocked the wheels off the band wagon. Going forward some thought that Zito would crank the horse to get him ready for the Derby, if the 4f breeze in and uninspiring :49 gives you indication of being cranked, please feel free to lower his odds to 2-1 come post time. The objective handicapper would not take that chance.

“Consider the Conditioning”- humans make mistakes, but underestimating the movement forward of 3 year olds this time of year by Todd Pletcher (oh yeah an eclipse award winning trainer) and running his horse short in the Wood Memorial off a series of slow works that gave no indication of building a foundation, and then the quirky prep schedule that put Uncle MO on target to contest another 8.5f race impressively, well words can’t describe the disappointment of watching this horse struggle home the final ¼ mile in the Wood. The horse was short, that is all there was to it, when breaking the gates did he break like a horse with a GI issue, excuses of that nature don’t fly with me when dealing with horses that are raked with a fine tooth comb almost every day of their lives, can he bounce back, maybe, is that likely, absolutely not, his best bet is to look for 9f races down the line to try to garner 3 year old honors. Right now ArchArchArch leads in that category with at least 2 Graded stakes win.

“Consider the pedigree” The factor ran to his pedigree on Saturday at Oaklawn Park, breaking sharp but being out footed to the lead by a couple of horses that were better out of the gate, he was in trouble early, and he didn’t like taking dirt and he didn’t like have to rate with a hold on him, these things show up when a sprinter with the need to lead type running style has to take back for the first time, he resented other horses being beside and in front of him, when they hit the stretch he ranged up and then he spit the bit, not sure if that signals good things to come for this horse at a route of ground but I would tend to say no. What does he have, he does possess amazing speed that he can carry about a mile or so, and so leave him at that, let him take on Goldikova in the BC Mile, or maybe look at the Met Mile and other prestigious races. Be smart and take care of your horse, take a page from the connections of Turbulent Descent, they recognized that 9f was asking too much of their filly and took her back to sprints, there is nothing at all wrong with that. Some just have the Derby Fever and can’t leave well enough alone.

Lastly “Consider the Excuse or Excuses” There are plenty of them out there, what will you do when your horse loses. Find a vet that will validate (1) a small health concern, don’t step up to the plate and say in all honesty “I had him short today”, (2) he’s not cranked, that was the excuse for Dialed In running so slow in the Fl Derby, (3) Equipment Change, anyone ever heard of “If it aint broke don’t fix it” adding blinkers, removing blinkers, figure Eight, I mean what else would we need to do to see if we can’t get the horse to run faster. Resorting to these measures says that something isn’t right, but then when the horse resents it and throws in a clunker you want to go back to square 1, for what reason, I guess because you want a result like the one you received in the Gotham when a horse like Stay Thirsty wins by 4 lengths. “Displaced Palate” – probably legitimate, but you never know, saving face with that one in terms of The Factor is certainly not needed, he’s respected and always will be so hopefully they will get that fixed and Garcia will not be “Grabbing a hold of the horse” in the future so he can run his race. (4) Injuries have taken their toll on the Graded Earnings list. Tapizar, Clubhouse Ride, Permier Pegasus, Author’s Tale, boys of Tosconova , there are others I may be missing but these things happen, for some reason over half mentioned on this list come from California, why is that, why can’t they get their track right to stop the injuries. Hopefully there will be a fix soon, but the Derby Trail is affected by defections like this and its sad to see for these connections.

The Derby being wide open is an understatement, never before have we seen it like this, with such a group of inconsistent, sometimes slow horses, hopefully someone will emerge, and I see that horse being Nehro. Sleep on him if you want. He wants 10f and will get it on May 7. You heard it here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

2011 Apple Blossom Champion - Havre De Grace


Turning for home, things hadnt panned out as the connections of Fox Hill Farm had quite expected. Pacesetter Absinthe Minded doddled through timid fractions of 23.90 seconds for the opening quarter, 47.92 for the half-mile, and 1:11.99 for six furlongs. Havre de Grace began to advance approaching the final turn, moved to third in the upper stretch, then put in a determined bid to catch Switch, who had taken the lead an eighth of a mile from home. The fillies finished fast, with Havre de Grace, who was ridden by Ramon Dominguez, covering the mile and a sixteenth in a strong 1:42.19. The fury of her finishing kick can be summed up in one word, "Amazing" closing her final 1/16th of a mile in under 6 seconds as stated by Larry Jones during the winners circle presentation, even Jones himself was surprised and amazing by his fillies' ability to run down dual Grade 1 winner Switch, Havre de Grace closed with a fury—sprinting the last 1/16 in 5.94 seconds. "The first part was a little slower that I thought maybe it would be," said Larry Jones, who trains Havre de Grace for Fox Hill Farm. "The only concern I had was maybe they weren't going fast enough with the lengths she had to make up. "She had to make up four on Switch and that's something you don't like to give away. She's not an easy horse to run down. I watched Zenyatta almost not run her down last year. But she responded and went well and Ramon said she galloped out real well." The win was a significant one for Havre de Grace, who had placed in a handful of Grade 1 races last year. The year-end goal for her is a return trip to the Breeders' Cup, said Jones. Last year, she ran third in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. In her first start since that race, Havre de Grace won last month's Grade 3 Azeri at Oaklawn with a Beyer Figure of 105. Jones said one other probable objective for Havre de Grace is the Delaware Handicap, but that the filly would dictate if they were to target that race after such an impressive performance at the Hot Springs, Ar oval today.. She has now won 5 of 10 starts and $1,263,175. Prior ito the Apple Blossom, her biggest win had come in the Grade 2 Fitz Dixon Cotillion at Parx Racing, when she edged eventual champion Blind Luck. Havre de Grace staked her place atop the older female division a division stocked full of highly regarded fillies and mares, including Blind Luck, Switch, Unrivaled Belle and Life at Ten. The matchups that are likely for the duration of the year should make for some interesting showdowns. Oaklawn's Racing Festival of the South The racing festival of the south ends tomorrow at Oaklawn Park with the running of the 75th Arkansas Derby the marquee race of the Oaklawn meet. The Factor is expected to be a major factor on the final day of Oaklawn Park’s 49-day live season. The Factor was installed as the 7-5 program favorite Wednesday morning for Saturday’s $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles. Probable post time for the 75th Arkansas Derby, the 11th of 12 live races, is 5:58 p.m. Racing will begin at noon Saturday, with the infield scheduled to be open. The Factor, a gray speedster based in Southern California with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, is scheduled to break from post 3 under Martin Garcia and carry equal top weight of 122 pounds underallowance conditions of the Arkansas Derby. All nonstakes winners will carry 118 pounds. As expected, 13 horses were entered Wednesday. The Factor, who arrived Tuesday morning on a flight originating from southern California, will try to become the eighth program favorite since 2000 to win the Arkansas Derby. The race should set up to be quite speedy on the front end with the Todd Pletcher Rabbit, Dance City breaking from the 9 post, Said Todd Pletcher: “He’s kind of a free-running horse with natural speed and we’ll let him place himself forwardly,” said the horse’s trainer, Todd Pletcher. “We don’t plan to let The Factor walk the dog.” In other words for those that dont get what Pletcher is saying, Dance City will be the rabbit that goes with the Factor to keep him honest on the front end to set things up for Brethren and the other closers that will be coming. This will be a stern test for the Factor to see if he can carry that speed under pressure 9 furlongs against legitimate competition. With the loss of Uncle Mo in the Wood a win by the Factor would assure Baffert of Morning Line favortism going forward to the Kentucky Derby.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Havre De Grace

The 2011 debut of Havre de Grace was one to remember for a very long time. The filly put on a show and set a stakes record in route to a 4 length victory over 2011 3 year old champion Blind Luck. The filly looks to be primed to put in a stellar campaign. Gracie as she is known around the barn sat 4th off of legitimate fractions set by Absenthe Minded, turning for home Gracie made her winning move on the far turn and came home under a virtual handride by Ramon Dominguez in 1:42.02. In speaking with larry jones afterwards the conditioner for Fox Hill Farm and Rick Porter, Jones was surprised by the stakes record. But when looking at the way in which the filly dispatched of her work mate Payton D'oro in a work out last week, Jones knew the filly would be ready to fire her best effort.