Havre de Grace cruises to victory in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes at Fair Grounds.

Havre de Grace cruises to victory in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes at Fair Grounds.

Hodges Photography/Lynn Roberts

Havre de Grace Cruises in 'Orleans Comeback

Reigning Horse of the Year wins easily in first start in more than five months.

Horse of the Year Havre de Grace commenced her 2012 campaign in fine style with a facile victory in the $150,000 New Orleans Ladies Stakes at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots March 17 (VIDEO).

The champ raced comfortably in third for jockey Ramon Dominguez as a 1-20 favorite against four overmatched opponents before making a seemingly effortless move on the outside to get the lead rounding the final bend. She gradually took command over Juanita in the homestretch and drew off late to win the 1 1/16-mile test by 4 1/2 lengths in a superb time of 1:42.79 on a fast strip. The time was slightly off the track mark of 1:42.02.

Havre de Grace won last year's Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) during her championship campaign, one of her three grade I victories during the season, and is likely headed to Oaklawn Park for a defense of that title April 13.

Owned by Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms, Havre de Grace is trained by Larry Jones. The 5-year-old daughter of Saint Liam logged the ninth win of her 16-race career. This was her first race since finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs. Nancy S. Dillman bred Havre de Grace, who is out of the Carson City mare Easter Bunnette, in Kentucky.

“Apparently she was pretty ready,” said trainer Larry Jones. “We felt like she was better prepared this year than last year (coming off a layoff) and she ran big last year.”

Jones watched a few minutes earlier as Porter's Joyful Victory finished a well-beaten third at the Azeri Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn. Had Joyful victory won that race, Jones was considering using her in the Apple Blossom, but he indicated there could  be a change in his plans.

“Joyful Victory ran third up there in the Azeri so it looks like we’re going to have dig a little deeper in the well if we’re going to go to the Apple Blossom,” Jones said. “It looks like we may have to go with the first string, but we’ll see.”

Porter said that regardless of the race, they are aiming as high as possible with Havre de Grace this year.

“I would like to win as many big grade I races as possible,” Porter said of Havre de Grace’s 2012 campaign. “We’ll pick our spots, we’ll watch what the racing secretaries are going to do to her. I feel comfortable she can run against the boys anytime we need to. I’d just like to get her through the year healthy more than anything and running the way she did today we’ll win plenty of races. And best of all would be to be back here next year as a 6-year-old.”

Breaking on the outside of pacesetter Sterling Madame in the field of five, Havre de Grace settled in off the rail about three to four lengths behind as the front-runner took the field along quarter-mile splits of :23.68, :47.50, and 1:11.68. Juanita raced in second. With a slight nudge early on the turn from Dominguez, Havre de Grace angled four paths wide and was soon challenging the leaders.

Havre de Grace, who carried 117 pounds, edged her way to the front and floated out in the stretch as Juanita took second and tried to cling to the new leader. But without urging, Havre de Grace widened her advantage from two lengths at mid-stretch in an impressive display. The race did not appear to take anything out of the big bay mare.

“I had a pretty good trip,” said Dominguez, the defending Eclipse Award-winning jockey as he rushed to catch a plane back to South Florida. “I tapped her a few times to keep her mind on her business but after that she was just on cruise control.”

Her latest victory, worth $90,000, boosted Havre de Grace's bankroll to $2,586,175.

She paid $2.10 across the board. Juanita, winner of the Indiana Oaks (gr. II) last fall, returned $2.60 and $2.10. Sterling Madame held on for third, finishing 11 lengths behind the winner and paying $2.20 to show.

Distorted Love finished fourth with Annabel Lee last.