For an unprecedented third straight year, a female was crowned Horse of the year when Fox Hill Farm’s Havre de Grace took home top honors Jan. 16 at the annual Eclipse Awards ceremony. Earlier, the daughter of Saint Liam had been a near unanimous selection as champion older mare.
The daughter of 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam trained by Larry Jones finished first with 166 votes, followed by Peter and Mary Hilvers and Bud and Judy Johnston’s 5-year-old Acclamation, who finished second with 26 votes. Diamond Pride LLC and the Lanni Family Trust’s 4-year-old Game on Dude finished third with 10 votes, followed by Cape Blanco with 9 votes.
Even though Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm had high hopes for Havre de Grace from the beginning, he never predicted she would ascend to such a high echelon.
“When the year started, I certainly didn’t expect anything like this,” said Porter of Havre de Grace winning racing’s highest honor.
But trainer Larry Jones, who took over the care of the mare from Rick Dutrow last season, knew he had something special on his hands from the first moments he spent with Havre de Grace.
“I told my crew, ‘We really have a lot to work with here…maybe we have our own version of Zenyatta,’ ” said Jones following the Eclipse ceremony. "I guess I wasn’t too far off—Zenyatta got Horse of the Year (in 2011) and now we got Horse of the Year. We knew we had a chance to have something really special, and she is.”
Like the last two Horse of the Year champions—Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta—Havre de Grace scored her most important victory against males. Like Rachel Alexandra, she won Saratoga’s Woodward Stakes (gr. I). She then attempted to emulate Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) victory in 2009, but she could do no better than fourth.
Havre de Grace had spent most of 2010 embroiled in the heated rivalry with her nemesis Blind Luck, with three of their four meetings resulting in photo finishes. Porter then decided to take her from Tony Dutrow and send her to Jones. It didn’t take Jones long to become enamored with Havre de Grace and she showed how much she had improved when she began 2011 by trouncing Blind Luck by 3 1⁄4 lengths in the Azeri Stakes (gr. III) before running down grade I winner Switch to win the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I).
She then easily captured Delaware Park’s Obeah Stakes (gr. III) as a prep for another rematch with Blind Luck. It was the most anticipated race of the year and lived up to its billing, as Blind Luck withstood a furious stretch duel with Havre de Grace to win by a nose.
Havre de Grace moved forward, winning the Woodward by 1 1⁄4 lengths before destroying eventual Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I) winner and champion 3-year-old filly Royal Delta in the Beldame Stakes (gr. I).
For the year she won five of seven starts and earned $1,623,000. Out of the Carson City mare Easter Bunnette, Havre de Grace was bred in Kentucky by Nancy Dillman.
“She is the perfect racehorse; she doesn’t make mistakes," said Jones of Havre de Grace. "If somebody else wants to run long early, she’ll position herself in the race where she needs to be. If there is no speed, she’ll lay close. If there’s a lot of speed, she can come from the back.
“Havre de Grace can take up for herself—she can be on the inside, the outside, it doesn’t matter. She does everything right. It doesn’t matter whether there are crowds…she’s not nervous. She’s just the total package. I’ll never find that in another horse."
With the Eclipse Awards in the books, Porter and Jones are now looking forward to taking on new obstacles with Havre de Grace in 2012. The filly, who resumed training in early January following a brief freshening, may even face males once again.
“I think we’ll have some really good races this year; some real challenges,” said Porter.
Added Jones: “The number one deal is that we’ve agreed we’re going to have fun.”