By J. Keeler Johnson
This Saturday, Delaware Park will play host to what may end up being one of the biggest races of the year.
In the track's signature race for older mares-the $750,000 Delaware Handicap (gr. II)-the remarkable fillies Havre de Grace and Blind Luck will continue their rivalry as the heavy favorites against only three other rivals. They will be competing at 1 1/4 miles over the Delaware Park main track oval; the very same oval that started their amazing rivalry just over one year ago.
Five times, Blind Luck and Havre de Grace have gone to post together. Four times they have finished first and second. Three of their meetings have been decided by a neck or less. They have met all over the country, showing off their talent in Arkansas, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
I have often lamented the fact that the great horse racing rivalries of years past--Affirmed and Alydar, Kelso and Gun Bow, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer-are long gone. Nowadays, it seems like the top horses in this country avoid each other until the Breeders' Cup, when championships are decided upon during the running of a single race. But Havre de Grace and Blind Luck are different. They seem to actively seek each other out to do battle, and I must say that it is great for horse racing.
Their rivalry began somewhat inconspicuously in the 2010 Delaware Oaks--inconspicuously, because it was impossible to foresee the incredible late-summer and fall campaign upon which they were about to embark.
Blind Luck was entering the race as the division leader, off of thrilling stretch-running victories in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), the Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I), and the Fantasy Stakes (gr. II), with close defeats in the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) and the Hollywood Park Oaks (gr. II). In contrast, Havre de Grace was an unknown. After finishing third in her first start, she won a maiden special weight and an allowance race. Sent off as the second choice in her stakes debut, the Go For Wand Stakes, she ran well to be second by a neck behind No Such Word. Promising, yes--but proven, no.
This was about to change.
As it turned out, the Delaware Oaks was no easy victory for Blind Luck. Although she did succeed in adding the race to her résumé of victories, she required every last yard of the Delaware Park homestretch to catch Havre de Grace, who turned in a terrific performance in the slop that day to nearly pull off a major upset.
But unlike many horses that nearly or even succeed in pulling off major upsets, Havre de Grace was no fluke. For the remainder of 2010, she proved herself to be the only sophomore filly capable of challenging Blind Luck. In her very next race, she lost by a neck to Blind Luck in the Alabama Stakes (gr. I). She then turned the tables on her more acclaimed rival in the Fitz Dixon Cotillion Stakes (gr. II), holding off Blind Luck's late charge to win the rich event by a neck.
Their final meeting of 2010 came in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, where the results were somewhat anti-climactic. Both fillies fell to defeat behind the older Unrivaled Belle, who turned in the performance of her life under the lights at Churchill Downs. Blind Luck, however, did finish ahead of Havre de Grace by a length.
In conclusion, it was obvious in 2010 that Blind Luck was superior to Havre de Grace, despite their close finishes. In the Delaware Oaks, Blind Luck spotted Havre de Grace six pounds, yet still won. In the Fitz Dixon Cotillion, Blind Luck was forced to give away 10 pounds to Havre de Grace, yet closed from 3 1/2 lengths behind when passing the eighth-pole to nearly catch her light-weighted rival. Thus, when weights are taken into consideration, we find that Blind Luck was indeed superior to Havre de Grace--perhaps as many as five pounds superior.
This year, however, something has changed. Havre de Grace has turned into a superstar. Three starts this year have yielded three victories. In the Azeri Stakes (gr. III), which marked her 2011 debut, Havre de Grace renewed her rivalry with Blind Luck. Only this time, the results were different. Havre de Grace left Blind Luck in her dust.
In a performance superior to anything she showed in 2010, Havre de Grace got the jump on her previously superior rival and left her far behind. After sitting a few lengths off of the early lead, Havre de Grace launched her bid for the lead and swept past her rivals with breathtaking speed. She powered into the homestretch with a decisive lead and drew off to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Blind Luck, who could present only a mild rally to finish second.
Since then, neither filly has lost. Havre de Grace turned in a stunning performance to win the Apple Blossom (gr. I); then easily won the Obeah Stakes (gr. III) last month at Delaware Park in preparation for this race. Blind Luck overcame a stumbling start to win the La Troienne Stakes (gr. II) over Unrivaled Belle; then flew to victory in the Vanity Handicap (gr. I).
On Saturday, they will meet again at the racetrack where it all started, just over a year ago; in a race that will likely hold a great deal of weight in determining who gets the division's Eclipse award-and perhaps even Horse of the Year-for 2011.
Unlike last year, when Blind Luck was the filly giving away weight, Havre de Grace's decisive victory over her rival in the Azeri-and subsequent domination of her succeeding races-has earned her top weight in this field at 124 pounds. Blind Luck, on the other hand, will be carrying 122.
It is unlikely that any of the other three entries will be able to beat the two amazing 4-year-olds. Life at Ten, winner of this race last year, is the third choice on the morning line and will carry only 115 pounds. However, she has shown very little in three starts this year, perhaps her best performance being a decent fourth in the Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) last time out. If she is at her very best on Saturday, she could pose a threat to Blind Luck and Havre de Grace-but whether or not she will show her best is the question.
Thundering Emilia and Love's Bush, both 20-1 on the morning line, are indeed longshots, but may have a shot at cracking the trifecta. Thundering Emilia has made 21 starts, with the first 20 coming in South America, where she was a group III winner and group I-placed. Her lone start in the United States yielded a second-place finish in the John W. Rooney Memorial Stakes. Trained by Michael Matz, I would not be surprised at all if she triggered some sizable trifecta payoffs.
Love's Bush is a stakes winner, having won the All Brandy Stakes at Laurel in 2009, but her last victory came in an allowance optional claiming race 13 months ago. Her two starts this year have yielded fifth- and seventh-place finishes in the Dahlia Stakes and an allowance race, respectively.
For the record, I think that less than a length will separate Havre de Grace and Blind Luck at the finish of this race, but who will finish first is hard to say. I'll pick Havre de Grace, simply because I believe that she has more turn of foot than Blind Luck and will get the jump on her rival turning for home. For third, I'll pick Thundering Emilia.
In other Saturday racing news...
The $600,000 Virginia Derby (gr. II) at Colonial Downs has drawn a fabulous field of 3-year-olds, led by the up-and-coming colts Street Game and Banned. Run over 1 1/4 miles on turf, the Virginia Derby will likely be used by many of these colts as a prep race for the grade I Secretariat Stakes next month.
Street Game made his first three starts without blinkers on, and lost them all. His next three starts have come with blinkers on, and since then, he has not lost. After breaking his maiden by 10 3/4 lengths, he proceeded to easily win an allowance race by two lengths and destroy the Hill Prince Stakes (gr. III) by 7 1/4 lengths. He will be racing farther than ever before on Saturday, but is rapidly improving and may be good enough to take this field gate-to-wire.
Banned is the exact opposite of Street Game. Unlike Street Game, Banned prefers to bide his time off the pace before rocketing past his rivals with his breathtaking turn of foot. In the American Turf Stakes (gr. II) back in May, he was all of 7 1/2 lengths off the lead with just five-sixteenths of a mile to go. However, that didn't stop him from powering away to a 4 1/2-length victory. A subsequent victory in the paceless four-horse Jefferson Cup Stakes (gr. III) followed, and it is apparent that Banned can handle just about any pace scenario.
Another logical Virginia Derby contender is Air Support. A deep closer-he comes from even farther back than Banned-he has fallen to defeat behind both Street Game and Banned in the past. But the two-time graded stakes winner appears to be screaming for additional ground, and should relish the distance of Saturday's race.
Thirtyfirststreet, winner of the Lone Star Derby in his turf debut, could provide a challenge for Street Game early, as he prefers to run near the lead. And don't be surprised to see Callingahardten flying down the homestretch late in the race if the pace is even remotely quick. And Crimson China, from the Graham Motion barn, looked good winning the Lamplighter Stakes in late May with a sharp late run. Whoever wins, the finish will likely be thrilling.
I will go out on a limb and pick Callingahardten to win, although I do realize that he is going to have to step up to beat such a magnificent group of horses as these. But I think that he can do it.
Who do you like?J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") is a racing enthusiast and blogs at triplecrowncountdown.blogspot.com