Del Cap One for the Ages and the Rages

First off, let me set the record straight. I love Blind Luck; have since last spring, and have made my feelings about her known several times. She is a rare link to the past; bringing back memories of the sport in its glory days and the amazing feats a great Thoroughbred was capable of. No, change that. Not even the Thoroughbreds of the past performed the feats Blind Luck has. From her pedigree (by a $10,000 stallion who is blind in his right eye) to her sales ring history ($11,000 yearling purchase and a $10,000 RNA as a 2-year-old)) to her career debut for a claiming tag going 4 1/2 furlongs at Calder, she definitely is one of the great overachievers in racing history.

This is not a reflection on her in any way and most definitely is not meant to detract from her gutsy, heart-pounding victory over her arch rival Havre de Grace in the Delaware Handicap. When a battle between racing’s two Titans not only lives up to its billing, but surpasses it, it is an event to be remembered for years to come.

But the bottom line is, there are two people who are responsible in a large way for this race taking place, and they made it happen at what they and others claim was their own expense. And boy do they regret it now. But more on that later.

The mind games preceding the weight assignments for Blind Luck and Havre de Grace began when Blind Luck’s trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, was quoted in the Daily Racing Form saying he would not come if Blind Luck received fewer than two pounds from Havre de Grace. This way, Hollendorfer was able to give an ultimatum to Delaware Park indirectly. No one can blame him for trying to get an advantage as the visiting team, especially after the way he has managed his filly’s career – a career that is unprecedented in the sport’s history. After all, who has even come remotely close to sending a filly, or any horse, on nine cross-country trips in 15 months, taking on all comers on their home track at all distances and giving away weight? And how many times was she, as a stone closer, at a major disadvantage competing in four, five, and six- horse fields? The answer is nine times; five of them in five-horse fields. But they came anyway.

Here is a filly who has traveled an amazing 36,000 miles in the aforementioned 15 months, has run a total of 21 times, and has finished first or second in 19 of them and has never finished out of the money. In all, she has competed at nine different racetracks in seven states at distances from 4 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

So, when it comes to Blind Luck and Jerry Hollendorfer, we have nothing but the utmost praise and admiration. 

Hollendorfer got his point across and sure enough, when the weights for the Delaware Handicap were announced, there was Blind Luck getting two pounds from Havre de Grace.

There, of course, is no way of knowing for certain if those two pounds meant the different between victory and defeat in a finish that saw both these great fillies finish inches apart for the fourth time in their six confrontations. But even Blind Luck’s jockey, Garrett Gomez, felt it there was a good chance it did.

Was the two pounds justified? You can decide for yourself. Yes, the race was at Havre de Grace’s home track, but it was at Delaware Park last year that Blind Luck defeated Havre de Grace in the Delaware Oaks by a nose, giving her six pounds. And it is the consensus opinion that the 1 1/4 miles of the Delaware Handicap slightly favored Blind Luck and may very well have evened out any home court advantage Havre de Grace had, if any. After all, Blind Luck has now won six of the nine races to which she traveled cross-country, while winning only five of the 11 starts she made at home in California.

After defeating Havre de Grace by a neck in last year’s Alabama Stakes at 1 1/4 miles at equal weights, Blind Luck shipped back east to Philly Park for the Cotillion, dropped back in distance to 1 1/16 miles, and was beaten a diminishing neck by Havre de Grace, while giving her 10 pounds. Sending her for that race, in which she was at such a huge disadvantage, had to be one of the great sporting gestures seen in years. But the fact is, the Delaware Handicap, at a much more suitable distance for Blind Luck, represented a 12-pound weight shift from that race.

Some other facts of relevance going into the Delaware Handicap: Blind Luck had won six grade I stakes, while Havre de Grace had won one. Blind Luck had finished ahead of Havre de Grace in three of their five meetings.

Havre de Grace, by being assigned 124 pounds, was picking up one pound off a grade III victory, while Blind Luck, with 122, was dropping one pound off a grade I victory…and against the likes of Switch, Miss Match, and St. Trinians.
One case that can be made for the two-pound spread was the fact that in their last meeting, Havre de Grace had soundly defeated Blind Luck by 3 1/4 lengths in the grade III Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park at equal weights. But that race was at 1 1/16 miles, compared to the 1 1/4 miles of the Delaware Handicap. Blind Luck went into that race off four consecutive losses (including two sound defeats at the hands of Always a Princess), and then won her two subsequent starts leading up to the Delaware Handicap, defeating last year’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic winner Unrivaled Belle in the La Troienne Stakes, despite stumbling badly at the start; and then winning the grade I Vanity Handicap, defeating grade I winners Switch and Miss Match; and last year’s Santa Anita Handicap favorite St. Trinians, who like Switch, came close to upsetting Horse of the Year Zenyatta last year. So, this was a far different Blind Luck than the one Havre de Grace defeated in the Azeri. This was the Blind Luck of last year.

Was it the actual two pounds that caused the controversy or was it the "coincidence" of the assignment in light of Hollendorfer's comments? From a racing secretary's standpoint, it was Pat Pope's job to get these two fillies to the wire on even terms, and he nearly pulled it off. But then there is the question of the head bob and the two pounds. Would the bob have gone the other way at equal weights or Blind Luck getting one pound instead of two? That obviously is pure speculation. But one can understand Porter and Jones being upset over the assignment, just as Hollendorfer would have been upset over anything less. Trainers have been trying to get weight knocked off their horse for as long as they've run handicaps. Hollendorfer just beat Havre de Grace's trainer Larry Jones to the punch by setting his own terms.

Pope, however, said he was not aware of those terms.

" I have no idea where that came," he said. "Mr. Hollendorfer never said that to me and I never read his comment in the Racing Form. I told Mr. Hollendorfer the morning the weights came out that they would not be equal weights and that there would be a two-pound spread. I just wasn't sure of the actual weights. If I could handicap every race that I'm involved with in racing and I could get two of the best horses in America to go a mile and a quarter and finish less than four or five inches apart, gosh, I would be happy every single time. It's the handicapper's job to get them to the wire in a dead-heat, and if you can't get a dead-heat, get them there as close as you can. This is what the sport is about; to get the best to run and excite the people. In fact, at the sixteenth pole, it looked like Havre de Grace put her nose back in front. I weighted the race on current form and what they've done this year."

But when the weights were announced, Havre de Grace’s owner, Rick Porter, and Jones were incensed and even threatened to pull out of the race and wait for the Ruffian Handicap at Saratoga. It was not only the two pounds, but their belief that Delaware officials did whatever they had to in order to get Blind Luck, and that included selling them out.

“Larry and I are on the verge of not running,” Porter said after learning of the weight assignments. “It is ridiculous. This is the maddest I’ve been since I have been in horse racing.”

After cooling down, Porter decided to run anyway, feeling Havre de Grace could still beat Blind Luck, and this was the showdown everyone in racing was clamoring for, especially in a year devoid of any major star attractions. So, he bit the bullet, as they say, and entered Havre de Grace, knowing he would regret the decision if his filly should come up on the short end of a desperately close finish.

Regret it he did. “Larry and I talked this morning as well as last night, and we both agreed we should have stayed with our first reaction,” Porter said the morning after the race. “We were used so they could agree to Hollendorfer’s demand. What would have happened if I had gone to them and said I wouldn’t run Havre de Grace unless the weights were equal? Then they would have had a tough decision to make. We were stupid. We learned our lesson, but too late. We felt we could beat her anyway, but we shouldn’t have run on principle.”

Jones was even more direct. “Give it up to the racing secretary,” he was quoted on Delawareonline. “He got what he wanted. It stinks that we had to lose because of two pounds. It’s just not right. (Blind Luck) has won six grade I races, and we’ve won only one, and we end up the high weight. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.”

Hollendorfer admitted he would not have run had it not been for the two pounds. As for the difference they may have made, he said. “I’d rather have the two pounds than not, let’s put it like that. I mean, Havre de Grace was rated the No. 1 filly coming in here, and we’re coming into her home track, so they gave us a couple pounds.”

Blind Luck’s rider, Garrett Gomez, was more definitive.

“You’re talking half a head,” he said in the same article. “Two pounds -- a lot of people don’t think it’s much, but when you start going a mile and a quarter, two pounds can mean a lot. These fillies are so closely matched. You think about those two pounds.”

Jones welcomes another showdown between these two remarkable fillies, but under one condition.

“If we’re going to race again, the weights have to be even or else we won’t do it,” he said in the article. “We’re not going to give any weight. If they’re the two best horses in the country, then they should race at even weight. Then we’ll see who the best horse really is.”

So, no matter how bitter Porter and Jones are over the weights, the outcome, or their decision to run, you have to give them credit for running, even though their first instinct was to skip the race and go to the Ruffian. Porter put his outrage aside and ran his filly, despite feeling he had been used and betrayed by the very racetrack he had supported by running Havre de Grace there six times and the track that his filly called home.

This controversy should in no way detract from what was an epic battle between two extraordinary fillies, both of whom had every shot to win. How many times have we seen Blind Luck apparently on the verge of defeat, almost to the point where she looked as if she were hanging, only to manage to stick her head in front right on the wire? It is uncanny how she knows exactly when to get that head down.

And as for the numbers crunching, what about Blind Luck coming home her final quarter in :24 1/5 in a mile and a quarter race, following a :24 flat quarter and a :23 4/5 quarter before that. And Havre de Grace’s final quarter in :24 2/5 wasn’t exactly chopped liver, as the two fillies finished a staggering 18 1/2 lengths ahead of last year’s Delaware Handicap winner Life At Ten.

Blind Luck, the $11,000 yearling and 2-year-old sale reject by a $10,000 stallion who was tough as nails as a racehorse, and Havre de Grace, the $380,000 yearling by a $50,000 stallion, have now finished in the money in all 33 of their starts, with 18 wins and 11 seconds.

They have met six times (now that is what you call a rivalry), and other than the 3 1/4-length margin of the Azeri, they have been separated by a nose, a nose, a neck, a neck, and one length.

It will be very interesting to see what paths each one takes. There is the Pacific Classic against the boys over the Del Mar Polytrack (no way they’ll meet there), the 10-furlong Personal Ensign at Saratoga (how big a race would that be?), and, of course, either the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic or the, uh, real Classic the following day. Either one could decide Horse of the Year. By then, these two pounds will seem insignificant.

Both these fillies have come from totally different worlds, but as Thoroughbred racing has shown time again, it doesn’t matter where a horse comes from. In the beginning, a horse is judged by the size of the bankroll it might one day accumulate, as perceived by buyers and other horsemen. But there comes a time on the racetrack when a horse is judged only by its talent, its heart, and its will to win. What happened on the farm, in the sales ring, and in baby races no longer have any meaning. When eyeballs meet and spirits clash there is no past.

Once in a while, two horses will cross paths who possess the same talent, the same heart, and the same will to win. But only on a rare occasion will you find two such horses cross paths six times.

We never got to see Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra cross paths even once. So, this rivalry between Blind Luck and Havre de Grace must be embraced, supported, and treasured by the entire racing community, whose responsibility it is to bring these two warriors and their epic conflicts to the attention of the American public.

Enough of Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. Who can resist Xena vs. Wonder Woman? By the time the Breeders’ Cup rolls around, the names of Blind Luck and Havre de Grace should be entrenched in the minds of people all over the country. It is up to us to make that happen.

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