Countdown to the Cup: Grace, Period!

Earlier this year, Larry Jones decided to prepare his barn help for what seemed to be the inevitable. Many talented horses have passed his way, but the one he wanted to discuss with them was different. This one could be a life changer and he felt he had to share that with his crew. Jones’ life had already taken a dramatic turn when he returned from a brief retirement last year to reestablish his public stable, which he had turned over to his wife Cindy.

With his batteries now fully re-charged and the Eight Belles nightmare in 2008 pretty much behind him, it was time to return. Also returning was his former main client, Rick Porter, who had spread his horses around with several trainers.

One of Porter’s horses who was turned over to Jones was the sensational filly Havre de Grace, who had already established herself as one of the best fillies in the country last year as a 3-year-old, concluding her campaign with a strong third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (gr. I) for trainer Tony Dutrow.

Cindy and “assistant” Larry had the good 3-year-old filly No Such Word, winner of five stakes, including the grade I Gazelle and grade III Monmouth Oaks, for Brereton Jones. Although No Such Word was able to eke out a neck victory over an inexperienced Havre de Grace, who was making her stakes debut, in the Go For Wand Stakes at Delaware in early June, Jones would spend the rest of the year keeping his filly away from Havre de Grace and her arch rival Blind Luck after a fourth-place finish behind those two magnificent fillies in the Delaware Oaks (gr. II). Jones could see Havre de Grace maturing and improving with every start and realized that No Such Word no longer was a match for her.

After taking over Havre de Grace’s training over the winter and observing what a powerhouse the filly had developed into and all her special attributes, Larry contacted Brereton Jones and told him, “There’s no way we can outrun this filly, horse against horse.”

It was around that time that Jones called his help together and launched his bombshell.

“I’m gonna tell you something,” he began. “Y’all don’t realize this, but this thing could be Zenyatta.”

The response was simple and predictable: “Oh yeah, right”

Jones pressed his point. “You just treat her with kid gloves,” he said. “Y’all don’t know what this thing is. If we get her to what I think she can be, you’re gonna find out this is a for real sucker.”  

After three emphatic graded stakes victories, including a dominating win over Blind Luck in the Azeri (gr. III) and a rousing score over Switch in the grade I Apple Blossom; a gutsy nose defeat to Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap (gr. II), giving her weight; and a powerful score over males in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I), Havre de Grace has indeed proven herself to be a “for real sucker” and a leading contender for Horse of the Year honors.

On the morning of July 4th at Delaware Park, Havre de Grace prepared to work an easy five furlongs for the Delaware Handicap. With her huge loppy ears flip-flopping up and down, she stood motionless as Cindy attempted to find a good place to scratch her, while talking baby talk to her.

“You’re a mighty good girl, aren’t you?” Cindy said. “Is that the right spot?”

“She doesn’t spoil her, does she?” Porter said, standing outside the filly’s stall.

“Whatever she wants she gets,” Cindy replied. “We’re just very grateful she doesn’t ask for a lot. She’s just a classy girl and loves her job. Physically, she’s one big muscle from head to toe.”

When Havre de Grace first came to Jones she wouldn’t work by herself, turning in sloth-like times such as :53 4/5 for a half-mile. Jones had to hook her up with company in order to get her to work. But she came to hand quickly and began tearing up the track in the mornings by herself. Although she had an easy five-furlong spin in 1:01 1/5 on this particular morning, she sandwiched it with a pair of dazzling :57 4/5 breezes.

“People don’t realize that in the Apple Blossom, she came home her final sixteenth in :05 4/5, and horses just do that,” Larry said. “This filly has a cruising speed that forces other horses to run hard to keep up with her while she’s still galloping. By the time they get to the three-quarters those other horses are usually done. And they gotta let her do it; they got no other choice.”

Havre de Grace displayed that cruising speed in the Woodward with quarters of :24 2/5, :23 4/5, :23 3/5, and :24, before coming home her final eighth in a solid :12 4/5 against six graded stakes winning males, including two grade I winners, as well as the winners of the grade II Suburban, New Orleans Handicap, and Louisiana Derby and the runners-up in the grade I Kentucky Derby and Stephen Foster and Whitney handicaps.

One can only speculate the path she will take from here. There is her nemesis, Blind Luck, waiting down the line, and, of course, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) and Ladies Classic.

But for now, Havre de Grace has injected a much-needed major dose of excitement to the sport and the BC Classic scene. She may not ask for a lot, but she sure gives a lot. And that’s about all you can ask for.

And so the remarkable era of the fillies continues. Starting in 2005, the racing world has seen superstar male conquerors such as Rags to Riches, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Goldikova, Black Caviar, Zarkava, Makybe Diva, Vodka, and now Havre de Grace. During that time, these remarkable Amazons have conquered the boys in the Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Breeders’ Cup Mile (three times), Melbourne Cup (three times), Japan Cup, Woodward (twice), and Haskell Invitational, not to mention a slew of other major stakes and a United Arab Emirates Derby victory by Khawlah and a Queens Plate score by Inglorious. And Larry Jones in another year might very well have added the Kentucky Derby with the ill-fated Eight Belles, who finished second to superstar Big Brown in the Run for the Roses.

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