The champ is back, and to absolutely no one’s surprise, she returned a winner. The story of what happened in yesterday’s third running of the $150,000 New Orleans Ladies is a short one. The 2011 Horse of the Year announced herself yesterday as ready to make another run at a championship with a facile 4 ½ length victory in her 2012 debut. Sent off as a prohibitive favorite in the field of five, Havre de Grace settled comfortably well off the pace down the backstretch, before effortlessy ranging up to her overmatched competition approaching the stretch. She then took command early in the lane and drew clear with only mild encouragement from rider Ramon Dominguez. Of note, the brilliant mare did cover the 1 1/16 miles over the fast Fair Groundsstrip in 1:42.79, which, despite the ease of victory, still registered as the fastest time at that distance over the New Orleans oval since 2007. As compelling, or not, you found her seasonal debut, I believe the more interesting thing is all the talk surrounding where her connections chose to make her first start of the year.
The questions came flying in the past few weeks …
How could the reigning Horse of the Year begin defense of her crown in an ungraded stakes race? Coincidentally, it is in the very same race where 2009 HOTY, Rachel Alexandra made her 2010 debut, and was shockingly defeated, albeit in a slightly richer version of the New Orleans Ladies’.
Was this choice some sort of backlash against the racing secretary of Oaklawn Park, Pat Pope, who holds the same position at Delaware Park, and made the unpopular decision (with Havre de Grace's owner, Rick Porter, and trainer, Larry Jones) in weight assignments for last summer’s showdown with Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap?
Would this somehow signal a pattern in which Havre de Grace will avoid the stronger competition all year before taking her big shot in the Breeders’ Cup a’ la Zenyatta?
What's with the paid workout?
My opinion on this matter, and these questions in particular, is ... people need to relax.
Granted her connections should not take the path of least resistance on a regular basis, but just take a look at her past performances over the last two years, and you can plainly see that Team Havre de Grace is not one to back away from a challenge. This is the same mare that took on the much more experienced Blind Luck early and often in her three-year-old-season. Last year she again took on her top competitor a couple times, before challenging the big boys in the Woodward and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
I recall many champions over the years beginning their seasons in allowance races. Horses like Forego, Seattle Slew, and Genuine Risk did it, and they were not lambasted for doing so.
Havre de Grace started her 2012 season in fine, albeit easy, fashion. I have no problem with it at all. Next month she’ll be in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park where she will take on any and all comers. Let’s enjoy this excellent mare while we have her.