Classic: Havre de Grace beats the boys

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Larry Jones picked up a shank, shook jockey Ramon Dominguez’s hand and walked toward Havre de Grace as the field began to assemble for riders up in the paddock.

“The only thing I can tell you, Ramon, is when you turn for home, light out, don’t let these boys think they have a shot.”

Dominguez nodded, went out, and did exactly that.

And, indeed, the boys didn’t have a shot.

Fox Hill Farm’s Havre de Grace won the Grade I Woodward Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths over Flat Out and Rule.

Jones watched the race from the same clubhouse TV he watched Proud Spell win the 2008 Alabama, bracing on a trash can for the first part and bouncing off his feet for the second.

At the three-eighths pole, as Havre de Grace began to rev up, Jones basically said the same thing he said before the race, just with a little more inflection and emotion.

“Come on baby girl. Come on baby girl. Take it to him, Flat Out’s right on you, light out Ramon, don’t be waiting, don’t be waiting. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. Keep going baby. Come on girl. Come on girl. Don’t wait on ’em. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.”

Havre de Grace kept going, all the way to her fourth tally of the year, seventh in her career and first against the boys. Jones’ confidence was vindicated.

“I ain’t never seen where boys are good at something and there wasn’t some smart ass girl that thinks she can do it better,” Jones cackled.

Havre de Grace followed Rachel Alexandra’s lead, giving fillies victories in two of the past three runnings of the 58-year-old stakes.

Havre de Grace broke alertly from the 6 stall, Dominguez pressed her lightly to get a position early in the 9-furlong stakes as Rule shot to the lead. Convocation stayed close in second with Rule’s stablemate Mission Impazible third and Havre de Grace outside in fourth.

After a quarter mile in 23.93, Rule enjoyed a clear lead as Mission Impazible and Convocation switched spots and Havre de Grace still lobbed along in the clear in fourth. Mambo Meister came next on the outside with Flat Out and Giant Oak inside, completing the compact field of seven. Ice Box trailed.

Rule posted a half in 48.09 as Mission Impazible tracked in second and Havre de Grace stalked menacingly on the outside. Flat Out made up ground quickly to get on the heels of Havre de Grace – and provoke Jones’ plea to Dominguez. After three quarters in 1:11.95, Rule still led but Havre de Grace rolled to him as Mission Impazible came under pressure and Flat Out entered the fray.

Turning for home, Rule clung to his lead as Dominguez quickly switched his whip to his left hand and gave the filly a quick call, collaring Rule in a flash. Passing the eighth pole, Havre de Grace gained the lead for good as Flat Out stayed to the task, getting past Rule late to complete his second game second at Saratoga. Havre de Grace finished 9 furlongs in 1:49.18.

“She really did it the right way, she showed she’s the real deal,” Dominguez said. “I wanted to be very forwardly placed, that’s what Larry and I talked about, I knew Rule would go and I wasn’t too happy to be wide around the turn but at the same time I wasn’t going to give up my position. She settled so nicely and covered so much ground, I was able to track them and she relaxed so much for me. It was a good feeling turning for home, she just keeps giving when you ask her.”

In 13 career starts, the daughter of Saint Liam has never finished worse than third. She’s won the Woodward, Cotillion, Azeri, Apple Blossom, Obeah and finished second in the Go For Wand, Delaware Oaks, Alabama and Delaware Handicap.

The latter was tough to swallow as Havre de Grace finished behind 3-year-old filly champion Blind Luck for the fourth time, third time in a photo. Blind Luck beat her by a nose in the Delaware Oaks, a neck in the Alabama and a nose in the Delaware Handicap where Havre de Grace battled Blind Luck the length of the stretch and lost a heartbreaker. After the loss, Jones and Porter watched Blind Luck’s every move, if she came back for the Personal Ensign, that’s where they would go. If she stayed away from Saratoga, they would try the Woodward.

“After getting beat in the Delaware Handicap, we had to start thinking we need to get back in front of the division,” Jones said. “We were afraid Blind Luck was going to come run in the Personal Ensign. If she got on a plane to come here, I wanted Jerry (Hollendorfer) to know, I’m loading and going because we’re ready, don’t think you’re coming 3,000 miles and hook it easy. Apparently he decided he ought to rest her and get ready for the Breeders’ Cup.”

Jones and Fox Hill’s Rick Porter put together a tour schedule at the beginning of the year, culminating in the Breeders’ Cup. An easy first step in the Azeri at Oaklawn Park, check. The Grade I Apple Blossom, check. The Grade III Obeah back at home, check.  Then the Delaware Handicap. Ouch. Once Blind Luck decided to say in California, Jones and Porter went on a mission.

“Early in the year, we went over a gameplan of what Rick wanted to accomplish. We wanted the Apple Blossom, we wanted the Delaware Handicap and we wanted to take on the boys somewhere,” Jones said. “He wanted to put her in a situation where she could not only win a championship for the fillies but could be considered for Horse of the Year. We knew we had to beat the boys for that to be a consideration. I said let’s look toward the Woodward. Early, this was our number one spot to attempt it and it all came together.”

Havre de Grace is a nose away from being 5-for-5 on the year. The Woodward represented a big task – coming off a seven-week layoff and taking on seven rivals who had combined to win 35 races.

“It is relief,” Jones said on his way to pick up his papers and silks after the race. “This was the race I was a little concerned with, the seven weeks, we counted backwards from the Breeders’ Cup on what we wanted to do. If I had an iffy race, I was hoping she could overcome this, I’m tickled, relieved, it took off a lot of pressure, now it’s just not goofing it up.”

Jones left with a check for $450,000 and an established plan to get to the November 5 Breeders’ Cup. First the Beldame at Belmont Park Oct. 1, then ship to Keeneland to prepare for the clash of the year with Blind Luck or the boys or perhaps both.

Jones won’t hesitate.

“Nobody, I’ll be honest with you,” Jones said when asked which one of his horses compared to Havre de Grace. “Maybe Eight Belles would have gotten to this level, she wasn’t at the time. Hard Spun was fast but he really had to start to work after a mile. Proud Spell just didn’t have the size to her. You can ship (Havre de Grace), she doesn’t care. She’s easy to gallop, she just lopes around, if you want it, you’ve got it, if you don’t want it, they’re happy not to. I’ve never had one like this, seriously, I just haven’t.”

Dominguez knew that long ago.

“He told me that three races back,” he said. “She’s the whole package.”