As rock musician Meat Loaf once sang: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
Havre de Grace beat the boys once again winning Horse of the Year honors and Kentucky Derby champ Animal Kingdom was voted the 3-year old male champion at the 41st annual Eclipse Awards dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Jan. 16. Chadds Ford Stable’s Union Rags was runner-up to Hansen in the 2-year old champion vote.
Consistently brilliant all year, Havre de Grace joined Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in becoming the third consecutive female to be named Horse of the Year, a feat never before accomplished in American racing.
“It’s some kind of thrill to win this award that I only dreamed of 10 or 15 years ago,” said owner Rick Porter with a broad smile when accepting the gold Eclipse trophy for Horse of the Year.
“I’ve seen the lowest of the lows,” Porter said, referring to the tragic death of his filly Eight Belles following her runner-up finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, “and I’ve seen a lot of highs, but nothing rivals Havre de Grace.”
Trained by Larry Jones, Havre de Grace received 166 first-place votes, easily defeating second-place Acclamation, the champion older male, who got 26 votes. She was an even easier winner for champion older female, receiving 245 first-place votes for champion older female. Blind Luck got two votes, and Awesome Maria just one.
The filly’s jockey, Ramon Dominguez, was honored as the nation’s top rider for the second year in a row. The long-time Delaware Park jockey was the regular rider for three Eclipse Award winners--Havre de Grace, Stacelita, and Hansen-- in a worthy follow-up season to his 2010 breakout year.
The Eclipse votes were cast by 248 of the 267 eligible voters representing the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form, and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.
Havre de Grace ducked no one. Porter and his trainer Larry Jones stepped up to every challenge. That approach— one of true sportsmen-- said as much as the filly’s stellar performances on the track. During her 2011 campaign Havre de Grace won five of seven starts racing against top-tier competition from March through October. The brilliant 4-year old filly scored five graded stakes wins, including three Grade-1s by an average of three lengths. She raced at five different tracks in four states.
Her victory beating the boys in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga by 1-3/4 lengths was a game-changer for many voters. Then she went on to destroy eventual Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner and champion 3-year-old filly Royal Delta in the Beldame Stakes. Havre de Grace completed her year with a respectable fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. She earned $1, 623,000 in 2011.
“She has the most memorable campaign and accounted for the most excitement at the top level of the sport throughout the entire year,” Porter noted. “She did it her way. She won the big races when it counted.”
Havre de Grace arrived at Fair Grounds outside New Orleans in early January after taking a two-month break at Vinery Farm near Ocala, Fla. She is being pointed to a comeback race on March 17 in the $100,000 New Orleans Ladies Stakes.
"It probably won't take her long to get ready," Jones said.
Animal Kingdom, 3-Year Old Male Champ
Victories in the Kentucky Derby and Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes along with a close runner-up finish to Shackleford in the Preakness Stakes (G1), proved enough to secure the 3-Year old Male Eclipse Award. Trained by Graham Motion and based at the Fair Hill Training Center, he defeated Caleb’s Posse by a vote of 114-111.
Animal Kingdom had no chance in the Belmont Stakes. He was clobbered coming out of the gate, nearly lost his rider and suffered a ridiculously awful trip, but rallied to make a huge move into contention before tiring late in the race finishing sixth. The colt exited the Belmont with a season-ending slab fracture in his left hind leg.
Despite being sidelined since early June, the spring accomplishments of Team Valor’s powerful chestnut colt stood out as the division’s most impressive. He is the first colt to take the 1 ¼-mile classic Derby in his first start on dirt and is the first champion and first Eclipse winner for Motion.
In mid-January Motion shipped his Derby winner to Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park's satellite training facility in Boynton Beach, Florida. He was accompanied by the trainer’s Grade-1 Woodward Memorial winner Toby’s Corner, sidelined with a leg injury since last April.
The major goal for Animal Kingdom, who finished second in a turf allowance at Gulfstream last March, is the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 24. The Grade-1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap on February 11 is a strong possibility for his 2012 return. Motion has been impressed with Animal Kingdom since he returned to training.
"I think physically, he's a bigger, stronger animal that he was last year," said Motion.
Union Rags, Runner-up
Unbeaten Hansen earned the champion 2-year-old male title with 194 votes compared with 52 for Union Rags, whom Hansen narrowly defeated by a short head in the BC Juvenile. Raised at Phyllis Wyeth’s Point Lookout Farm near Chadds Ford, Pa., Union Rags is slated to race in Gulfstream Park’s major 3-year old preps for the Kentucky Derby. His 3-year old debut is set for the Fountain of Youth on February 26 and then on to the Florida Derby on March 31. Union Rags is currently the Kentucky Derby favorite in Las Vegas future-book odds.
Trained by Chester County’s Michael Matz, Union Rags had two months off after the BC Juvenile. In early January the son of Dixie Union arrived to Palm Meadows Training Center after being turned out at a Wellington, Fla. Farm.
“He was out there and we were just hacking him around,” Matz said. “They have a nice grass jumping field and a little track around it. We were exercising him there and he was enjoying himself.”
To contact Pennsylvania Equestrian horseracing writer Terry Conway email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: Fans voted the 2011 Woodward Stakes (Grade-1), in which Havre de Grace became the second female to win the race in its 58 year history , as the New York Racing Association’s Race of the Year.