Feast For Racing Fans: Top Horses Are Coming Back

The annual Eclipse Awards celebration of racing’s champions produced precious little drama in the crowning of Thoroughbred racing’s champions for 2011, but the roster of winning horses and humans honored Jan. 17 in Beverly Hills offers considerable promise for our still new year.

There were few surprises when the winners of the 2011 Eclipse awards were announced, with the night’s biggest winner being Havre De Grace, a horse with ample Kentucky connections who became the unprecedented third consecutive female to earn “Horse of the Year” honors.

Big Hoof Prints

Havre de Grace followed in the monstrous hoof prints of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta after an ambitious campaign in which she split showdowns with the brilliant 2010 Kentucky Oaks winner Blind Luck and whipped top males in the Woodward at Saratoga.

Rachel Alexandra had been the only previous female with a Woodward win.

She is the first “Horse of the Year” honoree saddled by trainer J. Larry Jones, the Hopkinsville, Ky. native who returned from a one-year sabbatical to guide the daughter of Saint Liam through a campaign during which she won five of seven starts and earned more than $1.6 million.

No Doubter

Havre de Grace was an overwhelming winner in the Eclipse category that honored America’s top older female.

In this corner, Havre de Grace was a clear-cut and deserving winner of the night’s big trophy.

Owner Rick Porter and Jones mapped out a strong campaign with the “Horse of the Year” honor as a clear goal, and her accomplishments far exceeded those of the males in the hunt for the gold statuette that goes to the brightest star in American racing each year.

She crushed Royal Delta, who would win the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic on her way to an Eclipse Award that honored her as 3-year-old filly champ, in their only meeting in the Beldame at Belmont Park, and she traveled to take on top-notch competition.

She finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, but that did nothing to tarnish a wonderful championship campaign.

The promise held in the honor for Havre de Grace is that Porter and Jones plan to race her again this year, with the ultimate goal of her 5-year-old campaign being a second bid for the Breeders’ Cup Classic this fall at Santa Anita.

Cross Fingers

Local racing fans should keep fingers crossed as Churchill Downs fans could have a chance or two to see Havre de Grace in action beneath the Twin Spires in 2012.

Porter and Jones have yet to map a specific campaign for their star, but The Courier-Journal’s Jennie Rees reported that the $300,000 La Troienne for older fillies and mares or an early showdown with males in the $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap are among the stops that Havre de Grace’s team could consider for their star as the year unfolds.

Other 2011 champions with local connections include:

  • Bill Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer and all-time win leader at Churchill Downs who earned his third Eclipse as America’s top trainer.

    He added two notable victories to his victory total beneath the Twin Spires when he saddled Royal Delta and Classic winner Drosselmeyer for those triumphs.

    The youngest trainer to enter racing’s Hall of Fame is only 58 years old, so chances are this Eclipse will be followed by more.

    And that long awaited Kentucky Derby win for Mott is surely coming, maybe as early as this year.

  • Churchill Downs-based trainer Mike Maker now has his first Eclipse Award winner in 2-year-old champion Hansen, who edged Union Rages in a repeat of their 1-2 finish in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

    The gray colt is the first Eclipse champion stabled at Churchill Downs’ Trackside training center, located on the Poplar Level Road site of the old Louisville Downs harness track.

    Previous star residents of Trackside include Grade I winners Perfect Drift and Brass Hat, but never a champion until now.

    Though he’s spending the winter in Florida, Trackside can now boast that it is the home of its first early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

  • Ken and Sarah Ramsey, the all-time leaders in wins by an owner at Churchill Downs, collected their fourth Eclipse Award when the Nicholasville, Ky. couple narrowly won the statuette that went to the top owner of 2011.

    Their stable led North America in stakes wins last year as they added their latest award to the Eclipse that honored them as leading owner of 2004, the year their Kitten’s Joy – now their breeding operation’s top stallion – was honored as turf champion.  They also raced 2010 Eclipse Award steeplechase champion Slip Away.Team Valor’s Animal Kingdom missed the second half of 2011, but proved again that a victory in America’s greatest race carries more weight than any other when the Kentucky Derby winner was honored as 3-year-old champion.

  • Two-time Eclipse Award champion trainer Steve Asmussen celebrated another champion when Stonestreet Stables and George Bolton’s homebred My Miss Aurelia, winner of the Grey Goose Juvenile Fillies in the Breeders’ Cup, was a runaway winner as champion 2-year-old filly.

    She spent a good chunk of her year at Churchill Downs, although the Breeders’ Cup race was her only start beneath the Twin Spires.

    We offer hearty congratulations for the winners with strong Louisville and Churchill Downs connections, but here is the real payoff for racing fans: many horses on the roster of Eclipse winners remain in training with the goal of competing in 2012.

Watch Dubai Cup

Havre de Grace clearly heads that list, but the now 4-year-old stars Animal Kingdom and the filly Royal Delta are training toward a possible meeting in the Dubai World Cup; Hansen and rival Union Rags head the growing list of Kentucky Derby 138 hopefuls; and My Miss Aurelia figures to be a heavy early choice for the Kentucky Oaks when she returns from an extended winter break.

Other champions back for 2012 include sprinter Amazombie, champion older horse Acclamation, and filly sprinter Musical Romance.