When the 2011 Eclipse Awards are handed out on January 16 in Beverly Hills, California, a trio of thoroughbreds from the region might just snap up the golden award, the sport’s equivalent of the Oscar.
At the top of the ledger is Havre de Grace, owned by Wilmington’s Rick Porter. The brilliant 4-year old filly has the strongest case for the 2011 Horse of the Year. Racing against top-tier competition all season, Havre de Grace scored five graded stakes wins (including three Grade-1s) by an average of three lengths. She lost by a whisker to Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap where she spotted her arch rival two pounds that certainly played into the defeat at a mile and a quarter.
From March through October Havre de Grace earned victories at five different tracks in Arkansas, Delaware, New York and Kentucky. In August she triumphed over a top-notch field of colts in the Woodward Stakes in Saratoga.
In the biggest race of the year-- the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5— Havre de Grace battled a field of 13 colts, finishing fourth in a rough trip. She was boxed in behind other horses coming into the far turn and when she angled out at the top of the stretch she was walloped by Flat Out. Still, Havre de Grace finished strong three lengths behind the winner.
Based at Delaware Park, Havre de Grace ducked no one. Porter and his trainer Larry Jones stepped up to every challenge. That approach— one of true sportsmen-- says as much as the filly’s stellar performances on the track. Havre de Grace entered the Classic as the most accomplished racehorse in the country and exited the race in the same spot. She has earned the sport’s highest honor, Horse of the Year.
Some might say Animal Kingdom caught lightning in a bottle when he thundered down the stretch to win the world’s most famous race, the 137th edition of the Kentucky Derby. Not so. Trained by Fair Hill’s Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom’s victory (at 20-1 odds) was emphatic and decisive, as was the strapping chestnut colt’s victory in his final Derby prep, the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes.
Animal Kingdom followed the Derby with a near miss in the Preakness, and a sixth in the Belmont Stakes, in which 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. He exited the Belmont with a season-ending slab fracture in his left hind leg.
The Team Valor colt’s competition is sprinter Caleb’s Posse who won four grades stakes. Despite being sidelined since early June, a case can be made that Animal Kingdom won the most important race and turned in a strong Preakness performance. In a close vote, Animal Kingdom should earn the Eclipse Award for Three Year Old Male.
Animal Kingdom started breezing on the track at the Fair Hill Training Center in mid-December. He’ll be shipped down to Palm Meadows in Florida to prepare for the Dubai World Cup 0n March 31.
Union Rags was the leader of the two-year-old male division before the colts were loaded into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile starting gate. He was undefeated in three starts, including impressive scores in prestigious races-- the Saratoga Special (Grade-2) and the Champagne Stakes (Grade-1). West Coast colt Hansen was also perfect, but with a slimmer resume.
In the Juvenile Hansen broke from post five and sped to the lead with a dream trip on the rail. In stark contrast Union Rags was shuffled back to sixth early and hung four wide on the first turn and five wide on the far turn. Then in mid-stretch he veered sharply to the outside costing him momentum. He surged again, but simply ran out of distance. Despite all that Union Rags lost by a short head. The Trakus data system employed by Churchill Downs measured Union Rags as having raced a whopping 78 feet more than the winner.
Raised at Phyllis Wyeth’s Point Lookout Farm near Chadds Ford, Union Rags will prepare for the 2012 Kentucky Derby in Gulfstream Park’s major 3-year old stakes, the Fountain of Youth (Feb. 26) and the Florida Derby (March 31). Trained by Chester County’s Michael Matz, Union Rags is currently the Kentucky Derby favorite (10-1) in Wynns’ Las Vegas future-book odds.
The vote for the male 2-year-old Eclipse Award is a toss-up. But based on his overall 2011 season, Union Rags could get the nod.