And the stakes have never been higher. Instead of Triple Crown glory, year-end championship honors will be on the line. The Eclipse Awards are voted on by the National Turf Writers and Racing Secretaries and will be announced on January 16.
A victory in the Juvenile by Union Rags would all but assure the colt, owned by Chester County native Phyllis Wyeth, the 2-year-old championship honors and peg him as the early Kentucky Derby favorite. The Kentucky-bred conditioned by Michael Matz would become the first local horse to achieve those feats since—you guessed it—Spectacular Bid achieved those honors in 1978.
Like Spectacular Bid, Havre de Grace prepared and campaigned at Delaware Park.
Havre de Grace was stabled at Delaware Park from April through late September. She won the Grade III Obeah Stakes and then suffered her lone defeat of the year when she ran second, beaten by a nostril, against her arch-rival Blind Luck in what many have dubbed the "The Race of the Year" in the Grade II Delaware Handicap. Undeterred, Havre de Grace followed with victories in the Woodward, against the boys, at Saratoga and the Beldame at Belmont.
“[Horse of the Year] could be determined in the Classic,” Jones said. “That’s where it should be determined, on the racetrack. It shouldn’t be bound to someone’s opinion. If she wins the Classic, then definitely it’s a no-brainer that she is Horse of the Year. But I don’t think for us to still be considered for Horse of the Year we necessarily have to win the Classic. But we have to show up and run big.”
Shortly after winning the Beldame, Jones had nothing but praise for his filly.
“I seriously think this is the closest I’ve ever witnessed to the perfect race horse,” Jones said. “I thought Secretariat was that when he retired. If she has a flaw anywhere, anyhow, I haven’t found it.”
Like "the Bid," Union Rags raced at Delaware Park during his 2-year-old campaign.
In his career debut, Union Rags broke his maiden going five furlongs at Delaware Park on July 12. The undefeated son of Dixie Union followed by winning the Grade II Saratoga Special and the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.
“He’s always acted like a nice horse from when we first got him,” Michael Matz told reporters shortly after Union Rags’ victory in the Champagne. “I think he’s a real good horse. Anytime you can win going five-eighths with me, you know they’re nice horses. I’ve had horses on and off for Mrs. [Phyllis Wyeth], and she said to me, ‘I’m going to have a good one for you,’ and I think she does.”
“If everything goes well, we would like to go to the Breeders’ Cup,” said Matz “We haven’t mapped out a schedule for him; there is time for that. But he will train at Fair Hill and go down to Churchill in sufficient time.”
But the Breeders' Cup pot goes even deeper for local racing enthusiasts. With a victory in the Juvenile Fillies on November 4, Michael Dubb, Bethlehem Stables, and the Elkstone Group’s Grace Hall could become the first 2-year-old filly champion locally-owned since the brilliant filly Go For Wand, owned by Jane duPont Lunger's Christiana Stables, won the honor in 1989.
Grace Hall, undefeated in three career outings, broke her maiden at Delaware Park going six furlongs on July 30. The daughter of Empire Maker conditioned by Anthony Dutrow then won the Grade I Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga. In her most recent outing, the Kentucky-bred won the $75,000 Blue Hen Stakes at Delaware Park on October 1.
“I have to be happy right now,” said Anthony Dutrow after Grace Hall easily won the Blue Hen Stakes. “It all went well and as expected. I am not seeing anything that alarms me or concerns me. It looked relatively easy for her. I am really happy she has gained the two-turn experience. Still, she has a lot to prove just like the rest of them, but I am feeling very good that she is well prepared going into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.”