It’s not her avoirdupois that causes concern. Rather, it is the weight to be assigned next to the reigning Horse of the Year, who vaulted to the top of the NTRA poll this week after blowing four overmatched fillies and mares off the track in the ungraded New Orleans Ladies Handicap at The Fairgrounds this past weekend.
For the rules of the game still say that the better a horse performs, the more weight she has to carry from then on.
Trainer Larry Jones and owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm know all too well that size does matter, especially when it comes to the impost assigned by racing secretaries for contests run under handicap conditions.
Last year, Havre de Grace suffered a narrow defeat to Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap, a race that Porter said he dearly wanted to win because it was on his home turf, when she had to tote two pounds more than her rival.
You might say it was only two little pounds, but Rhianna or Kate Moss can tell you that carrying an extra 32 ounces can look awfully heavy when you’re strutting on the red carpet or out on the catwalk.
Jones and Porter are convinced those two pounds are what got Havre de Grace beat on the racetrack and they don’t want to see it happen again to the Big Mare as she campaigns for a couple more Eclipse Awards this year. Consequently, the Grade 1 $500,000 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park on April 13, a race she was being pointed for, may not be her next start.
“The Apple Blossom is still the most likely option but we’re not going to be stupid about it,” Jones said in a story on Tuesday’s Bloodhorse.com. “We’re not going to be spotting good horses a whole lot of weight. Last year we felt like we were unfairly dealt with in the Delaware Handicap.”
This is where the story takes another twist. Pat Pope was the racing official who assigned Havre de Grace top weight of 124 pounds in the Delaware Handicap. Pope, who’s been around a long time and is well respected in the industry, just happens to also be the guy at Oaklawn who decides which horse gets what weight after the nominations come out.
Not only does the track in Hot Springs, Arkansas host the Apple Blossom, but the $350,000 Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap one day later on April 14 is also part of the track’s prestigious Racing Festival of the South.
Yes, the operative word in the race’s title is “handicap”. Even the allowance for her gender may not make a difference.
“Look we know we’re going to have to carry more weight than most horses in the country. We understand that,” Jones went on to say. “But I’m also not fixing to give a multiple Grade 1 winner a lot of weight just because we have an Eclipse Award that was done off of votes and doesn’t take into account what happened on the racetrack. I’m not going to spot a lot of weight to a horse that has as many grade 1s as we have.”
Speaking of the Oaklawn Handicap, Porter said, “We will have weight issues on a regular basis, so we might as well run against the boys.”
Nonetheless, Havre de Grace, who recently had the City of Havre de Grace, Maryland Arts Commission release a new medal that bears her likeness, does have other options. There isn’t a racetrack in the country that wouldn’t want her (think of the marketing and PR possibilities) and you can bet that every stakes coordinator is trying to hustle Jones to enter her for the signature events.
The Grade 1 $400,000 Odgen Phipps at Belmont on May 28 comes to mind. The race is at 1 1/16 mile, a distance she clearly liked in her last race when she crossed under the wire in 1:42.79 and ran the mile in a sprite 1:36 off a long layoff. Right now, Awesome Maria, last year’s Phipps winner, and Awesome Feather are said to be pointing there as well and they are both fabulously talented.
Havre de Grace, a daughter of Saint Liam who has earned over $2 million in her career, can’t stay in the barn munching on her hay rack and resting on her Eclipse Awards. Porter brought her back this year to race and her one-hell-of-a-comeback in the New Orleans Ladies proved she wants to race.
She’s already scared off from the Apple Blossom Include Me Out, who won the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational last weekend, according to trainer Ron Ellis.
April 7 is the day the weights come out for the Apple Blossom, and then they will be released for the Oaklawn Handicap. Jones, Porter and Pope certainly aren’t the only ones who have the date circled in red on the calendar.