Havre de Grace - the horse - and her trainer Larry Jones getting… (Getty Images, Homestead…)
When the American Thoroughbred Horse of the Year for 2011 is announced in Los Angeles Monday night, the winner will most likely have been chosen for his or her consistency – a survivor in a year when there was no clear-cut star to emerge on the track and, in the words of the owner of the favorite to win the award, "a lot of upsets."
The connections of Havre de Grace, the now 5-year-old mare named after the Harford County city and its old race track, are hoping to hear her name called, and they certainly have reason to be confident.
"We really are looking forward to Monday night and are expecting good things to happen…she certainly deserves it," Rick Porter, Havre de Grace's owner, said Wednesday evening in a phone interview from his home in Florida.
Porter, who divides his time between Greenville, Del., and Florida, said Havre de Grace's consistency indeed stood out, and she performed "better than anyone else" over the long season last year.
"I think if she had been second or third in the Breeders Cup [Classic] there would be no question," he added. "I'm pretty confident…not over-confident."
Porter also said he'll seriously consider bringing Havre de Grace to the city she's named for sometime after she retires. He confirmed the organizers of the city's annual Graw Days festival invited him to attend last fall, but he was out of town and couldn't make it.
Porter said there is no mystery why his horse is named Havre de Grace, even though he's not really been a visitor to the city.
He did travel by Havre de Grace numerous times over the years "on [Route] 40 or I-95, usually in a hurry, and I always thought it [the city] had a catchy name."
He said he did some research into the city's history and the French connection to its name, which he calls "a good story," and "of course I knew all about the track - the great horses that ran there, and one day when I was driving to the [horse] sale at Timonium, I thought I wanted to name a horse - a good horse - Havre de Grace."
He almost didn't get the chance, he said, because he first named one of his colts "Harve de Grace," and then figured "not in a million years would the Jockey Club approve another name so close, but I was lucky…it's 99 percent sure they wouldn't normally do that."
As a 4-year-old last year, Havre de Grace, a daughter of the 2005 Horse of the Year, won five races in seven starts. She finished second by a nose and fourth, the latter in the Breeders Cup Classic in which she raced against a field of 11 male horses, about three lengths back of the winner Drosselmeyer.
Among her five wins last year were three top tier Grade I races, the Apple Blossom, the Beldame and the Woodward. The latter was her signature performance, a length and a half victory over seven male horses at Saratoga.
Only two other horses won three Grade I races in North America last year - Acclamation and Cape Blanco. Both are males, but in recent years, it's been the ladies who have dominated Horse of the Year voting, with Rachel Alexandria winning in 2009 and Zenyatta last year.
Turf writers, The Daily Racing Form and National Thoroughbred Racing Association vote on the Horse of the Year and divisional titles, collectively called the Eclipse Awards. Havre de Grace is also a finalist for the Best Older Filly or Mare, an award she is likely to win.
Porter's racing stable, Fox Hill Farms, has a dozen 2-year-olds, 15 3-year-olds and six older horses in training, including Havre de Grace, according to Victoria Keith, who is Porter's assistant. Larry Jones trains the horses.
Porter also said he recently entered into a three-way partnership that includes brothers Josh and Mike Pons of Country Life Farm in Bel Air to stand 2009 Kentucky Derby favorite Friesan Fire, a son of top stallion A.P. Indy, at the Pons brothers' Merryland Farm in Hydes.
"They are good guys and have a great reputation in our business, not just in Maryland but all over," Porter said of the Pons brothers. "I'm excited to be working with them."
Mike Pons says Country Life and Porter have had a joint interest in Friesan Fire since 2009, and the freshman stallion is starting to draw interest from breeders.
"He's starting to get a little book to him; this could be fun," Pons said. "I'm beginning to think he could be very popular."
Pons said he's excited for Porter. "I think he's going to win Horse of the Year," he said.
Havre de Grace is going to race this season, both Keith and Porter said. She was rested in Florida and is getting back into training at the Fair Grounds track in New Orleans, where Jones is based this winter.
"We're looking forward to a good season," Porter said. "If she stays healthy, I think she'll keep running the way she did last year."