03/18/2012 11:15AM

Havre de Grace, Musical Romance, and Other Thoughts

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Some quick thoughts on Saturday’s stakes results:

If you are a 1-20 shot like Havre de Grace was in the New Orleans Ladies, you really can do only one of two things and get out with your reputation intact: You could win by a big double-digit lengths margin, or you could win eased up. Havre de Grace Saturday pretty much went with the latter option. She won well in hand over four game, but massively outclassed opponents. It was a fine comeback, just the kind you would like to see from a Horse of the Year.

About the only nitpick one could have with Havre de Grace’s 5-year-old debut is maybe she won too easily. The older female division is loaded this year. Royal Delta, last year’s champion 3-year-old filly, will be occupied for a while with the Dubai World Cup. But Awesome Maria, Awesome Feather, Zazu, It’s Tricky, and Plum Pretty are out there, and Havre de Grace figures to cross paths with some of them either in the near or long term. When she does, Havre de Grace will have to tap her resources, because those are serious race horses. And you could wonder if Saturday’s race did anything more to build up those resources than a stiff morning workout couldn’t have done.

Taking nothing away from the much improved winner Include Me Out, but the big question after the Santa Margarita is, what in the world happened to Ellafitz? Ellafitz was going for her fourth straight stakes victory, she was the lone speed on paper, and sure enough, she bounded out to an easy, uncontested lead. But Ellafitz, who survived challenges in waves in last month’s Santa Maria, crumbled early on the far turn under token pressure from Include Me Out, and wound up finishing last of four. Either Ellafitz proved unable to stand up on the sloppy, sealed going (which would be a surprise considering she’s by Tiznow out of a Dixieland Band mare), or something went wrong with her.

Watching last year’s champion female sprinter Musical Romance get back on track in the Inside Information Stakes, I couldn’t help but think of the 1988 Travers Stakes. Here’s why:

Ernie Munick, video blogger, musician, handicapper extraordinaire, and friend, was at the time of that Travers working for the New York Daily News as the on-track handicapper, and author of the daily recap column. Ernie took a big stand in that Travers with Forty Niner, which, believe it or not, was a gutsy move. Despite being the champion 2-year-old male the year before, and winning the Haskell, Fountain of Youth, and Lafayette, and finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, Florida Derby, Lexington, and Hutcheson at 3 prior to the Travers, Forty Niner at that time had fallen out of favor with the cognoscenti. Brian’s Time, who beat Forty Niner in the Florida Derby, and who finished in front of him when second in the Preakness, finished third in the Belmont and won the Jim Dandy. He was the “now” horse in that Travers, going off as the even money favorite. In addition, there was Seeking the Gold, who won the Dwyer, Peter Pan, and Swale, and also finished second in the Gotham and Wood Memorial. He was beaten just a nose in the Haskell by Forty Niner after a tougher trip, and was considered every bit as good as Forty Niner, if not better.

One thing you have to know about Ernie. As intense a handicapper as he was in those days – and he handicapped 15 hours a day; I witnessed it – he never spoke above a whisper in the press box. Except once. As Forty Niner held off Seeking the Gold narrowly in the run to the wire of that Travers (we will forget about the fact that Seeking the Gold was again the best horse that day), Ernie rose to his feet, raised both arms in the air, and exclaimed, “Champion! Champion!”

No, Ernie was not blowing his own horn for taking a big stand on the biggest race of the Saratoga meet and being right. He was, in his own way, teaching the rest of us a lesson, and that was to never, ever, underestimate a champion. Yes, the female sprint division Musical Romance was voted champion of last year was very shaky. She wasn’t as “solid” a champion as Forty Niner was. But she was a champion nonetheless, and I know I underestimated her Saturday. And I don’t know if Ernie bet the race, but I’m pretty sure if he did, he bet Musical Romance, and got $11.20 on a champion.

That was a strange, if successful performance from Secret Circle in the Rebel. He looked like he was floundering a bit late on the backstretch, but then did good work by refocusing and getting back into it between horses on the far turn. But when Secret Circle took dead aim on the distance suspect leader Scatman in the stretch, he started drifting and weaving. All of this strikes me as the hallmarks of a colt who was at the end of his rope distance-wise, and it should be noted that the distance of the Rebel was 1 1-16 miles. And how strong a race could the Rebel really have been when Optimizer finished like a freight train to be a rapidly gaining second? Optimizer hadn’t hit the board in four prior starts on dirt, and showed little, if any, run when beaten nearly seven and 13 lengths in the Smarty Jones and Risen Star in his two most recent starts.

Gemologist was originally scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Rebel, but he got a much softer launching point in an allowance race Friday at Gulfstream. Gemologist didn’t beat anything, but you have to like the way he did it, which is easily, and by a lot. And what I found particularly encouraging was the big step forward he took Beyer-wise from his 2-year-old numbers. In fact, Gemologist should have run in the Rebel. He would have won, and banked $300,000 in graded earnings, which is no small consideration when it comes to the Kentucky Derby.