Updated on 03/20/2012 11:57AM

Fair Grounds: Havre de Grace easily takes New Orleans Ladies while prepping for bigger game

Hodges Photography/Alexander Barkoff
Havre de Grace moves to the lead three wide on the turn of the New Orleans Ladies.

As comeback races go, Havre de Grace’s on Saturday at Fair Grounds couldn’t have been much better.

Havre de Grace got to run in the afternoon rather than during a morning work, and she had to work a little harder than has been the case in her recent drills – but not much. Tracking the pace in a short field, Havre de Grace challenged the leading duo of Sterling Madame and Juanita midway around the far turn, seized command of the $150,000 New Orleans Ladies at the top of the stretch, and went on to a 4 1/2- length victory.

In the final furlong, jockey Ramon Dominguez looked twice to his inside and once to his outside, but no one was threatening the champ. Have de Grace basically ran without urging for the entire stretch, and still turned in a clocking of 1:42.79 for 1 1/16 miles, the fastest such time since Master Command’s went 1:42.28 winning the Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 10, 2007.

“We had a great trip. My main purpose was to try and keep her out of trouble,” Dominguez said. “She was ready to run. She was much the best. Mission accomplished, first race back.”

Havre de Grace, a winner in five of her seven starts during her 2011 Horse of the Year season, won for the ninth time in 16 races while making her first start since a fourth-place finish Nov. 5 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Larry Jones, who trains 5-year-old Havre de Grace for Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms, predicted early in 2012 that Havre de Grace would come around quickly once she got into a morning-training groove at Fair Grounds, and that has proven to be the case. Havre de Grace needed only five timed workouts of more than three furlongs to ready for a start, and she clearly was fit enough to look much like herself Saturday.

“I thought she was better prepared than she was last year,” said Jones. “As soon as Ramon scrubbed on her, she responded.”

Tracking from third, Havre de Grace waited patiently as Sterling Madame set splits of 23.68 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 47.50 seconds for the first half. Dominguez gently asked Havre de Grace to inch closer at the half-mile pole, and as Juanita came two wide to challenge Sterling Madame around the far turn, Havre de Grace went three wide to get on even terms with the pair inside her. By the top of the stretch she had made the lead, and from there the question was only by how much she would win.

“That was just what we were hoping for,” Porter said.

Just a few minutes before Havre de Grace’s race, the Porter-owned, Jones-trained Joyful Victory finished third in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park. That performance wasn’t sharp enough to suggest Joyful Victory would obviously be a major player in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom next month at Oaklawn Park, which means Havre de Grace is likely to be pointed to the race, which she impressively won in 2011.

“It was a little more obvious [what to do] after watching the Oaklawn race today,” Jones said. “I think she’ll have to go there and defend her title.”

Havre de Grace paid $2.10, $2.10, and $2.10. Juanita finished second, Sterling Madame third. Havre de Grace was the subject of massive show wagering, with $750,613 out of $778,432 bet on her in the show pool.