03/28/2012 2:54PM

Hovdey: Return of champion Havre de Grace reason to celebrate


When Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes in 1973, ending a Triple Crown drought dating back to Citation’s run in 1948, he was hailed as a sports hero on a par with all-pro icons and Olympic greats.

When Seattle Slew came along to win the Triple Crown in 1977, his feat was greeted with something less than Secretariat-level enthusiasm but nevertheless was praised as a grand achievement, especially since the colt was undefeated, and very cool.

But when Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes in 1978, the idea that there was yet another Triple Crown winner was treated like dog-bites-mailman news. Yawn. The story instead became the rivalry, leading to the unfortunate development that schoolchildren from the era still recall those exciting tales about that wonderful racehorse named Affirmedandalydar.

The devaluation of the rare is not unusual if the rare keeps showing up. Human nature always will be searching for the next elusive treasure, whether it be the perfect iPad, intelligent talk radio, or cheap gasoline. In the end, it’s about the quest.

For the past three years, the best Thoroughbred racehorse in the land has been a filly, or a mare. (Same thing, really, and one of those ridiculous terminology issues that dog horse racing when it strays into the larger world and begs petty correction, as if to mix the words were to conflate a second baseman with a wide receiver.)

Okay then – for the past three years, the best Thoroughbred racehorse in the land has been a female racehorse, beginning with Rachel Alexandra in 2009, then Zenyatta in 2010, and last year with Havre de Grace. This is more than a trend, but somewhat less than the dawn of an era. Call it a wave, one that hit the shore in 2002 when the 4-year-old filly (later a mare) Azeri roamed the land, winning eight of nine starts and major races in California, Arkansas, and Chicago.

To Rick Porter’s credit, the owner of Havre de Grace has sent her forth to campaign as reigning Horse of the Year in 2012. This did not work so well with Rachel Alexandra, who lost three of her five starts in 2010. Azeri, on the other hand, raced on as a 5- and 6-year-old for the Allen Paulson Trust and did just fine, thanks, winning Eclipse Award titles as top older female in 2003 and 2004.

Is it important that Havre de Grace rolls on, adding to her reputation and even defending her Horse of the Year crown? Absolutely, if only to answer the hidebound traditionalists who still consider a year in which a female has won racing’s top honor to be a season of mediocre quality, the assumption being if a filly or mare is Horse of the Year then the year was hardly worth remembering.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but it will be up to Havre de Grace and her people to keep the volume high. Officials in the town of Havre de Grace, in Maryland, have done their part by issuing this year’s traditional commemorative medallion bearing the image of Havre de Grace herself. The medallion, which sells for $10, went on sale earlier this month.

“People are buying them, like, five at a time,” said Pat Fair, Havre de Grace Arts Commission president.

“The town’s gone wild for her,” Rick Porter said this week. “They’re having a big Fourth of July parade, and she’s being honored that day. We’re sponsoring a float for the parade, but when they asked if we’d bring Havre de Grace as well, I had to say no. We might bring a horse, but it won’t be Havre de Grace.”

Havre de Grace did nothing to devalue those $10 medallion investments by winning her 2012 debut on March 17 at the Fair Grounds, when she walked her beat with ease in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes. Her likely next start will be a defense of her title in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 13.

After that, Porter and trainer Larry Jones will scan the landscape for the best ways to showcase their champ. There will be the usual clamor for Havre de Grace to tee it up against the boys, as she did last year in winning the Woodward and finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But if the division holds together – featuring Royal Delta, Plum Pretty, Awesome Maria, Awesome Feather, and whatever 3-year-olds emerge down the line – Havre de Grace could get her toughest competition from the female side of the track.

“I think she looks better this year,” Porter said. “She appears to be more muscular, and Larry’s talking about how she’s training so much better. I just think we’ve got more horse – her father, Saint Liam, had his best year at 5. In fact, I’d love to race her as a 6-year-old. I can’t think of anything better. But I’d better not start talking about that with so much right in front of us.”

It’s no surprise that Porter’s primary goal is another swing at the Breeders’ Cup Classic, this year to be run at Santa Anita Park.

“I’ll probably take her to California, if all’s well, and run out there to get a race over the track before the Breeders’ Cup,” Porter said. “I hope we’re able to put her in some really good races along the way, with a lot of competition, and take the boys on again. I just hope she’s good enough to do it again, and repeat as Horse of the Year.”