As a horseman, it was only natural trainer Larry Jones looked upon now-retired champions Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta with utmost respect as the two female superstars held the racing world captive with their talents the past few years.
Each time one of the all-world distaffers racked up a historic victory against males, Jones felt a surge of emotion come over him — partially because he was awestruck by their ability but also because the last two Horse of the Year winners were providing salve for a wound whose scar is still evident.
"In all fairness, I'm kind of glad that Rachel and Zenyatta have come along since and kind of eased the idea of the girls running against the boys," Jones said. "I appreciate those other trainers doing that because it just showed that our decision to do what we did earlier, that it wasn't a wrong thing to do."
Fair or not, Jones knows the decision he and owner Rick Porter made in May 2008 is going to be thrown in his face at some point this week as he prepares to run Porter's star filly Havre de Grace against males in Saturday's Grade I Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.
Three years ago, Porter and Jones started the striking filly Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby where she finished a gallant second behind eventual champion Big Brown before suffering a fatal breakdown while galloping out after the race.
Time and perspective have allowed many to view what happened to Eight Belles as a tragic, but freak, incident. But in the immediate weeks that followed, the stellar reputations Jones and Porter built came under fire as did the notion in this country of female runners competing against top males.
As if on cue, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra arrived on the scene. In 2009, Rachel Alexandra recorded one of the best campaigns a 3-year-old filly has ever produced, besting males in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward en route to taking Horse of the Year honors.
That same season, a then-undefeated Zenyatta humbled the boys to become the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Though her lone career loss would come when she fell a head short of Blame in the 2010 Classic, few viewed Zenyatta as the weaker sex — hence her gaining her own Horse of the Year trophy.
While this country still doesn't look at females racing against males in the casual light they do in Europe, where such practice is common, there is no doubt the overall attitude has shifted in a positive direction since the Eight Belles aftermath.
Jones may get hit with the expected questions about that this week, but — thanks in part to Rachel, Zenyatta and even three-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner Goldikova — it will probably be a blip in the conversation rather than the dominant topic.
"I already know it's going to be, 'Well you all know what happened the last time you ran a filly against boys,'" sighed Jones, who took over the training of Havre de Grace from Tony Dutrow after coming out of a yearlong retirement in January. "Well, it's been done since and it's been done a long time before that happened. If you have the right horse at the right time, girls can run with boys."
Which is precisely why Jones and Porter weren't at all hesitant to put Havre de Grace in her current spot.
A good graded stakes-winning filly last year, the now 4-year-old Havre de Grace has blossomed into a potential Horse of the Year candidate in 2011. The large-bodied daughter of Saint Liam has won three of four starts this season, including a three-quarter length win in the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn in April, and developed a rivalry with champion filly Blind Luck that has helped elevate the sport.
Overall, the two have met six times, with Blind Luck finishing ahead of Havre de Grace on four occasions. The duo have split their meetings this year with Havre de Grace beating Blind Luck by 31/4 lengths in the Grade III Azeri in March and the latter just getting her nose down first in the Grade II Delaware Handicap on July 16.
With Blind Luck holding the edge in the race for year-end honors, Porter wanted to give Havre de Grace the chance to swing for the fences. Though the bay filly would have been a heavy favorite taking on her own sex in the rescheduled running of the Grade I Personal Ensign this Saturday, Havre de Grace will move to the top of the rankings should she take down a Woodward field that includes Grade II New Orleans Handicap winner Mission Impazible, Grade II Suburban Handicap winner Flat Out, and multiple Grade I winner Giant Oak.
"Obviously we think we have a chance to be Horse of the Year, and after we got beaten a nose in the Delaware Handicap, we felt we had to do something aggressive — either run against Blind Luck again or, if not, take the boys on," Porter said. "When we saw (Blind Luck) wasn't coming (to the Personal Ensign) ... we decided it was time to take on the boys."
It doesn't hurt that Havre de Grace is picking this fight at just the right time.
Like Rachel Alexandra before her, Havre de Grace is the morning-line favorite for the Woodward, in which she will face seven rivals. The older male division has been rife with parity all year and the current leader, dual Grade I winner Tizway, is skipping the Woodward to prepare for the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 1.
Havre de Grace has run well at Saratoga, finishing second to Blind Luck in the 2010 Grade I Alabama, and the presence of Mambo Meister and Mission Impazible should provide her enough pace Saturday to execute her stalk-and-pounce skills.
Whether she wins or not, Jones and Porter felt they owed it to Havre de Grace to give her the opportunity.
"We weren't going to baby her this year. We were going to throw her out there, we weren't going to duck competition," Jones said. "We think she can run with the boys. Maybe she can't, but if we're going to be Horse of the Year we have to take on the boys somewhere, sometime and right now is a good time to do it."