Among the reasons Havre de Grace will run in Saturday's Grade I Woodward Stakes is her connections' desire to have the 4-year-old filly show she deserves to be considered one of the best horses in training of either sex.
Such an ambitious quest has overshadowed the seven male competitors in the 11⁄8-mile race. But those who think the 8-5 morning-line favorite is the only horse in the field with something to prove haven't been paying attention to the handicap division.
While Havre de Grace will attempt to follow in the footsteps of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and become just the second filly to win the $750,000 Woodward, the headline event of Saratoga Race Course's closing weekend is also a huge opportunity for one of the older males to put themselves in the running for divisional honors.
With Whitney Handicap and Met Mile winner Tizway waiting for the Jockey Club Gold Cup in October, the only horse in the Woodward field other than Havre de Grace to capture a Grade I race in 2011 is Donn Handicap victor Giant Oak.
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Though she has not faced males before, Havre de Grace's three wins from four starts this year and consistent speed figures make her the clear one to beat Saturday. Having the daughter of Saint Liam in the gate adds some weight to a field that doesn't otherwise boast a ton of credentials, but it didn't deter any connections from taking a shot.
"I think it's definitely a wide-open division," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, which will send out Birdstone Stakes winner Rule in the Woodward. "If Rule were to step up and win this weekend, it would put him right up there in the front of it. If he can get over the hump, I think we'll have a great fall."
Rule's win in the 11⁄8-mile Birdstone was his first since taking the Grade III Sam F. Davis in February 2010, and it proved he could handle the Saratoga surface.
Flat Out, the 61/2-length winner of the Grade II Suburban in July, also got a feel for the Spa when he ran second in the Whitney on August 6. Plagued by quarter cracks throughout his career, Flat Out has been sound this season, and he boasts the off-the-pace style that could be effective with potential speedsters like Mambo Meister, Rule, and Mission Impazible in the mix.
"He's sound and it's a good feeling to know he's doing well," said trainer Scooter Dickey of Flat Out, who blew out 3 furlongs in 37.13 on the main track Friday,
"I think Mambo Meister is possibly a horse that could pop up here and run a big race," added Rick Porter, owner of Havre de Grace. "And Flat Out, I think those are the two that — if I could eliminate two horses, I'd like to eliminate those two."
The Woodward is one of a trio of Grade I races on the Saturday Saratoga card and one of five Grade I races taking place during the track's final weekend of racing.
The $300,000 Personal Ensign, originally scheduled for August 28 but postponed because of Hurricane Irene, drew the same six fillies and mares for Saturday, led by 2-1 morning-line favorite Ask the Moon.
Ask the Moon was claimed for $75,000 in June at Belmont Park, and two races later she won the Grade I Ruffian Handicap on July 31 at Saratoga.
The 7-furlong Forego features multiple graded-stakes winner Sidney's Candy in his second start since being bought privately by WinStar. In his first start for WinStar and trainer Todd Pletcher, Sidney's Candy led all the way in the Grade II Fourstardave Handicap on the turf at Saratoga on July 31.
"Sidney's Candy is a horse who is so good at all these things," said Pletcher. "But we felt the seven-eighths was a little more comfortable distance than the 11⁄8 miles (of the Woodward)."
A field of eight juvenile fillies will contest Sunday's Grade I, $250,000 Spinaway. The Grade I Hopeful for 2-year-old males is on tap for Monday.