If first impressions count for anything, then trainer Larry Jones has had the better part of a year to brace for the emotional apex he reached Monday night.
"From the first day I saw her she had things my other horses just didn't have," Jones recalled back in October while discussing his stable star, the elegant bay mare Havre de Grace. "She has become the total horse as it's gone on."
At the conclusion of the 41st annual Eclipse Awards, Jones' early assessment that Havre de Grace was a girl who had it all went from opinion to fact — which is why the Hopkinsville native found himself wrestling with his pre-ceremony goal to keep the tears in check.
For an unprecedented third consecutive year, a female runner was deemed the most dominant performer in Thoroughbred racing as Rick Porter's Havre de Grace took home the 2011 Horse of the Year hardware, beating out fellow three-time Grade I-winners Cape Blanco and Acclamation by a runaway margin when results were announced at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in California.
Of the 267 eligible voters representing the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, and Daily Racing Form, 248 took part in this year's voting. Eclipse Award winners were determined solely by first-place votes, and 166 of those nods went to Havre de Grace for the ultimate year-end honor.
Unlike the past two seasons when superfilly Rachel Alexandra (2009) and the near-perfect Zenyatta (2010) prevailed in contentious voting battles, Havre de Grace — who also took home champion older female honors — was considered the heavy favorite in a season decried for its lack of standout performers. No horse in North America won more than three Grade I races during the calendar year.
What anyone thought of her competition was of little concern to her connections, however. At the end of the day, the now 5-year-old daughter of Saint Liam did everything needed to secure her place in racing's annals — capturing five of seven starts and three Grade I races, including a defining victory over males in the Grade I Woodward at Saratoga on Sept. 3.
"I've seen the lowest of lows in horse racing and I've seen a lot of highs ... but nothing rivals Havre de Grace," Porter said immediately after accepting the golden statue. "She's the most deserving horse. She won the big races when it counted and there is no question in my mind she deserves this honor.
"She is the perfect racehorse as Larry has said."
The fact Jones and Porter now campaign the reigning Horse of the Year takes on heightened meaning for both. The 2011 season marked Jones' return to training after a self-imposed, year-long retirement brought on in part by health issues and good old-fashioned burnout.
When Jones announced his comeback, his longtime client Porter immediately made the choice to send him what he considered his five best horses — wisely including Havre de Grace in that bunch.
"This is the kind of thing you shoot for when you're training and to think that a little guy from Ellis Park would ever come up with a horse like this, it's amazing," Jones said last week.
In her first start of 2011, Havre de Grace defeated her rival Blind Luck — then the reigning champion 3-year-old filly — by 31/4 lengths in the Grade III Azeri at Oaklawn before scoring her first Grade I triumph in the Apple Blossom.
Her only two losses came when she fell a nose short of Blind Luck in the Grade II Delaware Handicap and was fourth against males in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. In her final prep for the 11/4-mile Classic, Havre de Grace trounced eventual Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner Royal Delta by 81/4 lengths in the Grade I Beldame.
Havre de Grace was one of several emphatic winners Monday, although there were nail-biters. As expected, undefeated My Miss Aurelia received all by one first-place vote from the 248 ballots cast to take home champion 2-year-old filly honors while Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Hansen won champion 2-year-old male by a 194-52 margin over Union Rags.
Royal Delta ran off with champion 3-year-old filly honors, getting all but five first-place votes, while Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom prevailed in one of the most hotly debated divisions, defeating Caleb's Posse for 3-year-old male honors.
Acclamation, winner of five graded stakes in 2011, took champion older male by 25 votes over Game On Dude, but Cape Blanco prevailed over Acclamation in the turf male division. Two-time Grade I winner Stacelita was named champion turf female.
Amazombie and Musical Romance both used their respective Breeders' Cup victories to be voted champion sprinter and champion female sprinter, respectively, with Black Jack Blues being named champion steeplechase horse.