As a Kentucky native, trainer Larry Jones can't help if the occasional basketball reference slips into his dialogue. And given the time of year, a comparison between his champion mare, Havre de Grace, and the top-ranked University of Kentucky men's squad doesn't seem so farfetched.
Like the Cats, Havre de Grace is widely considered one of — if not the — most formidable forces in her sport. As the 2011 Horse of the Year gets set to embark on what her connections hope will be another championship run this season, she also must avoid a shocking opening-round upset in March.
One week after having the SEC Tournament in its back yard, Fair Grounds will have another star luring in fans this weekend as Fox Hill Farm's Havre de Grace makes her 2012 debut against four others in the $150,000 New Orleans Ladies Stakes on Saturday.
Havre de Grace has not started since her fourth-place run in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last November, but the small number of rivals she will face in the 11⁄16-mile race speaks to her level of respect.
On paper, the 5-year-old daughter of Saint Liam has no reason not to overwhelm the No. 16 seeds looking to knock off No. 1. She has the class advantage over a bunch that features only one other graded-stakes winner in Juanita, and Jones said the three-time Grade I winner is already ahead of where she was at this point last year.
"She's coming into this race better than she was for her first race last year (a win over champion Blind Luck in the Grade III Azeri)," said Jones, who took over the training of Havre de Grace early in 2011 after she was previously conditioned by Tony Dutrow. "Last year, we were still trying to get everybody acquainted. It's kind of like (UK Coach John) Calipari going in there with a bunch of freshmen. She didn't know what to expect from me, and I didn't know what to expect from her but, this year, we gel, and we're going back as upperclassmen."
Saturday could be huge for both Jones and owner Rick Porter because Havre de Grace's stablemate, Joyful Victory, will try to emulate her when she starts in the Azeri at Oaklawn Park.
Jones is planning to be at Fair Grounds with Havre de Grace — and one thing he will not bring is excuses. The bay mare has posted six works since returning to the tab in February, including three bullet moves.
"Needless to say, we're going over with every expectation to win the race," Jones said. "I'm not going to go in there and start saying, 'Well, we've only got her 60 percent, we just need a good race.' We're going over to win this thing. We hope we don't have to use 100 percent of our horse, but she's ready if we need it."