Larry Jones is just about the tallest exercise rider you’re going to see out there.
Not so tall that he doesn’t need a flipped-over bucket to climb aboard Havre de Grace, though.
The trainer took her out for a spin on the Saratoga Race Course main track on Friday morning, drawing compliments from at least one onlooker who stopped to watch the big 4-year-old bay filly walk the meadow next to barn 26.
“I thought that was Zenyatta.”
“She’s my Zenyatta-wannabe,” Jones said with a laugh.
The big girl will take on the big boys in the Grade I Woodward today as Saratoga heads into closing weekend of the 143rd meet with five Grade I races in three days. The Woodward and Forego will be broadcast on Versus from 5-6 p.m., and the 12-race card also includes the rescheduled Personal Ensign.
The Woodward has produced a quick echo of 2009, when Rachel Alexandra took on males in what turned out to be the last race of a Horse of the Year season for her.
Some Zenyatta fans were infuriated that Rachel Alexandra nudged out their heroine for Horse of the Year, but Zenyatta came back to win the Eclipse last year despite losing to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Havre de Grace’s rival, Blind Luck, isn’t scheduled to run in anything Jones and owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm were considering before the Breeders’ Cup, so they decided to get a little bold and enter her in the Woodward. She’s the 8-5 morning-line favorite, and sure to be a favorite of much of the crowd, as was Rachel Alexandra.
“I still think that there’s a lot of women out there that have a sex issue of just girlpower, and I don’t understand it,” Jones said, again breaking into his trademark cackle. “I don’t know that the guys think so much about it, but I think half the people over there, if they’re girls, they’re going to be rooting for her just so they can go home and tell their husband, ‘Yeah, she did it.’”
Jones saddled the filly Eight Belles to a second-place finish behind Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, then found himself in the middle of a firestorm of controversy and criticism when she broke down during the gallop-out and had to be euthanized.
He said he isn’t sure why female thoroughbreds don’t race against males in the U.S. more, although “Maybe they saw how bad the media treated me after the Derby,” he said. “If something goes wrong, you get hung. I really don’t know. Maybe it’s because we have an ample opportunity to run fillies in good filly races.”
Havre de Grace certainly should have no difficulty handling the males from a physical standpoint in the Woodward.
The strapping daughter of 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam is 6-4-2 from 12 lifetime starts for just over $1.5 million in earnings.
She’ll race against males for the first time.
“We think she stacks up against them, or we wouldn’t be here,” Jones said. “We’re not going out just trying to find another way to get her beat. We need to make sure of our end goal, which is to give her an opportunity to win her division and the championship, and possibly the Horse of the Year. So we felt like this was the best time.
“We talked about a couple of spots that we could go. We feel like the distance of this race is really good for us. The time of year is good from the standpoint that the weather is cooling off. It would be a good time to ask her for a little something extra, without maybe knocking her out. This is the time when we really need to step up to the plate and give it a swing.”
Havre de Grace has raced at Saratoga once, finishing second by a neck to her nemesis, Blind Luck, in a classic edition of the Alabama last year, when she was trained by Tony Dutrow.
She’s made four starts for Jones, winning the Azeri, Apple Blossom and Obeah before losing by a nose to Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap.
The Woodward field includes three who finished behind Tizway in the Whitney at Saratoga, Grade II Suburban winner Flat Out, Grade I Donn Handicap winner Giant Oak and two-time Grade II winner Mission Impazible.
In typical fashion, the seven-furlong Forego presents an intriguing collection of older horses, not all of whom would be considered dirt sprint specialists.
Jackson Bend, breaking from the rail, beat a salty group in the James Marvin on opening day, only his second attempt at seven furlongs in 19 career races, and Sidney’s Candy will break just outside of him in his first start on conventional dirt in eight races.
He had been considered for the nine-furlong Woodward.
“Every Grade I is tough, but the James Marvin was a loaded race,” said Hall of famer Nick Zito, who trains Jackson Bend. “He takes no back seat in winning that race., and now he just needs to come back and do the same thing.”