No matter how they pronounced it, Havre de Grace was the champion. Wasn't even close.
The racehorse named for the city, her name often butchered by race callers and fans from outside Maryland, was honored in Monday evening as the 2011 American Thoroughbred Horse of the Year during the annual Eclipse Awards banquet in Beverly Hills, Calif., that recognized last year's top racing performers.
The 5-year-old mare owned by Rick Porter and his Fox Hill Farm of Delaware, finished far in front of two other finalists in voting by turf writers and racing officials. She also received the Eclipse Award as the year's top older female horse.
"We had a wonderful time," Victoria Keith, Porter's assistant with Fox Hill, said Wednesday. "It was a great evening for everyone."
A winner of several major stakes in 2011, including a victory over a field of males in The Woodward at Saratoga, Havre de Grace's career has been followed closely by many people in her namesake city, which still regularly honors its racing heritage more than 60 years after the closing of the old race track on Old Bay Lane, where the Maryland National Guard now operates.
The city's newfound prominence through an award-winning thoroughbred shows the name of Havre de Grace continues to hold a certain mystique and appeal.
After all, Porter said he nicknamed the mare Havre de Grace because his curiosity was piqued while driving past Exit 89 on I-95. The more he learned about the city, and particularly its racing heritage, the more interested he became.
Brigitte Peters, the city's tourism manager, said she has already gotten calls from the Associated Press regarding the horse.
"I think the big thing they were concerned about was how to pronounce Havre de Grace," she said, adding media outlets are not the only ones attracted by the unusual name.
"A lot of people come off of 95 to the visitors center because they have passed Havre de Grace many times and they are intrigued by the name," she said.
Peters said there could be some impact on the city from the new publicity about the horse, who is going to race this year, as well, Fox Hill Farm's Keith, and most likely in some of the sport's biggest races against all comers, male or female.
"You will see an uptick in our website hits," Peters said. "I think it's a wonderful thing for Havre de Grace … Just the history that Havre de Grace has in horse racing, the Main Street [organization] is picking that history up, I believe it will definitely have somewhat of an impact."
"This is an amazing time for this to be happening, to have Rick Porter in place and seeing the importance of the name Havre de Grace and the draw for the community having that horse out there," she added.
Cecil Hill, who has worked with fellow city businessman Allen Fair and with former mayor and now County Executive David Craig to try to get a horse museum and park in the city, said he too has been glad to read about the award-winning mare.
"I just think it's an honor for a horse to be named Havre de Grace," he said, citing the difficulty he had in trying to get the horse park off the ground.
"We worked our fingers to the bone and spent a lot of our money trying to have a horse park, and we never got the right response politically," Hill said. "We have a lot of artifacts for a horse museum."
Lou Ward, of the city's Bayou Restaurant, said the horse's name has been the talk of the town, and brought back memories for those who remember Havre de Grace's prominence for actual horse racing. The city's track closed in 1950 after 38 years.
"Once news broke [about Horse of the Year], everybody was really familiar with the horse, and the name Havre de Grace is across the country now," Ward said. "I think it's a little pride in the community."
Recalling "The Graw" race track, he said, "I think it was just a great era. People like to relive that a little bit…there's a lot of history behind the name."
Fair said Thursday he has followed the horse throughout her career and went up to Delaware Park last year to watch her run.
"It's exciting because I have been watching her," Fair said, explaining he was intrigued by a horse named Havre de Grace.
"It's just neat. I did meet the owner up in Delaware Park," he said. "People see the name of Havre de Grace, it's out there, and [people] drive by and they stop by and say, 'Gee, let's stop in Havre de Grace.'"
"We are hoping he will stop by one time for Graw Days," Fair said of Porter. The Graw Days Festival each fall pays homage to the city's racing history.
Fair said it is possible the new spotlight on the Havre de Grace name will bring back talk of a horse museum in the city.
"Will it happen? I don't know. Should it happen? Yes," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun