This story is the first in a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Delaware Handicap.
After the famous stretch-long duel between rivals Blind Luck and Havre de Grace in last year's Delaware Handicap, expectations for the 2012 filly and mare summer classic, slated for July 21, have never been higher. The dramatic victory proved to be the final and greatest in the brilliant career of Blind Luck. The gallant defeat did nothing but improve Havre de Grace's stature as one of the best in training and proved to be a pivotal stepping stone in a campaign that culminated with Horse of the Year honors for the locally owned and trained filly.
These are the stories of the horses and people who have made the Delaware Handicap tradition the most prestigious filly and mare classic in North America.
STANTON, Del. -When Ramon Dominguez started winning riding titles with regular ease on the New York circuit, nobody in Delaware was surprised.
When the 36-year-old native of Caracas, Venezuela, accepted his second consecutive Eclipse Award for outstanding jockey earlier this year, the fans who saw him ride at Delaware Park collectively said, "It is about time."
And finally, when he accepted the George Woolf Award last month, his first fans from the Stanton-oval proudly boasted, "I told you so."
Not so long ago, what Ramon Dominguez is currently doing in New York he was doing at Delaware Park. From 2003 through 2008, he won every Delaware Park riding title, except one in 2007 when he finished second. In 2003, he set the Delaware Park all-time record for most wins in a season when he notched 254 victories. When he won his first Grade I stake races, he was a Delaware Park regular. He is the all-time Delaware Park career victory leader.
But his first significant Delaware Park achievement was a Delaware Handicap victory.
"I am so thankful for the Delaware Handicap moments I have had and the great memories I have of the track as well," said Dominguez, who started riding at Delaware Park in 1998. "Delaware Park was the track where I felt like I really broke through on a national level in terms of getting the mounts in the bigger races, and the Delaware Handicap was a big part of that. The Del 'Cap is a race I will always hold in a very high regard because of that. I can tell you this, I always look forward to the race, and right around Del 'Cap time I am always looking for the filly who hopefully can take me there and win the race again. It is very special race, and hopefully we can continue to have success in the race."
Before he won his first Delaware Park riding title, he won the Delaware Handicap aboard his first career mount in the race with Anstu Stable's Irving's Baby in 2001. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Quiet American posted a 3¼-length win and returned $38.00. The even-money favorite in the field of six, Fox Hill Farm's Jostle, finished fourth nearly 6-lengths behind the winner. Incidentally, it was also the first Delaware Handicap victory for trainer Todd Pletcher, who currently is tied with Henry Clark at four for the most career Delaware Handicap wins.
"That win was very special because it was my first, and I had been riding at Delaware Park for quite some time," Ramon Dominguez said. "It is the race everybody in the area wants to win. At the time, it really was big boost for me."
His next Delaware Handicap victory was aboard Team Valor Stable's Unbridled Belle in 2007. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Broken Vow notched 7¾-length triumph and returned $18.60. The even-money favorite in the field of eight, Melnyk Racing Stable's Indian Vale finished fifth.
"That was another special moment in my career," Dominguez said. "Unbridled Belle ended up being a very nice filly, and she went on to win a Grade I. I had already won the Delaware Handicap with Irving's Baby, but I really felt like I needed to redeem myself. A few years before, I lost by a nose aboard the Graham Motion-trained filly Your Out, and I really felt like I needed to redeem myself. It was nice to win again, especially because of that."
Eugene Ford's Your Out was his first tough loss in the Delaware Handicap. Coming into the 2002 Delaware Handicap, the Maryland-bred daughter of Allen's Prospect was the local favorite after winning a pair of Delaware Park preps. But she was to face the formidable Summer Colony, who at the time, was one of the top fillies in the country. At odds of 8-to-1, Your Out took the lead in deep stretch and the victory appeared to be sure, but she was defeated on the wire by a nose by the fast-closing Summer Colony, who was the even-money favorite.
"Your Out was a special filly for me," he said. "Her race was one of those things. Nobody likes to lose, but we were proud of her performance. I personally rode her for pretty much her whole career, and I did not think she could get the mile and a quarter and she definitely proved me wrong. It took a very nice filly in Summer Colony to beat her that day. After the race, especially with as small a margin as it was, it always makes you second guess. But my filly ran a superb race as well."
His second tough loss occurred last year, when Blind Luck defeated Havre de Grace in the "Race of the Year," what many old-timers have called the greatest Delaware Handicap.