ARCADIA, Calif. — Her divisional nemesis was vainly spinning her wheels and the elegant elder guard she was aiming to overtake was sending out signs that her reign was coming to a close. As the brilliant field for Friday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff marched down the Santa Anita Park backstretch, champion filly Beholder let her Hall of Fame pilot know she was putting her occasional attitude aside and following every rule her legendary trainer bestowed.
"She listens. She doesn't always obey, but when she's in a race, she listens to what I want to do and the lessons that she's been taught," jockey Gary Stevens said. "I actually had a smile on my face going around the first turn."
An exceptional amount of work is required to get the quirky Beholder to be at her best. The result of such indulgence, however, is a filly who can take a field regarded among the best on the Breeders' Cup card and reduce them to also-rans as she did during her 41/4-length victory.
The six-horse Distaff field had all the quality the racing community could have desired. Two-time defending race winner Royal Delta was trying to prove she was still the nation's preeminent female runner, Kentucky Oaks heroine Princess of Sylmar was looking to lock up divisional honors, and Beholder — the Oaks runner-up and winner of last year's Juvenile Fillies — was aiming to throw in wrench into all the above.
A bad stumble at the start and a speed-favoring track managed to knock Princess of Sylmar completely out of it. And while Royal Delta began giving up her run approaching the final turn, Spendthrift Farm's Beholder came with a turn of foot trainer Richard Mandella has artfully managed to its zenith.
"She hasn't had that many races, but it takes a lot of schooling and a lot of work to get her to each race," said the Hall of Famer, who has now won eight Breeders' Cup races, all in years the event was held in California. "She has her little idiosyncrasies. I'm probably guilty of spoiling her at some point.
"Consequently, it takes a lot out of her each race. I thought best to take the time off in the middle of the summer and get a couple of races to point for the Breeders' Cup. This time it worked. A lot of times it doesn't."
Beholder's win makes her the 13th horse to win multiple Breeders' Cup races. It also put another stamp of excellence on the career comeback from Stevens.
Stevens, who ended his 7-year retirement from riding this January, notched his ninth career Breeders' Cup victory and first since 2000 — adding the 11⁄8-mile Distaff to his storybook win on Oxbow in this year's Preakness.
"I won't say that I expected to be on this stage 11 months ago. But I was willing to accept it if the opportunity came," Stevens said. "I had a crew and a horse that gave me that opportunity."
Harnessing Beholder's natural speed has been Mandella's key objective, and the results of that horsemanship allowed her to previously beat older females in the Grade I Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita in September.
Shortly after Authenticity clicked off the opening half mile in :46.30, Beholder showed she could relax then pounce when she surged up from her position on the outside in third.
Royal Delta was losing ground and dropping out of second at that point, leaving Authenticity a sitting duck as Beholder took command and opened up by 31/2 lengths in the lane en route to covering the distance in 1:47.77.
"She didn't have it today. No spark," said Mike Smith, jockey of Royal Delta. "Early on, I knew it. I'm kind of dumbfounded."
Grade I winner Close Hatches was 13/4 lengths ahead of Authenticity in second with Princess of Sylmar — winner of four straight Grade I races coming in — last.
"I blame the track," jockey Javier Castellano said. "It's all speed, speed, speed — unfair to come-from-behind horses."
Having suffered her fourth loss from seven starts in this her 5-year-old season, trainer Bill Mott said of Royal Delta's possible retirement, "Maybe it's time, maybe it's time."
With eight wins from 12 career starts and four Grade I wins this year, Beholder's time has come with a flourish.
"You can't be a champion unless you defeat champions," Spendthrift Farm owner B. Wayne Hughes said. "Today we defeated two champions."
Breeders' Cup World Championships
Where: Santa Anita Park at Arcadia, Calif.
TV: First nine races on NBC Sports Network. Breeders' Cup Classic on NBC-18
Schedule: First race at 3:05 p.m. EDT. Classic at 8:35 p.m. (Complete schedule, Page D7)
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.