The sporting world always gets wound up for an old-fashioned battle of the sexes.
Should champion mare Beholder become the first distaffer to defeat males when the 25th running of the Grade I, $1 million Pacific Classic is contested Saturday at Del Mar, it would be a remarkable milestone on what is already a Hall of Fame résumé.
That factor alone was not what swayed her connections into taking on such a task. When trainer Richard Mandella, jockey Gary Stevens and owner B. Wayne Hughes evaluated what was before them, they saw a horse doing as good as ever in a career of sustained excellence who deserved a chance to exert her skills beyond her division.
Already regarded as the top female runner in the country, the chance has come for Spendthrift Farm's Beholder to crown herself one of the best older horses in training, period. In a field that features reigning Breeders' Cup Classic winner Bayern and Grade I winners Hoppertunity and Hard Aces, it is the two-time Breeders' Cup heroine and two-time Eclipse Award winner bringing the most heat as Beholder was installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite out of post nine in a field of 10 for the 11/4-mile Pacific Classic.
The decision to take on males for the first time with the 5-year-old daughter of Henny Hughes was one Beholder herself had the most say in. Her 7-length victory in the Grade I Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar on Aug. 1 — the 13th career win and seventh Grade I triumph of her career — left her Hall of Fame jockey working hard to find adequate words.
Where once her temperament quirks tested Mandella's Hall of Fame horsemanship, Beholder is now a grown lady.
"I think the filly vs. colts thing gets maybe a little overdone here because it's not done quite as much in this country. But I think it's probably less about that and more about she's doing so well and it's a good race with a good purse and the timing seems right," said Ned Toffey, general manager of Hughes' Spendthrift Farm. "And it probably doesn't detract from her that much if she doesn't run a big race. She's gotten so much better mentally, not that she was ever bad mentally, but she's so professional now and she's become really push-button."
Added Mandella, "I don't often do it, but I don't often get one as good as Beholder. I think she deserves a chance to step up. I think when you come to a point when you're winning in your own class so much, you probably ought to try something different."
The notion of a setback being a blessing in disguise is often an attempt by sufferers to soothe themselves. In the case of how Beholder's 2014 campaign ended, there is a genuine grateful tone.
Last October, Beholder had to miss her attempt at winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff for a second straight time and a Breeders' Cup race for a third consecutive year when she spiked a fever less than two weeks out from the event. Her illness also prevented her from shipping to Kentucky where she was slated to be sold at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton November Sale.
At the time, it was a frustrating end to a campaign in which the bay mare also was sidelined for much of the summer after suffering a gash in her left hind pastern while running fourth in the Grade I Ogden Phipps last June. She came back to take the Santa Lucia Stakes in her season debut April 10 this year and the Grade III Adoration Stakes on June 13 prior to her Clement L. Hirsch win.
"Last year was sort of anticlimactic," said Toffey, who added the current plan is to offer Beholder at auction following the Breeders' Cup this year. "She had some bad luck on timing issues. But Richard has always taken such good care of her, and we felt like that this is a filly that still had plenty of good racing still left in her.
"They don't come around like her very often and so we basically wanted a do-over. I think this year ... we've been able to sit back and take her in and just say, 'Wow.'
Beholder has never tried the Pacific Classic's 10-furlong distance and she will probably have Bayern pressing the issue on the front end. While she doesn't have the most stamina-laden pedigree, the way she has drawn off going 11⁄8 miles suggests she could overcome what her bloodlines say.
More than one pundit has suggested Beholder might be among the few who could seriously challenge Triple Crown winner American Pharoah should they ever meet. While the Breeders' Cup Distaff is the main target, Toffey said he would "not say no" to considering the $5 million Classic pending Saturday's outcome.
"When I won the Breeders' Cup Distaff on her two years ago, I said I'd never felt the power and had the confidence I had in that race except for maybe one or two colts," Stevens said. "She (Beholder) was just dominant. I felt that had she run against the colts in the Classic that day, she could have won it.
"She's a sweetheart in the stall, but when she steps on the track she becomes a man. I go along for the ride."