Horses

Wonder woman: Champion Beholder ‘stronger than ever’ at age 6

Spendthrift Farm's champion Beholder and jockey Gary Stevens win the Grade I, $400,000 Vanity Mile on June 4, 2016, at Santa Anita Park. Beholder is set to start in Saturday’s Grade I Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar.
Spendthrift Farm's champion Beholder and jockey Gary Stevens win the Grade I, $400,000 Vanity Mile on June 4, 2016, at Santa Anita Park. Beholder is set to start in Saturday’s Grade I Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar. Associated Press

Logic says that, at some point, the march of time is supposed to take its toll on champion Beholder.

Even the greatest of athletes, if they stay in their sport long enough, lose a step, their physical prowess diminished by age. It’s what’s supposed to happen when a body grows older and starts feeling the weight of sustained excellence, especially when the seeds of brilliance have been harvested from infancy.

Those around Beholder have long run out of superlatives to try to describe the three-time Eclipse Award winner and future first-ballot Racing Hall of Famer. They have no adequate words to sum up her legacy of longevity, how a filly who was a champion at ages 2 and 3 was still hauling in hardware last season at age 5 and now looks as imposing as ever at the grande dame age of 6.

Out of habit, her connections keep holding their breath waiting for the day when the other shoe drops. Five years and 22 starts into her career, Beholder keeps refusing to budge from her spot at the peak.

“I don’t think any horse, female, male, has done that. I don’t think any horse has,” said Ned Toffey, general manager of B. Wayne Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm, which owns Beholder. “(Two-time Horse of the Year) John Henry may have done it as long but he didn’t start that early. So to do exactly what she has done, I don’t think any horse has. That in and of itself, kind of says it all right there.”

Beholder has reached the point in her career where the discussion is not if she ranks among the all-timers, but rather where her niche is among racing’s legendary distaffers. The 2015 champion older female’s next start comes Saturday when she leads a field of five, including champion Stellar Wind, in the Grade I, $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar.

Racing has had its share of long-running star acts, from the reign of five-time Horse of the Year Kelso in the 1960s, to John Henry securing his second Horse of the Year crown at age 9, to Hall of Famer Zenyatta dancing her way to three straight Eclipse Awards for champion older female.

Where Beholder breaks away from the pack is the fact that, where others have been late bloomers, she has been this good from the start and kept going. Despite a few bouts of illness and injury, she has supported the extraordinary sporting nature of Hughes in earning top-level wins each year she has raced.

The high-strung filly that ran her foes off their feet in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies is now a professional 10-time Grade I winner who has been expertly crafted by Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. When she has needed time, Mandella has given her extra care and then some. And each time she returns to his barn from a hiatus, Mandella’s favorite pampered princess has brought another level of her game with her.

“When she came back in after her break to Richard’s barn at the beginning of this year, he said the same thing this year that he said last year which is, “She’s even bigger and stronger than she was the year before and looks better,’” Toffey said. “I haven’t seen her in a bit but I’ve heard a number of people commenting that she looks as good as she’s ever looked. Which is scary.

“We’re very, very spoiled with her because she shows up every time and it’s just so rare to have a horse that does that. I have every confidence that if Mr. Hughes thinks there is any significant slipping, she’d be at Spendthrift pretty quick. But nothing has changed from Day One on her.”

After missing last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic because of illness — the second straight year a malady forced Beholder to bypass the year-end event — the bay daughter of Henny Hughes has again brought the receipts to back up Mandella’s impression of her condition.

Her season-opening win in the Grade III Adoration Stakes at Santa Anita Park on May 8 was the glorified workout many expected. The litmus test of whether Beholder was still Beholder came in the Grade I Vanity Mile on June 4 when she defeated Stellar Wind, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2015, by 1½ lengths under a hand ride from Hall of Famer Gary Stevens.

In her final serious work in advance of the Clement L. Hirsch, which she won last year by 7 lengths, Beholder had Mandella doing a double take at his stop watch when she covered 5 furlongs as easy as she pleased in a blazing time of 59.20 at Del Mar July 24.

“It went a little quicker than we planned, but she does that often,” Mandella said after the move. “She’s ready.”

If the projected plan holds and Beholder delivers as usual, she could be in position to remarkably top herself this year. Barring a setback in the 1 1/16-mile Clement L. Hirsch, she could be part of a meeting of the ages against 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome in the Grade I Pacific Classic on Aug. 20 — the same Pacific Classic Beholder won by 8¼ lengths a year ago.

She could also finally get her shot at the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year, this time over her home base at Santa Anita Park.

“Hopefully it will be business as usual and she comes out of (the Clement L. Hirsch) the way Richard would like to see her,” Toffey said. “But first things first. I’m not taking the Clement L Hirsch for granted.”

Her connections don’t let themselves look too far ahead, because logic says that is never a good idea in the realm of sports. What they can do is keep looking at the mare who has yet to stop moving forward and enjoy the view from the top.

“Nature didn’t make very many like her, ever,” Mandella said.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

Notable weekend graded stakes

Saturday

Grade II, $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes

Where: Saratoga Race Course

When: 6:18 p.m.

TV: TVG

Grade I, $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch

Where: Del Mar

When: 8:33 p.m.

TV: TVG

Sunday

Grade I, $1 million Haskell Invitational

Where: Monmouth Park

When: 5:47 p.m.

TV: NBC, beginning at 5 p.m.

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