The first order of business for trainer Richard Mandella when he calls Spendthrift Farm manager Ned Toffey is usually to reassure him that he can take his heart out of his throat. When one's job revolves around tending to Thoroughbreds who can be as fragile as they are brilliant, there is inevitably unfortunate news that must be passed on.
One of those moments occurred Oct. 19, 2014. Spendthrift Farm's champion filly Beholder was running a fever. A high one. Enough to end hopes of having her attempt to defend her title in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Enough to eventually shelve plans to ship her to Kentucky to be sold at the Fasig-Tipton November sale.
It was the kind of phone call that turns a horseman's hair prematurely white and fosters all sorts of internal distress.
But in hindsight, it might be one of the best calls Toffey has ever gotten.
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"She saved us from ourselves," Toffey said last week when reflecting on the angst of a year ago. "As usual she knew better than we did."
Had a healthy Beholder stuck to the program and ended up in the sales ring last November, the Thoroughbred industry probably would not have the gift that her seismic 5-year-old season has been. This season could reach historic levels pending the outcome of her expected start against males in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland on Saturday.
She almost certainly would have changed hands with a price deep into the seven-figure range. Her retirement from racing likely would have followed, because what owner in his or her right mind would be brave enough to risk keeping a filly of her pedigree and value in training when she already had two Eclipse Awards and a pair of Breeders' Cup wins on her résumé, and the strong certainty of a Hall of Fame plaque in her future?
Instead of retiring Beholder after her triumph in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Distaff — which came a year after her win in the Juvenile Fillies — Spendthrift Farm owner B. Wayne Hughes decided that as long as Mandella told him his two-time divisional heroine was sound and happy doing her on-track job, he was going to let her.
And so, circumstances conspired to leave well enough alone as she was returned to Mandella after recovering from her illness to campaign under the Spendthrift colors for another year.
What has transpired since her seasonal debut in the Santa Lucia Stakes on April 10 has been a testament to what sportsmanship and horsemanship can achieve over an extended period. In Beholder's master class of a five-race campaign leading into the Breeders' Cup, she has left her foes flailing in their attempts just to challenge her, no more so than when she demolished male rivals by 81/4 lengths in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 22.
"It's pretty special," said Janeen Painter, Beholder's exercise rider. "You don't get to see (horses) run very often as 4- and 5-year-olds, and the fact they are interested in running her as a 6-year-old, that is pretty exciting. I think probably her 5-year-old year was where you could see the biggest change in her mentally and physically.
"When she was 2, she had a lot of energy and things would set her off, and she would get mad and she couldn't get over herself. One little thing, and she would explode and it would escalate into a bigger explosion. But as she has gotten older and more mature, she may be upset but she doesn't let it come outwardly the way she used to when she was a baby."
The yin and yang of Beholder was capsulated during her outing in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks, when she had a meltdown in the post parade and dumped rider Garrett Gomez but still finished second, half a length behind Princess of Sylmar.
Where once Beholder was a temperamental house of raw ability, Mandella's doting hand has helped transform her into a professional nine-time Grade I winner who has learned to harness her outbursts while improving on the form that probably will see her vie with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah for favoritism in the 11/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic.
The Hall of Fame trainer is affectionately referred to as "Papa" in racing circles. And when he is handling the mare that can swing from sweet to no-nonsense at a moment's notice, that nickname becomes the truth.
When Mandella comes within sniffing distance of the daughter of Henny Hughes, he often ends up with her head affectionately buried in his chest or her nose in his hand begging for a peppermint.
The quality time the two have spent together has allowed Mandella to get a read on how much he can push and when he needs to back off to get his charge to be her absolute best. Keeping her happy and settled is his top priority, and if that means extra time between starts or extra paddock schooling to get her mind right, he will do her bidding.
"I think one of the things with her is it seems to me she has matured so much. And that is a credit to Richard and his staff and also and credit to her," Toffey said. "That most of all seems like that is allowing her now to get every ounce of her full potential."
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who has been Beholder's regular rider since late 2013, said, "I think a lot of her development has had to do with her time in between races. Richard is not afraid to send her out to the farm and let her have some R&R, and that's allowed her to really let down and get peaceful in between her races."
Mandella jokes that Beholder is sweet "95 percent of the time" and a monster the rest of the time. To her rivals in 2015, she has never been nastier.
No one who witnessed Beholder's Pacific Classic can shake the chills her ability inspired. In a year that has seen American Pharoah kick down the door of transcendent greatness, one could argue the most jaw-dropping, in-race move of the year was Beholder dragging Stevens unprompted to the front around the final turn, running by reigning Breeders' Cup Classic winner Bayern as if he was tied to the fence.
"It had been in my mind all through the spring when we ran with the fillies," Mandella said of Beholder taking on males. "If you watch the tape with them, it's pretty obvious she was quite a bit the best. I did that because I thought, we're often giving her targets to work with in the barn and it doesn't matter who we put, it's just a target.
"I thought if it doesn't matter if it's boys or girls I don't think it's going to matter in the Pacific Classic, and as it turned out it worked out. Gut feelings are good sometimes."
The Pacific Classic was a tipping point in more than one respect. After that, Hughes scrapped plans to sell Beholder at public auction this year — or any year — and decided he would keep the best horse he has ever owned for the remainder of her days, with designs on bringing her back for a 6-year-old campaign.
One day after arriving at Keeneland last week for the Breeders' Cup, Beholder's camp was faced with a heart-stopping case of déjà vu when she spiked a slight fever on Tuesday morning.
The elevated temperature was gone within a day, probably brought on by the stress of being shipped from her base in California. And the way she has tugged Painter around the track in her morning gallops has eased their minds as much as the clean blood tests have.
As much as they braced themselves for the worst and exhaled when the bullet was dodged, the big-picture perspective never left any of their minds.
"Her illness before the Breeders' Cup may have been a blessing, definitely a blessing for me because I didn't expect I'd ever ride her again because she was supposed to go to the sale," Stevens said. "I'm blessed that I have an owner and a trainer that have the faith to put me back on her, and it's just been awesome."