As the 6-year-old Beholder prepares for arguably the biggest test of her illustrious career, in which she will attempt to knock off the brilliant undefeated 3-year-old Songbird and also try to avenge her two narrow defeats at the hands of last year’s 3-year-old filly champion Stellar Wind, the question arises whether or not she has lost a step and no longer is capable of defeating fillies of this caliber.
Many feel that this one-time winning machine, with 17 victories in her first 22 starts, including two Breeders’ Cup scores and a total demolition of the boys in the Pacific Classic, has seen her best days.
When a 6-year-old mare, who had never lost two races in a row, suffers three consecutive defeats, it usually indicates she finally has lost a bit of that spark and no longer is up to the task of defeating top-level competition. It is difficult for a mare that age to suddenly reverse that trend against the best fillies in the country, including two champions.
It was only this year that we saw 5-year-old former champion and Breeders’ Cup winner Untapable finally call it quits after losing that spark. Although she continued to run well and tried hard every race, she no longer was the same filly who had won nine of her 13 career starts. Losing became contagious and after winning the Apple Blossom Handicap in April of 2015, she proceeded to lose her next seven races, with four seconds, a third, and finally a pair of fourth-place finishes.
Beholder’s three defeats at the hands of Stellar Wind and the world’s top-ranked horse, California Chrome, hardly can compare with Untapable’s prolonged losing streak. But it is natural for people to wonder if those three defeats were the beginning of the end and whether or not she is capable of turning it around and defeating not only two sensational champions, but several other exceptional grade I winners.
If Beholder should prove that her best days are behind her, and she has indeed lost a step, she would join a long list of champions and Hall of Fame fillies who suffered the same fate at the end of their career.
Serena’s Song, one of the most consistent and classy fillies of all time who won 17 graded stakes, 10 of them grade I’s, including a pair of stakes wins against the boys, concluded her career with seven consecutive defeats. Like Untapable, she never stopped giving her all, running her heart out, but could manage only six second-place finishes and a third. Four of those defeats were by less than a length, but she found herself just a step slower than the brilliant 3-year-old Yanks Music, who narrowly beat her in the Ruffian Handicap and Beldame Stakes. Unlike Beholder, Serena’s Song was only 4, but had a lot of mileage under her, running 38 times, including 15 starts as a 4-year-old.
We’ve seen this many times before with great mares who were either getting up there in years or had hard campaigns. Champion and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Beautiful Pleasure lost her last six races. Champion and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Paseana lost five of her last six starts. The great Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret was a shell of herself at 5, getting beat over 32 lengths in the Donn Handicap, getting upset at 1-5 in the Molly Pitcher Handicap, and finally bolting on the first turn in an allowance race, forcing her connections to retire her. This was a filly who had finished in first, second, or third in 25 consecutive races, all stakes.
The brilliant Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors finished out of the money in three of her last four starts. Davona Dale, winner of eight consecutive stakes, including the Kentucky Oaks and the NYRA Filly Triple Crown, lost five of her last six starts. Horse of the Year All Along, who rattled off an amazing consecutive string of victories in 1983 in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Canadian International (then the Rothmans International), Turf Classic, and Washington D.C. International, returned a year later and, although she ran some big races, lost all four of her starts. The great international star Dahlia came back as a 6-year-old, and after beating the boys, as she had done several times in her career, in the Hollywood Invitational, finished out of the money in her last six starts. Champion Meadow Star, winner of 11 of her first 12 career starts, including the Acorn and Mother Goose, concluded her career by losing her last eight starts, five of them out of the money efforts.
Even the immortal Gallorette, who, at age 6, beat the boys in the Whitney and Wilson Stakes and Carter Handicap, suddenly lost her form, losing her final five starts, while finishing out of the money in three of them.
We have seen it many times throughout history, no matter how great a mare is. You never know when they are going to lose a step or their form completely. Whatever the reason, they just seem to lose their winning ways.
Now, the question is, does Beholder fit in that category? We know she has not lost her form, because she, like Serena’s Song and Untapable for example, is still extremely competitive at the highest level. But will she go out like them, running hard and fast, but simply unable to win against the best?
If you want to make a prediction based on her three recent defeats, the answer in my opinion is that she is more than capable of winning the Distaff.
I admit that we may be looking at one of the true greats in Songbird, and everyone is running for second. But history has taught us that in major fall championship races, it is difficult for a 3-year-old to defeat an older filly unless the 3-year-old is truly exceptional and superior to her older foes. If they are of equal ability, the edge normally goes to the older filly. In the past 14 runnings of the Distaff, an older filly has won 10 of them, all 4-year-olds. One of the 3-year-olds that did win was Beholder. But Beholder is now 6, and we have had only two 6-year-olds win the Distaff – longshot One Dreamer and Hall of Famer Bayakoa, who was winning it for the second straight year. So it would not be unprecedented.
That adds another question regarding Beholder in addition to has she lost a step. Did she lose her last three starts simply because she is at an age when mares have a tendency to do so? In all likelihood they both go hand in hand.
Although no one can be sure one way or another, the only logical thing to do is look at her three defeats and attempt to determine if she might be capable of reversing the outcome with Stellar Wind and also capable of beating Songbird.
In short, can she actually hope to become the first horse to win three different Breeders’ Cup races, and do it at ages 2, 3, and 6?
With all due respect to Stellar Wind, who is a true champion and who beat Beholder fair and square in the Clement Hirsch and Zenyatta Stakes, if you’re going to make a case for excusing both defeats, take into consideration that Beholder broke from the rail in one race and post 2 in the other in five-horse fields with no early speed. That pretty much forced Gary Stevens to put her on the lead, even though she hadn’t won a race on the lead in three years or 11 starts. Both races turned into carbon copies of each other, with Stellar Wind, a more natural closer, stalking Beholder and just getting the better of her in the final furlong. Beholder fought back gallantly both times, but fell a half-length and a neck short.
So, Beholder, you can say, was taken out of her game, and she wasn’t able to use that explosive turn of foot she displayed in the previous year’s Pacific Classic. And in this year’s Pacific Classic, she simply was outrun chasing California Chrome, the No. 1 ranked horse in the world. But she did hang in there gamely, finishing well clear of third-place finisher Dortmund, who certainly is no slouch.
Perhaps the most important statistic is that in every one of Beholder’s 17 victories, she had a clear lead at the eighth pole. In all eight of her defeats, she did not have the lead at the eighth pole, as Stellar Wind already had her head in front of her at that point.
Now, it’s certainly not going to be easy to get a clear lead at the eighth pole against Songbird, and you don’t want to have to gut her to do it and set it up for Stellar Wind or Forever Unbridled. And there is also I’m a Chatterbox and possibly Curalina, both with good tactical speed, to contend with. So, this is far from an easy task. Based on the rapid-fire acceleration displayed in last year’s Pacific Classic, perhaps the best strategy to get to the lead by the eighth pole is to pounce on Songbird before reaching the quarter pole and hopefully catch her off guard, while putting some distance between herself and Stellar Wind. Is a 6-year-old Beholder up to such an assignment? That’s what we’re going to find out.
All I’m saying is that no one should count out Beholder because of Songbird, Stellar Wind or her age. She’s not like most mares and appears to have at least one more big effort in her. And what a story it would make, especially for her loyal legion of fans in Southern California.
Oh, yes, and let’s not forget that magician Dick Mandella’s record in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita isn’t too shabby. Anyone who can pull four Breeders’ Cup wins in one year out of his hat can certainly come up with a trick or two and make Songbird and Stellar Wind disappear…at least at the eighth pole.