In almost any other year, Beholder would be dominating the pre-race spotlight for the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic.
Spendthrift Farmâ€™s marvelous 5-year-old mare arrived at Keeneland on Monday in the company of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella for her final days of preparation for a historic bid to join Zenyatta as one of the only females to beat the boys in the $5 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic, the marquee event of the two-day Breedersâ€™ Cup Championships at the Lexington track.
Beholder has a career record of 15-3-0 in 20 races â€“ with nine of her wins coming in Grade I races. She has earned $4,436,600 in four racing seasons that include a championship campaign and two and three. She concluded the former with a victory in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita. Mandellaâ€™s star was runner-up at the 2013 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs the following spring but would not lose again that year and capped another championship season with a victory in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita.
Injury hampered last yearâ€™s 4-year-old season in which Beholder won two of only three races. But she roared back from the sidelines this year and is perfect in five races highlighted by an 8 1/4-length romp over males in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
She is a sure-bet to be enshrined not too far down the road in Racingâ€™s Hall of Fame. That fact, combined with the presence of a celebrated trainer who is at his best in the Breedersâ€™ Cup, a Hall of Fame jockey in Gary Stevens and a six-race winning streak over two seasons would, in most years, make Beholder a solid favorite to beat the boys in the Classic and earn year-end honors topped by the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.
But if youâ€™ve paid attention, you known that 2015 is not any other year. It has been the year of Zayat Stablesâ€™ American Pharoah, the winner of the Kentucky Derby who became the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Triple Crown.
His status as only the 12th winner of the Triple Crown made trainer Bob Baffertâ€™s star a magazine cover boy for publications ranging from Vogue to Sports Illustrated.
The Triple Crown winner is coming off his only defeat of the season: a runner-up finish, in which he was run down in deep stretch by fellow 3-year-old Keen Ice in Saratogaâ€™s Travers. But American Pharoah remains a sports and media darling, and a series of strong works back home in California bode well for a strong run in his career finale in the big Breedersâ€™ Cup race in Kentucky.
He will be the first Triple Crown champion of the Breedersâ€™ Cup era. That series of championship races debuted in 1984, seven years after the Affirmedâ€™s Triple Crown sweep in 1978.
He will face an accomplished field of Classic rivals, but there is no question that American Pharoah will be favored when the doors of the starting gate open in the final event of the two-day racing celebration.
The presence of Beholder and the female vs. male dynamic will add drama to this yearâ€™s Classic renewal, but the story goes deeper than that. Most any look at the contenders for the Classic results in the conclusion that the biggest threat to a storybook ending for American Pharoahâ€™s career is posed by the imposing Beholder.
Brilliant from her earliest racing days, she has raised her game for Mandella this season. Her presence in the Classic alongside an accomplished collection of rivals makes this yearâ€™s Classic renewal one of the most compelling in Breedersâ€™ Cup history.
A front-runner in her early racing days, Beholder is a much more patient competitor at 5. She rallied from third in her Pacific Classic romp, and was fifth-of-eight the early running of her easy win over females in Santa Anitaâ€™s Grade I Zenyatta on September 26.
For those desperate to find a weakness in Beholder, one could point to her 0-for-2 record outside of California. But itâ€™s difficult to find serious fault with either her runner-up finish in stellar field for the 2013 Kentucky Oaks, or her fourth-place run in last summerâ€™s Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park. She was behind a length in the latter after having suffered a deep gash on her left-hind pastern sometime during the race. She missed three weeks of training after that run.
Win or lose on October 31, both American Pharoah and Beholder are cinches to earn rapid enshrinement in racingâ€™s Hall of Fame. Thatâ€™s a wonderful storyline, but their personal showdown is only part of this yearâ€™s not-to-be missed Classic. With a starting gate that includes Keen Ice and many of the most important horses of the past two years, possible peril awaits either or both of the marquee stars should they pay too much attention to the other.
So consider this suggestion for a pretty solid bet for a Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic run on Halloween in Kentuckyâ€™s Horse Country.
Thereâ€™s a very good chance that the run to the finish will not be for the faint of heart.
Photo by COADYÂ PHOTOGRAPHY | Keeneland