Riboletta emerged from the tunnel, coiled and ready for battle. The big Brazilian-bred mare bounced along on her toes, saliva already forming in her mouth from grinding on the bit. Behind her, three overmatched foes followed, none of them realizing the utter futility that awaited them. Behind them, bringing up the rear, was the majestic figure of Beautiful Pleasure, ambling along with her head held high and ears pricked as if she were out for a leisurely stroll.
"This is going to be a battle of the titans," Beautiful Pleasure's trainer John Ward said several days before the Oct. 14 Beldame Stakes (gr. I). Aaron Jones, owner of Riboletta, couldn't help but use the same word. "The big battle is coming up," he said in the paddock earlier in the day.
Everyone connected with the two mares knew it was going to be a battle. Everyone in the stands knew it was going to be a battle. The only principals who didn't know were the two combatants. Both mares had spent most of the past year decimating all those who dared to take them on. Neither could imagine there was another out there with the same strength, the same power, the same speed, the same killer instinct.
Beautiful Pleasure was the defending champion, having won last year's Beldame and Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), and the crown was hers to win or lose. Riboletta would have to take it from her. Although it was Beautiful Pleasure who sat atop the throne, the fans at Belmont, many of them having witnessed the awesome spectacle of Riboletta's Ruffian Handicap (gr. I) victory, made the California invader the strong favorite at 1-2, with the champ 3-2.
Ward's wife, Donna, who is in charge of Beautiful Pleasure's training and overall well-being, knows every inch of muscle and fiber on the mare's magnificent frame, and she was well aware the odds might be stacked against her. Beautiful Pleasure hadn't run since her rout of Heritage of Gold in the 1 1/4-mile Personal Ensign Handicap (gr. I) seven weeks earlier, and several rainy days in Lexington had forced Ward to train her in the fields of their farm across the road from Keeneland. Under normal circumstances, she still would be sharp and fit enough to destroy any ordinary filly. But Riboletta was no ordinary filly, judging by the number of tongues she had left hanging and heads she had left shaking following her remarkable performance in the Ruffian. In that race she ran 1 1/16 miles in a time that equated to about 20 lengths faster than the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) the race before.
On the day of the Beldame, Donna Ward told Beautiful Pleasure's rider Jorge Chavez it was going to take a 1:45 and change for the 1 1/8 miles to win, and she admitted she wasn't sure if Beautiful Pleasure was ready for that at this time.
And there was strategy. With Beautiful Pleasure, it was a no-brainer. She has never known anything other than her surface-to-surface missile approach to racing. The starting gate was her launch pad, and the finish line her target. She was not fond of company, and would run as fast as necessary to keep herself in isolated splendor. Riboletta, on the other hand, was willing to slug it out early simply to humor her opposition before disposing of them at will.
The question was, would she attempt to take on Beautiful Pleasure early to try and discourage her, at the risk of burning herself out, or would she concede the early going and use her extraordinary closing punch to go for the late kill.
When the Wards elected to point for the Beldame, they had no idea what they'd be up against. This was supposed to be another of Beautiful Pleasure's cakewalks to set her up for the Breeders' Cup. Then, Jones and trainer Eduardo Inda announced they were bringing Riboletta back to Belmont. With Riboletta not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, the Beldame could very well be her one and only shot to dethrone Beautiful Pleasure. Jones decided to run his 3-year-old filly Plenty of Light in the Three Chimneys' Spinster (gr. I) at Keeneland against Heritage of Gold in the hope she could earn her way into the Distaff, which would give him several options with Riboletta. They were: supplement to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), supplement to the Distaff, run her somewhere else, or run her nowhere.
"I don't know what they're thinking running in the Beldame," John Ward said after learning of their decision. "It's foolish for us to go at each other now, but I guess that's what horse racing is all about. But if they're thinking of running in the Breeders' Cup, she first has to beat Beautiful Pleasure. She could, but I sure wouldn't want to have to run her back in three weeks after doing it, because it's going to take a hell of an effort to beat Beautiful Pleasure."
So, the stage was set for one of the greatest showdowns in recent years. At the start, Beautiful Pleasure, as expected, shot out of the gate and went for the lead. Riboletta broke alertly under Chris McCarron, but as they negotiated the first quarter down that long backstretch, Beautiful Pleasure got farther and farther away. With the champ now cruising along with a 4 1/2-length lead through a fairly easy opening quarter in :23.66, track announcer Tom Durkin bellowed, "A huge tactical advantage for Beautiful Pleasure."
This is where Beautiful Pleasure wins many of her races by turning up the heat and discouraging her opponents. She picked up the pace and still held a five-length lead after a half in :46.17. McCarron then went after her. Riboletta began reaching out with those smooth, powerful strides. Although Beautiful Pleasure blazed her third quarter in :23.11,
Riboletta still managed to cut three lengths off her lead. How much could she have left after putting in back-to-back quarters in :22 and change? At the quarter pole, she was nearly on even terms, as the crowd braced themselves for the impending duel.
But it would never come. Riboletta, amazingly, shot past Beautiful Pleasure and opened a two-length lead after a mile in 1:33.37. Beautiful Pleasure gathered herself, as if recovered from the shock of Riboletta's powerful move, and tried to mount a comeback. She fought hard, but couldn't get any closer. Riboletta crossed the wire two lengths in front, and as Donna Ward had predicted, her time was a stakes-record 1:46.14. It was another 14 1/2 lengths back to Pentatonic in third.
"She was awesome," McCarron said. "She just feels so strong underneath you. She kept tugging me, and when I finally let her go she took off."
And so, the battle of the titans proved just that. No one could recall two fillies putting on such a tremendous display of speed in the same race, or one filly turning in two such awe-inspiring performances back-to-back as Riboletta did in the Ruffian and Beldame. With Plenty of Light easily winning the Spinster and possibly heading for the Breeders' Cup, no one knows if these two magnificent mares will ever hook up again. Even if they don't, they certainly left enough memories to last for a long time. Continued. . . .