Never underestimate the handicapping abilities of Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel. "I think the 3-year-olds are better than the older horses and I'm very confident heading into the race," Frankel said in the days leading up to the Oct. 6 Beldame Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park.
Frankel's assessment proved to be right on the money. However, it wasn't his Juddmonte Farms homebred Flute who carried the day. Playing the role of spoiler was the up-and-coming sophomore Exogenous. Despite a bump-filled, Wild West performance in the stretch, Exogenous pulled away to a 1 1/4-length win in the Beldame, escaping any penalty from the stewards. The odds-on Flute held well against older rival and last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) winner Spain for second, even though she had a less-than-memorable trip.
Taking the brunt of it along the rail in the 1 1/8-mile Beldame, two-time grade I-winner Flute was never allowed to catch a breather. Hemmed inside, which was not the place to be that day, Flute was pressed nearly every step, and showed her class by beating all but Vernon Heath's Centaur Farms homebred. Expect jockey Jerry Bailey to find a better route come Oct. 27.
Exogenous, a daughter of 1990 Classic (gr. I) winner Unbridled, has blossomed this autumn like a hearty chrysanthemum. Following close behind the pro-tem leaders of the division, Verne Winchell's Fleet Renee and Flute earlier this summer, the Scotty Schulhofer-trained filly turned the tables on both of them with decisive back-to-back scores in the Gazelle Handicap (gr. I) and Beldame.
It was the first one-two finish by 3-year-olds in the Beldame since the inaugural year of the Breeders' Cup, 1984, when Life's Magic defeated Miss Oceana. Neither one was able to get close to Princess Rooney weeks later at Hollywood Park, but there doesn't appear to be any Princess Rooneys among this year's Distaff set. Five 3-year-old fillies have won the Distaff: Sacahuista (1987), Dance Smartly ('91), Hollywood Wildcat ('93), Ajina ('97), and Spain ('00). This year's youth brigade figures to make it six.
Fleet Renee, winner of the Ashland and Mother Goose Stakes (both gr. I) earlier this year, lies in wait for the Distaff off a third-place finish in the Gazelle on Sept. 8, as does another 3-year-old, the stretch-running Two Item Limit. Fleet Renee was a four-wide victim of a sizzling early pace in the Gazelle and will venture north off works at trainer Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Farm in Maryland. George Krikorian's Starrer, second in the Spinster Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland, and Roger Davenport's Unbridled Elaine add depth to the sophomore set.
The pace scenario for this year's Distaff took a twist with the retirement of 1999 champion older filly Beautiful Pleasure following her uncharacteristic sixth-place finish in the Beldame. That likely leaves West Coast wonder Tranquility Lake as the one to run down in the Distaff.
Tranquility Lake is seemingly more adept on turf than the main track. However, trainer Julio Canani has had the Distaff in mind for Marty and Pam Wygod's 6-year-old mare since a tiring performance in last year's 11-furlong Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT). Canani's tactics of asking Tranquility Lake to make her move on the turn, forcing rivals to play a deadly game of "catch me if you can," could be even more effective on dirt. It will take a special filly indeed to collar her.
The Spinster, the springboard for eight Distaff winners, was won by 21-1 Miss Linda, an Argentine-bred. Her owner, the Ackerley Brothers Farm, will have to pony up $400,000 to run. Favored Pompeii ran an even fifth for new trainer Elliott Walden, but would figure to bounce back with a return to New York.