Beholder gallops at Santa Anita Nov. 2, 2016 in preparation for her appearance in the Breeders' Cup in Arcadia, California.

Beholder gallops at Santa Anita Nov. 2, 2016 in preparation for her appearance in the Breeders' Cup in Arcadia, California.

Skip Dickstein

Beholder Set to Bid Farewell

Three-time Eclipse Award winner to make final start in Breeders' Cup Distaff.

The bay mare was testing the strength in exercise rider Janeen Painter's arms for all it was worth.

With her neck bowed and her blood up, each stride hit the ground with effortless power as she ripped down the Santa Anita Park lane Oct. 31. She was one of many Breeders' Cup contenders going through routine paces, and yet it was her casual brilliance that caused a riptide of admiration to break out amongst onlookers.

It has been this way for champion Beholder at every point of call in her life—from the time Spendthrift Farm lead buyer Seth Semkin deemed her the star of his shortlist at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale, to when she earned her first Breeders' Cup triumph and subsequent Eclipse Award in 2012, to the point this season when she accomplished a top-level feat no horse in the history of North American racing has achieved. Other talents have come and gone—some legendary ones at that—while Beholder's excellence remained a constant in an industry where success has a reputation as a short-timer.

If her time on the track in recent days is any indication, Beholder's form is stalwart in its presence heading into the Nov. 4 Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I). It is those taking in her action that are viewing her through an altered lens, one adjusting to the harsh light of reality that the impression she is set to leave Friday will be her last.

"I'm lucky I have a lot to do so I don't have too much time to sit and think about that," Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said of his future Hall of Fame charge. "And I don't want to."

Whatever Mandella's words won't reveal about his emotional state, his wistful demeanor sells him out the minute he looks at the 6-year-old daughter of Henny Hughes he has spent the last five years caring for. Ten grade I wins, three Eclipse Awards, and two Breeders' Cup race victories into her career, Beholder is set to have one last chance to add to all of the above when she makes what is slated to be her final start in the 1 1/8-miles Distaff.

It is a moment Beholder's connections have readied themselves for before, most notably she was set to be sold at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton November sale only to be scratched out of that auction and that year's Distaff due to illness. Viewed as a setback at the time, it now goes down as arguably the most significant game-changer with regards to Beholder's legacy.

Instead of changing hands after her 4-year-old campaign, she was brought back for another season that saw her at her absolute peak, rattling off five wins from as many starts in 2015. And after her 8 1/4-length victory in last year's TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I)—a race in which she ran by then defending Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Bayern  like he was tied to a pole—Spendthrift Farm owner B. Wayne Hughes decided that parting with her was officially off the table.

BALAN: Beholder Blows Away Pacific Classic Foes

When she was sent back into training after another illness kept her from facing Triple Crown winner American Pharoah  in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Classic, Beholder again piled on to her unique place in the all-time landscape. With her win over fellow champion and Distaff entrant, Stellar Wind, in the June 4 Vanity Handicap (gr. I), she became the first horse in North American history to win grade I races at ages 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

"I think that we've certainly spent time in the last year thinking about (what she's achieved). And ... we've talked about that she's done something that no horse in history has done," said Ned Toffey, general manager of Spendthrift Farm. "You can certainly have all the debates you want over who was the best horse on their best day, but what she has accomplished for her career is really unparalleled.

"The great little saying is ... in this business and this game, when you have luck at the time, you don't even know if it was good luck or bad luck. What seemed to be bad luck (with her 2014 illness) has turned into great luck and she's obviously gone on and proven that to be the case."

Hindsight reveals Beholder to simply be doing exactly what she was pegged to from the start.

When the Spendthrift crew was evaluating the yearlings it purchased out of the 2011 sale, Toffey said Semkin pointed to the then unnamed half sister to Into Mischief  and said "I'll trade you the whole crop for that one."

It is one thing to be deemed exceptional from day one. It's another to hit that pinnacle and stay there for the duration of one's career. The high-strung filly who ran her foes off their feet in the 2012 Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) at Santa Anita was steadily evolving into an astute professional when she returned a year later to take the Distaff over a field that included defending race winner and champion Royal Delta

When she has needed time, Mandella has given her extra care and then some. And each time she returns to his barn from a hiatus, she brings another level of her game with her. 

"There is no one thing (that has kept her going)," Mandella said. "First, you have to be good enough. Second, you have to have a mind that takes it. Some of them outthink themselves. They get too worked up in their own world to keep continuing to compete. Some get infirmities. She's stayed sound and healthy all these years and you could almost say she improved as she got older."

It's not like there was much to improve upon. The only times Beholder has finished worse than second in her 25 starts came when she ran fourth in her career debut at Hollywood Park in June 2012 and fourth in the 2014 Ogden Phipps Stakes (gr. I) in which she emerged with a deep gash to her left hind pastern. 

For the first time in her life, however, she heads into a race off a trio of losses. She finished second to Stellar Wind in the July 30 Clement L. Hirsch (gr. I) and Oct. 1 Zenyatta Stakes (gr. I), sandwiched between a runner-up effort to 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome  in the Aug. 20 Pacific Classic. For the first time, there are questions as to whether the march of time is finally taking its toll after 17 wins.

"Training her, she seems as good as she's ever been," Mandella said. 

There is already a princess eager to snatch Beholder's throne. Unbeaten champion Songbird has been virtually unchallenged in reeling off her 11 consecutive wins and, while the Distaff represents her first test against older fillies, her freakish talent may be such that age and gender are no matter.

Before a new era can begin, the queen has to abdicate. Beholder's reign has an end date but, judging by the images she carves in her final days on the track, no one had the heart to tell her she's almost done.

"As special as her racing career and her path has been, we're getting ready to say hello to her here at the farm," Toffey said. "But every conversation I've had is that she looks great and is doing great. Hopefully that will be good enough. Hopefully she'll be able to go out with a bang."