One could easily mistake the red filly with the wavy forelock in trainer Jimmy Toner's Keeneland shedrow for a yearling gone rogue from one of the nearby farms.
At barely 15 hands, it is easy to say Bellavais will face some towering figures when the chestnut spitfire lines up against 11 others in the April 13 Appalachian Stakes Presented by Japan Racing Association (G3T)—arguably the saltiest race slated to be contested at Keeneland this week. For her graded stakes debut, the daughter of Tapit only has to overcome the top two finishers in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1T)—New Money Honey and Coasted—along with graded stakes winner La Coronel and another graded winner, Dream Dancing, who has found her best niche on the lawn.
To say the first foal out of graded stakes winner La Cloche will be overmatched in any way, however, would qualify as misstatement. Toner himself admits to being guilty of underestimating what Bellavais would be capable of—that is until he witnessed her competitive fire literally jump into someone's face over the Gulfstream Park turf Jan. 7.
The fourth start and first stakes win of Bellavais' career could serve as a microcosm for all anyone needs to know about the Phillips Racing Partnership homebred. Small as her stature is, she boasts a stride and a closing kick that is deceptive in its power, something she touted when she rallied from well back to take the Ginger Brew Stakes by three-quarters of a length.
And sweet as she can be when plied with treats, Bellavais has a temper and mettle with the best of them, something jockey Leonel Reyes aboard India Mantuana learned in the Ginger Brew after the tiny distaffer tried to savage him in late stretch when she was accidently struck across the face with his whip.
Video: Ginger Brew S. (BT)
As Toner watched Bellavais split horses in the lane of the Ginger Brew and then interrupt her winning surge with a distinct hop and lunge in the direction of her rival, the veteran horseman figured his young runner might have reacted to some sort of marking on the turf. It wasn't until he went to speak with jockey John Velazquez that the Hall of Fame rider informed Toner that his 3-year-old mount had taken all on-track matters into her own hands.
"I didn't know what happened. I saw her going to the horse, going by, and I saw her jump, and I thought initially she might have jumped one of those tractor marks on the track or something," Toner said. "I didn't know what was going on but she won, so that was great. Then I get downstairs and Johnny is like 'I can't believe he did that!" and I have no idea what he's talking about. And then he said (Reyes) hit her over the face with the whip. And she got so angry she reached out and tried to bite him."
"When someone asked me, 'how is she doing, is she competitive?' I said, 'Let me tell you something about her. She's as small as anything. But she's competitive and she's tough.' She may not beat these fillies (Thursday) but she's tough, she tries, and you know you're going to get your money's worth out of her."
Toner laughs that if anyone should have seen Bellavais' resolute nature coming a mile away, it was him. Having trained La Cloche, her half-sister Winter Memories, and their dam, grade 1 winner and producer Memories of Silver, he has been acquainted with that family's outstanding talent and indomitable personalities for generations.
"She's like her mother. Her mother was tough and combative and she was the same way," Toner said. "That episode she did reminds me more of her grandmother than anything. She has that Memories of Silver in her. She has that quickness about her, that feistiness about her, and that competitiveness. And Memories of Silver was like that."
Based off her physical build, Toner figured that if Bellavais was going to make a successful mark on the track, it would be as a turf sprinter. Yet when she broke her maiden third time out, elevated to victory via disqualification, it came at Aqueduct Racetrack last November at a mile, the same distance she will travel in the Appalachian.
Among the many things Toner said he has learned about filly is she can handle being covered up and come off the bridle when asked. Regardless if she prevails against the a wildly deep bunch Thursday, Toner isn't going to be the next victim that tries to deny Bellavais her advancement in the game.
"You know, she has surprised me," he said. "She trained well enough, don't get me wrong. But initially when you look at her, you think she's going to be a turf sprinter because of the way she moves and everything. But as you see her run, you see she'll go on.
"She has a very deceiving stride on her. It's not a short, choppy stride. She has a very long, expansive stride for a small horse. And she's much better than we originally thought she would be. All credit goes to her alone."