The two major races of the weekend that served as a prelude to the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) were supposed to help clear the picture. After the results were official for the Beldame Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont on Oct. 6 and the Overbrook Spinster Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland, the only thing in focus is the strength of the 3-year-old division. For now, there is little left but to hunker down in New York and train up to the race.
In New York, in the days leading up to the Beldame, trainer Bobby Frankel said he wasn't worried about any of the older horses in the field beating his Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Alabama Stakes (gr. I) winner Flute. Well, he was right, but it was the Scotty Schulhofer- trained Exogenous that pulled out all the stops, bumping and grinding her way to victory. Exogenous, also winner of the Gazelle Handicap (gr. I) in September, is bred and owned by Vernon Heath's Centaur Farm. Flute was game while being pinned down along the rail to hold off last year's Distaff winner Spain for second.
It was the first one-two finish by 3-year-old fillies in the Beldame since the inaugural year of the Breeders' Cup, 1984, when Life's Magic defeated Miss Oceana. Neither one was good enough for Princess Rooney weeks later at Hollywood Park in the Distaff, but there doesn't appear to be any Princess Rooneys among this year's distaff set. In all, five 3-year-old fillies have won the Distaff: Sacahuista ('87), Dance Smartly ('91), Hollywood Wildcat ('93), Ajina ('97), and Spain ('00).
The biggest disappointment in the Beldame was the effort of Beautiful Pleasure. The 1999 champion older mare broke a tad slow from her rail position and seemed rushed to get her accustomed spot on the lead. The gallant 6-year-old gave way on the turn and was later retired from racing by owner John Oxley and trainer John Ward. Her absence in the Distaff changes the entire pace scenario for the race.
The biggest bright spot among the older fillies in the race was the strong effort by Spain, last year's Distaff winner. After a third-place finish in the Turfway Park Breeders' Cup (gr. II), the daughter of Thunder Gulch challenged Flute early and battled strongly with her throughout on the turn and down the lane. Being bumped strongly by Exogenous twice in the lane didn't exactly help matters, either. She now heads to the Distaff while making her fourth start off an extended layoff.
At Keeneland, the 21-1 Miss Linda pulled off a shocker, leaving the Ackerley Brothers with a tough decision to make regarding supplementing the Argentine-bred mare to the Distaff. The race-time favorite for the Spinster, WinStar Farm's Pompeii, finished fifth in an even effort for new trainer Elliott Walden, but she can't be discounted if she makes a return visit to New York. She wouldn't be the first horse not to have cared for the Keeneland racing surface.
The one-two finish by Exogenous and Flute makes the 3-year-old division appear strong, giving a lift to Two Item Limit and Mystic Lady. Mystic Lady won the Cotillion Handicap (gr. II) at Philadelphia Park and would add dimension to the Distaff if she goes for trainer Mark Hennig. While she may appear to be a cut below her rivals in New York, she is versatile, having run over 10 different tracks in her career. Two Item Limit, a smallish filly, does possess a late kick, and shouldn't be dismissed from consideration. A runner-up in the nine-furlong Gazelle on Sept. 8, expect her to be fresh and ready for trainer Steve DiMauro.
Note to racing industry: Is there the need for three graded filly and mare races all at 1 1/8 miles on one weekend? We doubt it. The same weekend of the Spinster and Beldame, Arlington Park ran the Arlington Matron Handicap (gr. III) with a $150,000 pot. Not to take anything away from the winner, Humble Clerk, but placing the race a week before or after Oct. 6-7 would serve horsemen better, giving them either a four-week or two-week prep for the year's most important distaff race, drawing a stronger lineup in the process.