A sporting gesture put two-time champion Beholder on a plane to Belmont Park last week for the brewing rematch between her and 2013 Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Princess of Sylmar in the $1 million Ogden Phipps (gr. I) June 7.
The two met on neutral ground at Churchill Downs in the Oaks, when Princess of Sylmar came away with the victory and Beholder finished second by half a length.
But at the end of last year it was Princess of Sylmar who left her East Coast base to tackle California-based Beholder in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), and Beholder, a 4-year-old daughter of Henny Hughes trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, emerged triumphant at Santa Anita Park. Princess of Sylmar faded at the end of a long and impressive 3-year-old campaign that included four straight grade I victories for owner Ed Stanco and trainer Todd Pletcher. She has since come back with a solid season debut in the Cat Cay Stakes April 6 at Aqueduct Racetrack.
"This is a huge race," Pletcher said. "It's a Breeders' Cup quality field, and it's exciting. We're very respectful of how good Beholder is and Close Hatches. At the same time we're excited about the opportunity to get to run against them on a track where Princess of Sylmar has had success."
This is Princess of Sylmar's playground, where the 4-year-old Majestic Warrior filly won the Beldame Invitational (gr. I) last September over champion Royal Delta before ending her streak in the Breeder's Cup. This time tables are turned, with owner B. Wayne Hughes of Spendthrift Farm putting Beholder's reputation on the line for her first start outside of California across the wide old "Big Sandy" oval.
"That's what racing is about; they don't leave them in the stall and talk about it, you have to actually do it," Mandella said one morning, keeping a watchful eye on Beholder as she circled the shedrow of Barn 27 on the Belmont backstretch. "It's not an easy race, I know how good both of these fillies are, and I'm sure there are some other good ones in that bunch as well, but I couldn't love my filly any more. She's done more than we've ever imagined, so we're just excited to be here."
Beholder, a five-time grade I winner striding quietly along with her hotwalker under a light brown barn sheet while cooling out from her first New York breeze June 2, gave Mandella one less thing to worry about. With her final pre-race preparations complete—four furlongs in a maintenance :49 3/5 under Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens—if all went well she would sail into the 1 1/16-mile contest worthy of her status as the favorite at 7-5. In her first and only race so far this year, she blitzed the April 20 Santa Lucia Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths geared down to the wire.
On June 4, Beholder drew post 5 in a field of six older fillies and mares, with Princess of Sylmar assigned the 6 hole at 9-5 and multiple grade I winner Close Hatches drawing the rail at 5-2. The race is a "Win and You're In" challenge event for the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Juddmonte's Close Hatches could steal the show from her more accomplished rivals, as she is undefeated this season and comes off a wire-to-wire victory in the April 11 Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) after taking the March 15 Azeri Stakes (gr. III), both at Oaklawn Park. The 4-year-old daughter of First Defence was second to Beholder last year in the Distaff by 4 1/4 lengths after winning back-to-back grade I race, the Mother Goose and Cotillion.
"She looks great, settled in good, had an easy breeze over the track, so I don't think we could be better," Mandella said of his charge. "She's very mature and as her record shows, she grew up pretty fast. Now she's just kind of settled into a groove, and hopefully that groove is as good as it was."
$1 million Ogden Phipps (gr. I, Race 7, approximate post 3:14 p.m. EDT), fillies & mares 4YOs & up, 1 1/16 miles (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Trainer, Odds
1. Close Hatches, J. Rosario, 123, W I Mott, 5-2
2. Antipathy, I. Ortiz, Jr., 115, K McLaughlin, 30-1
3. Belle Gallantey, J. Ortiz, 115, R Rodriguez, 30-1
4. Classic Point, A. Solis, 115, H A Jerkens, 20-1
5. Beholder, G. Stevens, 123, R Mandella, 7-5
6. Princess of Sylmar, J. Castellano, 123, T Pletcher, 9-5