Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And in the eyes of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, a 5-year-old mare named Beholder, who resides in his Southern California stable, is one of the great ones. I’m not going to argue with him.
In my mind, to achieve greatness in this sport you truly must do something historic, and the mare did that in August when she carried B. Wayne Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm silks to a breathtaking victory over males in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar – that track’s signature race for older horses.
It was the first time a filly or mare won the 10-furlong Pacific Classic, a race inaugurated in 1991. The win was Beholder’s ninth Grade 1 triumph and she’s won at that elite level each year since debuting as a 2-year-old in 2012.
That historic victory – achieved with ridiculous ease under Gary Stevens – gave Beholder’s connections enough confidence to point the daughter of Henny Hughes for a highly-anticipated showdown with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland.
In all honesty, I can’t say that I always look forward to the Classic as the race of the year. In recent seasons, the crop of older male runners hasn’t been all that good, at least those competing on dirt, the surface that traditionally defines our best horses.
The Classic winner hasn’t been voted American Horse of the Year since 2007, when Curlin won over a wet track at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
Since then, top honours in the Eclipse Awards Horse of the Year category went to Curlin again (2008, he skipped the Breeders’ Cup because it was run on a synthetic surface at Santa Anita), followed by an unprecedented run of three fillies and mares: Rachel Alexandra in 2009, Zenyatta in 2010 (she narrowly lost the Classic at Churchill Downs to suffer her lone career defeat), and Havre De Grace in 2011 (fourth in that year’s Classic).
Turf champion Wise Dan was Horse of the Year in 2012-13 and 3-year-old Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner California Chrome was voted top honors last year after finishing third in the Classic.
This year the Classic will be one to remember. There is real quality in the older male division, headed by Honor Code, a 4-year-old ridgling from the final crop of 1992 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner A.P. Indy. Trained by Shug McGaughey, Honor Code vaulted to the top of the division with Grade 1 victories in the Metropolitan Handicap in May and Whitney Stakes in August.
No one is hanging the “great” label on Honor Code, who was forced to miss the 2014 Triple Crown because of injury. But it is refreshing after a long drought to have an older male dirt runner with unmistakable talent. His presence in the starting gate for the 2015 Classic will ensure that whoever wins the race will have earned it.
That brings us to American Pharoah, another horse I’m not willing to designate as “great.” Not yet.
Yes, winning the Triple Crown was historic, especially after 37 years of frustration and near misses, and American Pharoah left no doubt that he was the king of the 3-year-old division for the first six months of 2015.
Call me old school, but I want to see what the Pioneerof the Nile colt can do against older horses.
Triple Crown winner Secretariat stepped out of the 3-year-old division for the last five starts of his career in 1973, winning three times, including that farewell victory over Woodbine’s old turf course in the Canadian International.
There was no disgrace for Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown winner, when he was second best to 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in his first try against older runners in the Malboro Cup Handicap. He “affirmed” his greatness in a 4-year-old campaign in 1979.
So did Spectacular Bid, the greatest horse I’ve ever seen. As the best 3-year-old of 1979, he narrowly lost the Jockey Club Gold Cup to the year-older Affirmed, then reeled off 10 consecutive wins over the next 12 months.
American Pharoah, who will be retired to stud in 2016, will have just one opportunity to prove his greatness, at least in the eye of this beholder. It’s not going to be easy