|ESPN.com: Ehalt||[Print without images]|
As the curtain came down on the first day of the Breeders' Cup at sunny Santa Anita Park, there were some definitive answers that arose out of the series' opening act.
Anyone with a desire to win one of the dirt races on Saturday had better stay on or near the lead. Closers need not apply for access to the winner's circle, judging by the way speed, speed and more speed highlighted Friday's card.
We also learned that Royal Delta's reign as "The Queen" of the sport is now at an end. She was second in September in the Beldame at Belmont Park; Friday, in a bid for a third consecutive victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, she could finish no better than a distant fourth.
"Maybe it's time," lamented trainer Bill Mott. "Maybe it's time."
Well ahead of her, taking honors as the first horse across the finish line in the $2 million Distaff, was Beholder, who fueled the lively debate that arose out of the race and which promises to stretch into January, when the sport crowns its champions.
Back in September, when Princess of Sylmar beat Royal Delta in the Beldame, it seemed she had turned the 3-year-old filly title into a slam and a thunderous dunk. After all, she came into the race with consecutive wins in the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama and had beaten a two-time Eclipse Award winner in the Beldame.
After Friday's turn of events, though, that slam dunk might have clanged off the back of the rim.
Beholder stated her case for an Eclipse Award in ear-piercing fashion as she raced in third early on, then surged to the front approaching the stretch and drew away to a definitive 4 ¼-length victory over the year's best assortment of fillies and mares.
There were only six starters in the 1 ⅛-mile test, but four of them were Grade 1 winners, two were reigning champions and two figure to be a champion.
Royal Delta should be one of them as the best older filly or mare.
The 3-year-old champion filly? That promises to be Princess of Sylmar … or Beholder.
With the championship portion of the schedule at an end for fillies, Beholder's stock soared as she evened her record against Princess of Sylmar while covering the nine furlongs in 1:47.77 as the 5-2 co-second choice ($7.60). Back in May, Beholder finished second by a half-length to Princess of Sylmar in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, the distaff version of the Kentucky Derby. Six months later, she finished some 16 ¼ lengths ahead of Princess of Sylmar, who struggled on the speed-favoring track and wound up last.
"What's the name of the game?" Richard Mandella, trainer of Beholder, said rhetorically. "The Breeders' Cup championships? Am I missing something?"
As much as the Breeders' Cup is considered a "world championship" event, titles are decided by a vote -- and the fillies' overall body of work still might favor Princess of Sylmar. Each has four Grade 1 wins this year and they split their two meetings, though Princess of Sylmar had more high-profile wins. Beholder also had home-court advantage on her side Friday. She won for the sixth time in seven starts at Santa Anita, the site of the victory in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies that earned her last year's 2-year-old filly crown.
The connections of Princess of Sylmar, meanwhile, showed some sportsmanship as her owner, Ed Stanco, coughed up around $100,000 just to enter his filly in the race. That turned out to be a steep price to pay on the racetrack, and in time, perhaps, in the Eclipse Award voting as well.
After stumbling at the start, Princess of Sylmar was never better than fifth at any of the calls on a track that brought out the ire in jockey Javier Castellano.
"I blame the track. It's all speed, speed, speed and unfair to come-from-behind horses," he said. "Unfortunately, she didn't handle the track at all. She was spinning her wheels. Usually at the half-mile pole she pulls, and today she didn't pull at all."
How much pull she'll have at the voting booth this winter remains to be seen. And if you're waiting for this bit of unfinished business to be settled ... sorry, you'll have to check back in January, when the announcement of this year's Eclipse Awards comes out.