Beholder, one of racing’s greatest mares, was a diva long before she built the credentials to act that way.
“She had a very aggressive side that made her a little difficult to work with at times,” said Richard Mandella, her Hall of Fame trainer. “Saying that, it’s part of what made her the fighter she was.”
A little difficult to work with? Although Beholder was equipped with a hood and ear muffs early in her career, that did not keep her from bucking and rearing and dumping riders simply because she could.
Mandella once said of Beholder’s development, “I’d say she brought me along. I haven’t brought her along.”
David Nuesch, her exercise rider in 2013, said of their many testy mornings together, “She kind of likes it to be her idea and doesn’t want to be told too much what to do.”
Mandella’s son, Gary, famously described the bay daughter of Henny Hughes as having the disposition of an “alpha male.”
Beholder was at her worst before the Kentucky Oaks in 2013. The massive crowd at Churchill Downs was unsettling. She tried to break from the pony that accompanied her to the racetrack and dumped her jockey, Garrett Gomez. It was hardly surprising when she finished second, seemingly a victim of her prerace antics.
Most of the time, though, Beholder’s willfulness worked to her great benefit. She joined John Henry as the only Thoroughbreds to string together Grade 1 victories through five successive seasons. She and Goldikova, the brilliant French miler, are the only ones to win as many as three Breeders’ Cup races.
Gary Stevens has ridden numerous champions during his legendary career. He said of Beholder, “I can say it without a doubt, she’s the best I ever rode.”
She was rambunctious, all right, but a rare intelligence accompanied that.
“There were so many times when I was in a situation where I would think something in a race like ‘I’ve got to get outside’ or ‘Here’s an opportunity’ and it was almost telepathic,” Stevens said. “She knew what I was thinking and it made my job very easy.”
More than anything, Beholder withstood the test of time, the ultimate measure of greatness.
“She was great when she was a 2-year-old, but to watch her develop mentally and mature physically, it was the ride of a lifetime for me,” Stevens said.
With the help of patient handling overseen by the masterful Mandella, Beholder learned to relax during the course of a race and to sit off the pace when her rider decided that was the best option. By her final season, the time required in the paddock and post parade were no longer the stressful events they had once been.
“By 2016, she actually enjoyed the process,” Stevens said. “She knew she was special. She enjoyed the cameras. She would go out there and enjoy those 15 minutes on the racetrack and doing her job.”
Racing never took a toll on Beholder. She was as fiercely competitive later in her career as she was in the beginning. As a 5-year-old, she emerged as the first filly or mare to defeat males in the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes, dusting the likes of 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern as she dominated by 8 ¼ lengths.
Beholder went out in a style befitting her elite status. Amid questions about whether she had lost a step during a three-race losing streak, she engaged Songbird, a breathtakingly fast 3-year-old, in a prolonged duel in the Distaff last November.
When Stevens and Beholder ranged up to their rival, Songbird immediately found another gear. When Stevens ramped up the pressure, then-unbeaten Songbird dug deeper. Stevens relished every pressure-filled instant of one of the most pulsating duels in Breeders’ Cup history.
“If you could dream up a scenario and a race to be part of,” he said, “that was the race I dreamt of.”
Beholder flashed past the finish line ahead by a nose. The huge crowd at Santa Anita showered her with applause as an emotional Mandella led her into the winner’s circle.
“It doesn’t get any better,” he said of that magical moment.
- Henny Hughes, Beholder’s sire, was a sprinter that won the King’s Bishop Stakes in 2006
- Leslie’s Lady, her dam, won only five of 28 career starts
- Beholder is a distant relative to 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another
- Beholder was bred by Clarkland Farm and foaled on May 9, 2010
- She was purchased by B. Wayne Hughes for $180,000 as a yearling at Keeneland’s September sale in 2011