What’s in a (Race) Name? Beldame’s Horse of the Year Season

Legends
Beldame was the 1904 Horse of the Year and is the namesake of a Grade 1 race at Belmont Park. (Keeneland-Cook)

Speed. Beldame had speed like few horses before her. In effortless fashion, she would cruise to the early lead in her races, leading her rivals on a merry chase and daring them to catch her. And at times, it must have seemed as though chasing Beldame was akin to chasing a rainbow. No matter how hard her rivals tried to catch up, Beldame—like a rainbow—managed to stay one step ahead.

Beldame was an accomplished 2-year-old and achieved notable success as a 4-year-old, but she reached the peak of her powers during an unforgettable 3-year-old season in 1904. The irony is that Beldame’s breeder—August Belmont II of Man o’ War fame—missed out on Beldame’s greatest successes after leasing her to owner Newton Bennington for the year 1904. For Bennington, the timing of the deal was perfect; carrying his silks, Beldame would embark on a Horse of the Year campaign.

The records show that Beldame won 12 of her 14 starts in 1904, finishing second and third in the other two, but such basic numbers can’t begin to measure the authority of Beldame’s performances. Time and time again, Beldame would sprint out of the starting gate and open a substantial early lead—two lengths, three lengths, even five or six lengths—and simply floor the pedal from there on out, leaving her rivals far behind as she cruised to victories by two lengths, or four, or seven, or 10.

Traditional races for fillies and mares, such as the Alabama Stakes, Gazelle Handicap, and Ladies’ Stakes, were practically exhibitions of Beldame’s superiority. As an example of her talent and seemingly bottomless stamina reserves, Beldame won the Ladies’ Stakes despite acting up badly prior to the start of the race. The New York Times of May 22, 1904 reported that Beldame “ran away nearly half a mile up the stretch when starting to the post, and then, after being pulled up, bolted again, and ran away a second time while going up the chute for the start of the Withers mile. A gap in the fence saved her the chance of injury, as she switched through the opening with the agility of a polo pony, and ran on through the trees and around the houses until a stable hand caught her.”

Such a lengthy pre-race excursion would have exhausted many horses, but Beldame—shrugging off the incident—casually won the Ladies’ Handicap while easing up at the finish.

For good measure, Beldame also dominated over her older male rivals throughout the year, beating them in such historic races as the Carter Handicap and the Saratoga Cup. The latter race, conducted over a testing marathon distance of 1 ¾ miles, saw Beldame win easily by four lengths while “never fully extended,” according to her Daily Racing Form race record.

By the end of the year, Beldame was clearly the best horse in training and has been recognized by historians as the 1904 Horse of the Year. The following year, a short-lived race called the Beldame Handicap was inaugurated in her honor at Aqueduct, and in 1939 the track created the Beldame Invitational, a race for fillies and mares that is now a Grade 1 race with a list of winners that reads like a “who’s who” of champions. The prestigious race is now held at Belmont Park.

The Beldame Invitational is one of many prominent races this weekend that are named for great people and horses from racing’s rich history. Let’s take a look at the legends behind a few other race names….

Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita Park

Most years, an unbeaten season that includes five graded stakes wins and a victory in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic would be enough to earn Horse of the Year honors. But the Canadian-bred star Awesome Again had the misfortune to execute such a campaign in 1998, the same year that the aging veteran Skip Away had won seven of his nine starts, five of them Grade 1 events. Although Skip Away could only finish sixth in the Classic, which Awesome Again won narrowly with a determined late rally, Skip Away got the nod for Horse of the Year, leaving Awesome Again—also a winner of Canada’s prestigious Queen’s Plate Stakes—with a legacy as one of the best horses to never win an Eclipse Award. Awesome Again now resides as a successful stallion in Kentucky, with his best foals including champions Ghostzapper and Ginger Punch.

Zenyatta (Eclipse Sportswire)

Grade 1 Vosburgh Invitational Stakes at Belmont Park

As the sport of horse racing in North American began to shape into its modern form during the early 1900s, a man named Walter S. Vosburgh ranked as one of the most influential men in the industry. He was best known as a handicapper, though not in the betting sense. It was Vosburgh’s duty to choose the weight assignments that horses would carry in some of the sport’s biggest races, assigning higher weights to the best horses to “handicap” them and give lesser-regarded horses a chance to win. Vosburgh served as a handicapper for four decades and was also a racing historian, penning numerous books about the sport and its participants.

Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita Park

If not for a narrow defeat in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the legendary Zenyatta would have retired with an unbeaten and unprecedented 20-for-20 record. Regardless, the charismatic mare ended her career thoroughly adorned with accolades, championship titles, and big-race trophies, as well as a reputation for “dancing” on the way to the starting gate, a trait that endeared Zenyatta to her vast legions of fans. Her Hall of Fame credentials stamp her as an all-time great racehorse—she remains the only filly or mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, doing so in 2009, and her 13 Grade 1 wins are believed to be a record for any female racehorse in North America—but her personality and heart-pounding rallies from the back of the pack may shine even brighter for her fans.

Grade 3 Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs

The Lukas Classic is named for the still-active Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who holds the all-time record for the most Triple Crown race wins (14) by any trainer. With nearly 4,800 victories and more than $275 million in earnings, the horses trained by Lukas have dominated the sport while winning more than 600 graded stakes races, and Lukas may be poised for a return to the Triple Crown spotlight thanks to a 2-year-old colt named Sporting Chance, who recently won the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.

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