Beholder: An Enduring Champion Whose Greatness Stood Test of Time

Beholder and Gary Stevens after winning the 2015 Pacific Classic. (Eclipse Sportswire)

If standing the test of time is the true measure of greatness, then few compare to Beholder.

She was a four-time winner of the Eclipse Award, taking year-end honors at 2, 3, 5, and 6 in a magnificent career that extended from 2012-16. Her only miss was a 4-year-old campaign marred by injury and illness. She won 18 of 26 starts with six second-place finishes for $6,156,600 in earnings on behalf of B. Wayne Hughes.

The daughter of crack sprinter Henny Hughes became the first filly or mare to defeat males in the Pacific Classic, thumping them by 8 ¼ lengths as a battle-tested but hardly weary 5-year-old. She saved her best for last, edging the brilliant Songbird by a desperate nose in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff the following season at a time when the thoughts of mares tend to center on motherhood rather than finishing first.

“She’s the best I ever rode, colts, fillies, turf, dirt,” said Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.

Beholder and Mandella
Beholder and Mandella at Keeneland in 2015. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Said Richard Mandella, her Hall of Fame trainer: “We had a particular bonding that was maybe more special than anybody else I ever had.”

Their relationship was uneasy at times. Beholder was a diva, as tempestuous as they come. There was nothing easy or straightforward about her.

“She was as sweet as a lamb 95 percent of the time,” Mandella said. “The other five percent was like an atomic bomb going off.”

Mandella would never say so, but Beholder might never have been Beholder in a lesser trainer’s hands. His patience, his willingness and that of his staff to cope with her idiosyncrasies, made all the difference.

In 2013, exercise rider David Nuesch said of her demeanor, “She kind of likes it to be her idea and doesn’t want to be told too much what to do.”

There were times when her antics were costly. She could have done without the raucous atmosphere preceding the Kentucky Oaks in 2013 and behaved so badly that she dumped her jockey, Garrett Gomez. She was so high strung she all but wore herself out by the time the starting gate snapped open, almost surely contributing to her half-length defeat to 39-1 Princess of Sylmar.

Most of the time, though, Beholder’s insistence on having her way, on and off the track, lavishly rewarded Hughes.  He purchased the Kentucky-bred for what turned out to be a bargain price of $175,000 as a yearling at Keeneland’s 2011 September sale.

Beholder’s immense character will forever endeared her to Stevens, a world-class warrior in his own right.

“As dear as all the great horses I’ve ridden are to me,” he said, “I’d say that she stands in her own paddock, away from all of them.”

Mandella was not quite sure what to expect when he tested her against males in the prestigious TVG Pacific Classic. She gave him more than he could ever have hoped for. Her 8 ¼-length margin was the second largest in the history of the race. Her time of 1:59.77 was the third fastest.

“Her race in the Pacific Classic was probably the most phenomenal feeling I’ve had of any race during my career,” Stevens said. It was a sensational display of speed and power as she ran off and hid from the boys.

When Beholder was 6, it appeared as though time and nature itself had diminished her on the track. She entered the Distaff with a three-race losing streak, sandwiching defeats to Stellar Wind in the Clement L. Hirsch and Zenyatta around a setback to the great California Chrome in the Pacific Classic.

Beholder defeats Songbird in the 2016 Distaff.
Beholder defeats Songbird in the 2016 Distaff. (Eclipse Sportswire)

She would not only have to confront Stellar Wind again but a tremendous speedster in 3-year-old Songbird. Could she respond to a mighty challenge one last time?

Mandella had his doubts during the slide. Then it was almost as if Beholder could sense the magnitude of the approaching 1 1/8-mile Distaff, and all that it would mean to her legacy.

“You could see a couple of weeks before the Breeders’ Cup that she was back to being as good as she could be,” he said.

Songbird possessed a dazzling turn of foot and tested her as never before.

“I’ve been in great battles for a sixteenth of a mile, 50 yards, for an eighth of a mile,” Stevens said. “But it literally was five-sixteenths of a mile of not knowing if you were going to get the job done.”

Stride after stride, Beholder and Songbird, with Hall of Famer Mike Smith aboard, ran as one. Beholder would find another gear. So would Songbird. Beholder was digging deeper than ever before. So was Songbird.

And then Beholder, drawing on so many races, so many seasons of experience, inched ahead to clip her rival by a nose.

What a performance! What a career!

Note: This story was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Beholder joined her trainer and jockey in the Hall of Fame in the summer of 2022
  • Bred by Clarkland Farm in Lexington
  • Beholder is a half-sister to leading sire Into Mischief as well as 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn
  • Bay did not have any white markings beyond two white specks on her forehead
  • Distant relative of 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ I’ll Have Another
  • Won 14 starts at Santa Anita, which renamed the Vanity Stakes in her honor
  • Delivered first foal, a colt by Uncle Mo, on Jan. 24, 2018 at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington and has been bred to Curlin for a 2019 foal

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!