03/23/2016 1:46PM

Hovdey: Beholder waiting in the wings

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Taris and Tara’s Tango put on a good show in the Santa Margarita Stakes at Santa Anita last weekend. Taris ran too good not to win, while Tara’s Tango ran better and did. They both will be heard from in the division of older fillies and mares this year – both possess admirable range and considerable class – but they might as well get on a van. As far as the major events on the West Coast are concerned, the opening acts have cleared the darkened stage. The crowd is hushed. The spotlight comes up. Cue Adele.

I mean, Beholder. It’s an easy mistake.

Last Saturday’s Santa Margarita was upstaged the day before by a simple, little half-mile work. Simple, as in a Monet brush stroke or a Bill Evans chord. Lots of horses can do four furlongs in 48 seconds and cruise out another eighth of a mile in a minute flat. Not so many can do it with one hoof tied behind their back.

“She did it at an open gallop,” said Gary Young, clocker to the stars. “They gave her a breeze. It was an understatement.”

Gary Stevens was caught later walking through Clocker’s Corner tripping over his own grin. To describe him as a mere passenger aboard Beholder for the work was not quite right. He was more like a stowaway.

“I was afraid to move,” Stevens said. “If I’d done anything, she would have taken off.”

Then there was her trainer, Richard Mandella, sporting a natty, wide-brimmed straw hat protecting him from California’s late-winter sun and dancing a little jig as he headed back to the barn checking his watch, again and again. He believed what he saw, but as President Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.”

“It’s my style not to let them work hard every time,” Mandella said. “I try to build them up, and along with that, there will be a good work here and there. Of course, an average work for her is a special work for most horses. I’ve got a few that struggle with a minute and change.

“She’s always been easy to get ready,” the trainer added. “If you want her to go fast, she’ll go as fast as you want. If you want her to go easy, she’ll cooperate with that. I think there probably will be something the first week of May here at Santa Anita. Let’s say I’m hoping.”

The return of Beholder has become the most anticipated event of the young year, even though at the age of 6, with three championship seasons behind her, she has nothing to prove. And yet there lingers the titillating idea that there is one last flourish to her remarkable career awaiting at the end of the year.

That would be the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a home game Nov. 5 against whatever team the males can muster. Before that come races like the Adoration Stakes on May 8 and the Vanity Mile on June 4 at Santa Anita, the Clement L. Hirsch and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, and the Zenyatta Stakes back at Santa Anita in late September, on the doorstep of the Breeders’ Cup.

Still, a harsh truth must be acknowledged. For Beholder’s fans, it has been a mistake to project too far down the road. In 2014, she was knocked out of a defense of her Breeders’ Cup Distaff title by a virus. Last year, her early campaign was interrupted by another illness, and then, on the brink of her showdown with American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Beholder bled twice in gallops at Keeneland and was withdrawn. Mandella was asked if he keeps her in a hermetically sealed stall wrapped in plastic.

“We’re careful with her,” he said, ignoring the wisecrack. “But saying that, if we had any thought she wasn’t strong enough to do this, we would just send her home and breed her. We scoped her after a couple of works, including her last one, and she’s clean as a whistle. We’ve X-rayed her lungs, and there’s nothing there of any alarm, so we’re in good shape, we think.”

Mandella rode into the Hall of Fame on the tails of such older male stars as Kotashaan, Pleasantly Perfect, Gentlemen, Siphon, and Sandpit. As for older females of a certain age and ability, there were not many, and for good reason.

“When they’ve done something good, breeding them and selling the babies is pretty lucrative, so you don’t see them around at 6,” Mandella said. “And she was close to that, remember? She was in that November sale.”

She was. Owner B. Wayne Hughes had consigned Beholder in 2014, then pulled her from the auction when she fell sick before the Breeders’ Cup. As viruses go, that one was not serious but very fortuitous. When she recovered, Hughes put her back in training.

“I think Mr. Hughes took it into consideration that if you are an owner who wants to race – which he is – how would you find a better racehorse?” Mandella said. “How many would you have to buy to give yourself a chance to have one this good? What, a couple of crops of yearlings?”

The point was taken. Beholder is not just another blue-hen broodmare in waiting, commodified for her potential as bloodstock. She has been that rara avis, one of a kind, and very much to Mandella’s delight.

“That’s the reason she’s here,” he said.