05/09/2016 2:20PM

Hovdey: Even at 6, Beholder has unfinished business


It seems sacrilegious to write about anything other than the Kentucky Derby on the Monday after the Kentucky Derby. All story angles of any note have a way of threading back to Nyquist and his Zen-like dismissal of 19 Derby opponents, so helpless in the face of his commitment to never losing.

Saturday was a huge day far and wide. Huge at Churchill Downs, where reportedly more than 167,000 were present and many even saw the race. Huge at Hastings Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the place went wild cheering for homeboy Mario Gutierrez. And huge at Santa Anita Park, where Nyquist hangs his hat and where more than 20,000 fans celebrated another San Vicente Stakes winner rising to the top of the game.

Sunday at Santa Anita brought the calm after the storm and a reported 7,212 fans, which is too bad because there was Beholder making her first start of the season in the Adoration Stakes, a Grade 3 event with a $60,000 first prize that wouldn’t make a dent in her insurance premium.

Beholder had not raced in more than seven months. That leaves a lot of room for wondering if she could be as good at 6 as she was at 5, when she won her third Eclipse Award. As it turned out, the Adoration (named for the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner) was as easy as it was supposed to be, although Gary Stevens and the rest of the Beholder band tried to let the big mare think this was deeply serious business.

She wasn’t fooled.

Richard Mandella and his crew continue to saddle Beholder as if they are disarming an IED. The prerace equipment includes earmuffs and prayer beads.

“You can put music in the earmuffs,” Mandella said. “There’s a little slot there. I tried it with her, and it pissed her off. It made her worse. I thought it was quiet and soothing.”

So much for the savage-beast theory.

Since the Adoration was basically a training exercise – full marks to the owners and trainers of her five opponents for supplying high-class fodder – Beholder was pretty much cooled out by the time she hit the sixteenth pole. Then she dragged groom Ruben Mercado and Mandella foreman Jose Vera out of the winner’s circle to the test barn. Mandella met her when she was finished.

“Look at her going home with those schoolers of mine,” the trainer said, pointing to a couple of horses on the path. “She thinks that’s what she did, just schooled.”

The walk took Mandella down the tow ring between the Bob Baffert shed rows, where the barn walls are festooned with plaques commemorating the bounty of Baffert’s victories in Triple Crown races and Breeders’ Cup events.

“It’s a little intimidating,” remarked Mandella, who has been in the Hall of Fame for 15 years. He was asked if it made a difference that he was following Beholder.

“That does help,” he said.

Back at the barn, Mandella fed Beholder her Starlite mints as Vera gave her a few turns. The trainer was asked about the black strips of protective bandage worn by the mare below her hind ankles.

“She jumps around and nicks herself,” Mandella said. “Used to be on the left, which is the one she got cut up so bad in New York two years ago. Now she does it on both.”

Beholder didn’t get dirty enough for a bath – Stevens saw to that – so about all that was left was dinner. Released into her stall, she spun around and charged the grate, looking for mischief, as Mercado approached with leg mud and bandages.

“Why don’t you wait on that and feed her first?” Mandella suggested, which made perfect sense to both Mercado and Beholder.

Peace at last, as Beholder buried her nose in her tub, and the Adoration page was turned. It was a beginning, a means to an end, just as the San Vicente Stakes in February was a relatively quiet beginning to Nyquist’s assault on the classics. In the winner’s circle after the race, Wayne Hughes, who has resisted the temptation to cash in on Beholder as a broodmare, gave voice to what a lot of fans might be starting to think.

“I hope Nyquist is a Triple Crown winner, and I hope we get a chance to run against him in the Breeders’ Cup,” the owner said.

Of course, it was supposed to happen last fall at Keeneland, when American Pharoah and Beholder were the stars of the Breeders’ Cup show. Then she bled in a gallop and was sent to the bench. It was the frustration of that missed opportunity that prompted Hughes to keep her in training this year. So far, he has no reason to regret the decision.

“She’s definitely bigger and stronger,” Mandella said, admiring her as she ate.

Beholder celebrated her sixth birthday on the day after the Adoration. She has been a Grade 1 race winner at 2, 3, 4, and 5 and now has her sights on a collection of Grade 1 targets this year, beginning with the $400,000 Vanity at Santa Anita on June 4. After that, a place in the Hall of Fame awaits, once she has been retired five years.

“Let’s not be in a hurry,” Mandella said. “I do some of my best work with 7-year-olds.”