12/06/2012 3:42PM

Hovdey: Executiveprivilege gets chance to sway undecided Eclipse Award voters

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Barbara D. Livingston
An impressive performance in Saturday's Hollywood Starlet could tilt the race for champion 2-year-old filly toward Executiveprivilege.

What a kick. For the first time in eight years one of these late-season stakes races at Betfair Hollywood Park actually might mean something in terms of deciding a national championship.

Executiveprivilege, from the Bob Baffert stable, could further gild a splendid 2012 record by winning the $500,000 Hollywood Starlet Stakes on Saturday. She has already won 5 of 6, four of them stakes, which in most cases would be enough to nail down a title. Alas, her one loss came in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, in which she came up a length short of catching Beholder at Santa Anita, the same Beholder who lost the Del Mar Debutante to Executiveprivilege by a nose.

Had the season ended after the Breeders’ Cup – and there are those in the audience who just said, “It didn’t?” – Beholder probably would have a clear edge in the voting given the weight of the race she won. Still, both fillies ran just as hard in the Del Mar Deb and the decision went the other way, which tends to create the need in some Eclipse voters for one more strand of evidence.

The last time a late-season Hollywood race mattered in terms of the Eclipse Awards trainer Ron Ellis sat out the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Mace and Samantha Siegel’s 2-year-old Declan’s Moon and pointed instead for the CashCall Futurity, which he duly won to remain unbeaten in four starts. It helped considerably that among the horses he beat in the Futurity was the British colt Wilko, the upset winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that year at Lone Star Park. I believe that is when talk of secession began.

Anyway, there is no Beholder in Saturday’s Starlet field, so the rubber match between the West’s two best young fillies will have to wait. Richard Mandella, who trains Beholder for Wayne Hughes, was watching his Breeders’ Cup winner stroll back from a gallop Thursday morning when he was asked why he decided to pass on the Starlet’s cool half-million.

“I felt I did enough with her, so I’m paying her back a little bit,” Mandella said. “I’m going to start her back on Jan. 21 going 6 1/2 and then stretch her back out.”

Mandella was talking about the $150,000 Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Whether or not Beholder takes the field that day as reigning champion of her division will be known the night before when the Eclipse Awards are announced at Gulfstream Park. As far as Mandella is concerned it should be a no-brainer. But then, he doesn’t have a vote.

“I never thought there was a serious possibility she wouldn’t be voted champion, but people are telling me I’d better worry about it,” Mandella said. “I mean, who won the best race? It ain’t like we won a bad Breeders’ Cup, with three unbeaten fillies in there.”

Those three – Executiveprivilege, Frizette winner Dreaming of Julia, and Matron winner Kauai Katie – finished second, third, and fourth to Beholder.

“She’s doing real well,” Mandella added. “I had her shoes off and just hacked her around for a couple of weeks. I’m probably going to breeze her tomorrow or the next day for her first work back.”

Meanwhile, if Executiveprivilege does not win the Starlet impressively, as she has every race that has not included Beholder, her case for a championship will be harder to make. There are seven fillies arrayed against her on Saturday, including the 1-2-3 finishers from the Sharp Cat Stakes over the same course and distance of 1 1/16 miles on Nov. 11.

The winner that day was Midnight Ballet, a daughter of sprint champion Midnight Lute out of a mare by Unbridled’s Song, owned by Jim Stone’s Stoneway Farm. Her pedigree would seem to provide a recipe for more zip than trainer Tom Proctor would ever need, and yet Midnight Ballet appears to be the kind of filly who likes to arrive late to the party, as she did when she was up to win the Sharp Cat by three-quarters of a length over Renee’s Titan. Scarlet Strike, a distant runner-up to Executiveprivilege the only time they met, was the Sharp Cat third.

“She a big, tall lanky thing,” Proctor said. “From the pole she’s got speed, but not from the gate. Being tall and real long, I’m thinking maybe she feels like she doesn’t really fit in there. I guess Midnight Lute was that way, too, and was why he didn’t break real well either. So she might always have a little bit of a problem, ‘cause she’s built like daddy.”

This eventually should turn out to be a good thing, since Midnight Lute was one of those creatures that, especially up close, took the breath away. Midnight Ballet won her first race sprinting at Del Mar and then finished a distant fifth to Beholder in a Santa Anita allowance event in early October.

“Actually it wasn’t all that bad a race,” Proctor said. “The racetrack was like a conveyor belt with speed holding the way it was, so my filly just kind of went around there. The mare of Mandella’s, what’d she win by, 10 lengths or something?”

Actually, 11, while runner-up Mechaya was nearly seven lengths clear in second, which means Midnight Ballet was beaten barely a length for third in the spread-eagled field. She returned five weeks later to win the Sharp Cat at odds of 10-1.

Proctor, with stables in the West, the Midwest, and Florida in the winter, has enjoyed a banner 2012 season with stable earnings so far of $3.4 million from about 350 starters. That puts him in the same neighborhood on the standings with such household names as Al Stall, Tom Albertrani, Jonathan Sheppard, and Wesley Ward. Marketing Mix, the Proctor stable star, missed by three-quarters of a length to Zagora in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, otherwise the barn might have had bragging rights to a champion as well.

Proctor shook off that tough loss and now finds himself in the role of potential spoiler. Still, he has no delusions that Executiveprivilege is ripe for the upset.

“She’s a real neat filly,” Proctor said. “What, just that length from being undefeated? But I’ve been spending time sitting next to Mr. Jerkens and talking with him quite a bit down at Gulfstream.”

That would be Allen Jerkens, who earned the nickname “Giant Killer” by knocking off sure things like Kelso and Secretariat.

“You never know,” Proctor added. “Maybe a little bit rubbed off.”