01/12/2017 3:00PM

Hovdey: Some room at the top of older mare division


Now that Beholder is safely retired after what is certain to be recognized as a fourth championship season, there is the usual vacuum of power at the top. The queen is gone. Long live the next one, whoever it is.

The list of obvious choices to fill the void begins with Songbird, now 4 and on the threshold of her second straight Eclipse Award for her exploits of last season. She is nearing the end of a freshening at WinStar Farm in Kentucky and is due to be sent to Jerry Hollendorfer at Santa Anita around Jan. 20.

Stellar Wind, who is in training at Santa Anita with John Sadler, was held as the second choice to Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff last November. She earned it after winning two of three encounters with Beholder. Then she flinched at the start, and the game was over.

Cavorting, the third Eclipse Award finalist alongside Beholder and Stellar Wind, has been retired. Forever Unbridled, a spirited third in the Distaff, underwent ankle surgery in December, but the intention is to race her in 2017. I’m a Chatterbox, the winner of the Spinster and Delaware Handicap in 2016, is ready to roll but is stuck at Fair Grounds for now while officials deal with Louisiana’s herpesvirus restrictions.

Songbird has a shot to replicate the historic accomplishments of Meadow Stable’s Cicada, who has been the only filly to win championships at 2, 3, and 4. Cicada made 16 starts at 2 – I know, it sounds like science fiction – and won 11 races, including a 10-length romp in the Gardenia Stakes to end the 1961 season.

At 3, Cicada started 17 times and won eight, including the Kentucky Oaks, Mother Goose, and Beldame. At 4, she was at the mercy of merciless racing secretaries and still won the Distaff and Columbiana under 125 pounds, the Vagrancy under 127, and the Sheepshead Bay on the grass under 128.

Cicada stayed in training in 1964 but ran only once. In her absence, the championship voting for handicap female was split between the 4-year-old Old Hat, the winner of the Spinster and Delaware Handicap, and the 3-year-old Tosmah, who beat the boys in the Arlington Classic and her elders in the Beldame and the Maskette.

Azeri’s three-year run as champion older filly or mare was followed in 2005 by Ashado, the 3-year-old filly champion of 2004. The line of succession does not always work that well, but when it does, it makes perfect sense.

Likewise, it was the 4-year-old Havre de Grace who came along in 2011 after Zenyatta’s three straight championship seasons. Although Havre de Grace was the runner-up to Blind Luck in the 2010 race for champion 3-year-old filly, there wasn’t much between them. Havre de Grace also had the good fortune to come along in a 2011 season devoid of a dominant 3-year-old colt or older main-track male. As a result, she was also voted Horse of the Year.

While the game awaits the marquee stars in the early days of 2017, another candidate could pop up on Saturday at Santa Anita by the time the $200,000 La Canada Stakes is finished, and it’s likely that her name will be Vale Dori.

The Argentine mare is 5 by North American standards but just 4 1/2 in terms of physical maturity, yet she already has enjoyed a full, globetrotting life.

Vale Dori won two of three starts in her native land, after which she was brought to Dubai by owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum and tossed into the deep water of the UAE Oaks and Derby. She did not win, but neither was she embarrassed.

Now Vale Dori has run five times in California for Bob Baffert, winning the Bayakoa Stakes last time out Dec. 3.

“I got on her when she first came here, and she was a bit rank,” said Mike Smith, who rode Vale Dori for the first time in the Bayakoa. “But Bob got her turned around to where she’s doing things right and she’s a pleasure to be on.”

The rain is letting up, but chances are there could be some kind of damp track lingering by Saturday afternoon for the 1 1/16-mile La Canada, which drew five entries. Smith is not concerned.

“I was on her for her last work on the training track,” Smith said. “She didn’t seem to mind the slop at all. She’s a nice-sized filly, very balanced and athletic, which you need to be on an off track. Even carrying 125 pounds, I would think she’ll be very difficult to outrun.”

Smith is one of the Eclipse Award finalists for outstanding jockey of 2016, along with Javier Castellano and Jose Ortiz, as well as the regular rider of likely champions Songbird and Arrogate. Whether or not he attends the Eclipse Awards ceremony on Jan. 21 at Gulfstream Park will depend on whether or not he can get work. He is due to ride Arrogate on Jan. 28 in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup.

“I wouldn’t really want to go there, come back, and turn right around and go back the following week,” Smith said. “If I could go there and stay to ride horses, that could be okay, but I wouldn’t want to be there for a week without riding. For $12 million, you want to be sharp as you can be.”