07/28/2016 2:26PM

Hovdey: Welcome to the court of Queen Beholder

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You would think, after more than four years of their man-horse relationship, that Richard Mandella would be able to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the Beholder ride. I mean, she’s 6, right? How tough can it be? Throw her a little hay. Give her some exercise. Keep her stall clean. Lead her over, get the money, cool her out. Repeat.

“I know,” Mandella confessed. “I can’t help it. Maybe if I ran her more often it would help.”

Maybe, but it’s too late now to change things, and her appearance at Del Mar on Saturday in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch should be enough to satisfy any immediate cravings. The stop-and-start profile of Beholder’s remarkable career has included 17 wins in 22 starts spread over parts of five seasons. It has been interrupted on significant occasions by injury or illness, but at no point has she cheated her people or her public when asked to perform.

Beholder’s Del Mar summers have for the past few years included afternoons spent in a sun pen at the far end of the fair grounds multipurpose building that houses Mandella’s shed row. Beholder loves her pen, and she knows that when it’s time to come in, it is also time to eat.

Once her meal is devoured, and her groom, Ruben Mercado, has tidied up her stall, Mandella will allow the odd visitor to approach the mesh screen keeping Beholder safe from the world. Only those bearing peppermints are welcome.

“That’s enough now,” Mandella will say, polite yet firm, when visitors linger. “We don’t want to go spoiling her.”

That’s a hoot. Princess Kate has it rougher than Beholder. When she goes into her stall after a typically robust gallop, Janeen Painter will be on board while three handlers are on the ground, including foreman Jose Vera, to unwrap her legs and peel off her tack.

“I don’t think she’d know what to do if there was only one person in there with her,” Mandella said. “Resent it, probably.”

Spoil her indeed. Beholder does not need to work for food – she has earned a cool $4.5 million – but withhold her peppermints, and her behavior suddenly becomes negotiable.

“We forgot them the other day schooling her,” Mandella said. “It was a mistake. So, she comes up to me with her nose close, all sweet, and I’m thinking, ‘Aw, she’s forgiven me.’ Next thing I know, she’s flipped my hat off and sent it flying.”

Mandella would like to relax around Beholder, but he can’t. One of them needs a Xanax drip, but that would be wrong, so she gets earmuffs to school and saddle, bell boots and thick polos walking anywhere, and the stall closest to the office, just because. She was a handful from Day 1 four years ago at Del Mar, and she can still light the fuse if things aren’t just right. Thanks to Mandella and his crew, things are right way more often than not.

Like Thursday morning, when Painter had to wait and wait for a turn to stand in the starting gate before she could let Beholder loose on a stout gallop.

“There seemed like a hundred horses back there,” she said, explaining the delay. “But she was great, just looking around. The train went by, and she hardly noticed. Then, when we finally galloped, there was hardly anyone left on the track, which was great, not having to worry about everybody else.”

Painter, a former jockey, had a few brief encounters with Beholder as a 2-year-old when the filly just missed winning the Del Mar Debutante before capping her season with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

“She was a little bit crazy, tough to be around as a baby and even into her 3-year-old year,” Painter said. “At 4, she started getting it, so maybe by the time she’s 8 she’ll be perfect, right?”

She’s pretty close now, at least in terms of her record. Beholder has won 12 of her last 13 starts in a stretch dating back to her raucous 2013 Kentucky Oaks, when she dumped Garrett Gomez on the way to the post and nearly won anyway. Her only loss since then was her fourth in the 2014 Ogden Phipps, where she lost by a length on a gashed and bloodied hoof.

All that was then. Now Beholder is perched on the brink of heights to which few Thoroughbred mares have soared. Once the Clement Hirsch is in the books – and champion Stellar Wind will have something to say about the outcome – Beholder will be defending her title against California Chrome and Dortmund in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 20. The three of them – physical specimens at ages 4, 5, and 6 – will present a rare tableau. Hope someone brings a camera.

“I know it’s hard to believe looking at her now, but she was kind of pudgy when she was 2,” Mandella said.

Which makes sense since her name derives from the telling phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the …”

“She was about this wide behind,” Mandella said, spreading his arms, “and was practically flat across the top.”

We’ll take his word for it, but now the duckling is an amazing swan, and there is little mystery left to the story of Beholder, save for how the story will end.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Mandella warned.

No, he’s right. That’s Beholder’s job.