04/18/2014 1:07PM

Jay Hovdey: Beating Beholder in Santa Lucia Stakes might take luck of the Irish...Presence

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Danny Velasquez, the trainer of the 4-year-old filly Irish Presence, asked jockey agent Craig O’Bryan how many entered the restricted Santa Lucia Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita. O’Bryan represents Tyler Baze, who would be riding Irish Presence.

“I’ve got to tell you,” O’Bryan said, “Mandella put a tough one in there.”

Velasquez, confident that his filly was sitting on a good effort, was unfazed.

“Oh yeah? Who’s that?”

“Beholder.”

At which point Velasquez swallowed his gum.

O’Bryan took it better since he also represents Gary Stevens, who rides Beholder with the confidence of a man operating fine machinery. Their dismantling of a stellar field in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita last November remains one of the lasting memories of the event.

Still, it needs some explaining as to why a two-time Eclipse Award winner and two-time Breeders’ Cup winner who has earned more than $3 million finds herself eligible to run in a restricted race barely five months after beating mares like Royal Delta, Princess of Sylmar, and Close Hatches, with the whole world watching.

The conditions of the Santa Lucia, a $75,000 event for 4-year-olds and up, exclude graded stakes winners at a mile or longer in 2014. Beholder was not among the original 15 nominees April 10. Instead, she was supplemented to the race at a cost of $1,500 at the time of entry. The original nomination was free.

“Nobody knew about it, I don’t think,” Velasquez said of Beholder’s late arrival. “At least, I know I didn’t. I don’t mind she’s in, and we might even get a few scratches because she is, which is fine with me. But come on, she’s won more than $3 million, and we’re getting only six pounds?”

Under the allowances, Beholder will carry 123 pounds, while the other starters are in at 117. (Earlier in the day, maiden claimers carry 124, if that makes sense.) There was a time when a minor stakes like the Santa Lucia would include built-in weight penalties for champions slipping between the cracks of eligibility – three pounds extra, say, for a horse who has won a race worth a million bucks within the past 12 months.

In the more distant past, when a class system was more rigidly imposed, the racing office kept an “A” list of runners on the grounds who would be ineligible for anything but open stakes events, thereby protecting restricted races from their presence. The first year I beheld one of these lists was the winter of 1973 at Santa Anita. Among those on the list were champions Cougar II, Chou Croute, Autobiography, and Typecast, and world-record holder Quack. Had there been a similar list around today, it would have been topped by Game On Dude and Beholder.

Even so, champions have surfaced in minor races throughout history. Two-time Horse of the Year Kelso ran in three allowance races in 1962 after winning the 1961 Met Mile, Suburban, Brooklyn, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew went back to work in 1978 as a 4-year-old in two allowance races. And, yes, that was the 4-year-old Genuine Risk in a four-horse allowance field early on a Saratoga program in August 1981.

“Only in New York,” wrote Bill Leggett of Sports Illustrated, “would you find the Kentucky Derby winner in the first half of the daily double.”

At 1 1/16 miles on the main track, the Santa Lucia is an ideal spot for Beholder to shake off the cobwebs and make her first start as a 4-year-old. Her trainer, Richard Mandella, had no qualms about missing races like the La Canada and Santa Margarita earlier this year, not with a target like the newly enriched $1 million Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes Day in early June looming large on the horizon.

Beyond that, Beholder will be aiming for her third consecutive Eclipse Award this season for her owner, the Spendthrift Farm of B. Wayne Hughes. Not since Cicada turned the trick in 1961-63 has a filly been a champion at ages 2, 3, and 4.

Irish Presence, on the other hand, is a 4-year-old daughter of Midnight Lute who tried a couple of stakes races last year for Eoin Harty without success. Velasquez took her over last August when she was purchased by his clients, Michael Lofino and Anthony Zankich, for whom her best race has been a close second at Santa Anita last fall over the Santa Lucia course and distance.

“We tried her a couple of times on the grass at the meet, but she really didn’t take to it like I thought she would,” said Velasquez, a youthful 70. “Turns out her best races have been on the dirt right here at Santa Anita.”

Velasquez, who rode world record holder Time to Leave during a long career in the saddle, will tell Baze to ride Irish Presence like he’s on Upset facing Man o’ War – at least until the writing is on the wall.

“We’re in there, so we might as well take a shot,” Velasquez said. “If we get second, I would be thrilled. One of my owners, Tony Zankich, sent me a text when he saw the entries. He said, ‘I’m a dreamer. How about you?’ ”