By Bill Finley
B. Wayne Hughes could have retired Beholder (Henny Hughes) a long time ago, maybe after her 4-year-old campaign or certainly after she was sidelined prior to last year's Breeders' Cup. A lot of owners would have done just that. A top mare will never be as valuable as a top stallion, but Hughes had a broodmare prospect worth many millions. And she was six, ancient by today's standards. He could have sold her or bred her, either racing the foal himself or selling it for a small fortune at Keeneland or Fasig-Tipton.
He could have cashed in–maybe for $3 million, $4 million, maybe more. Easy money.
Instead, he gave her one more year, a year that resulted in a win in Friday's GI Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita. It was a race that turned into a battle of young-versus-old and it was decided by a fraction of a nostril. Beholder-versus-Songbird (Medaglia d'Oro) will go down as one of the best Breeders' Cup races of all time.
The victory added about $1.1 million to Beholder's career bankroll, but this is not one you measure with dollar signs. For a while, it appeared that maybe Hughes had made a mistake, that Beholder had lost a step. Though she was still running well, she had lost three straight coming into the Distaff, something she had never done before. She was no longer racing's darling, even of her own division, not when Stellar Wind (Curlin) had beaten her two straight and not when Songbird was drawing comparisons to the best fillies that ever lived.
But there she was Friday at Santa Anita, the old Beholder, the real Beholder. Locked in a stretch battle with Songbird that could have gone either way, she showed a tiny bit more ability and, perhaps, more courage than her rival did and had her nose in front at the wire. And what was that worth to Hughes so far as thrills, memories, excitement, gratification? That's something very hard to put a price on, but whatever that price is, it's a lot more than whatever he could have made by retiring the filly sooner than he did. Hughes is to be commended for running her at six because he gave the sport and the fans an unexpected thrill. But the real winner was Hughes himself. I hope he gave himself the pat on the back he deserves.
I've never quite understood why wealthy and prominent horse owners do what they do. Most try all their lives to get a horse for the ages, one they can run in the GI Kentucky Derby or in the Breeders' Cup, one that has the heart, the will and the talent to win a Grade I at Saratoga or Del Mar. That's the real reason people will pay seven figures for a baby horse at the yearling sales. It's a lot more about the dreams than the potential for a financial gain, whether they'll admit it or not.
Then, as soon as they get the horse, they can't wait to retire it soon enough, either unwilling to admit or ignoring the fact that they'll probably never again get another one like they great one they just put on the van to a breeding farm in Kentucky. For some, maybe they do need the money. For many, the few extra million dollars will do nothing to change their lives.
I don't know B. Wayne Hughes, but I can tell you that he's a sportsman and that he gets it–there's nothing more exhilarating in this sport than winning a great race with a great horse, just like he did Friday.
All the talk, at least on TV, after the race was that this would be Beholder's last race. Perhaps the time to retire her is nearing and maybe it is too much to ask to run her at seven, but she absolutely has to have one more race–in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream.
The race is Jan. 28 and in no way would running her at that time prevent Hughes from breeding her in 2017. Hughes doesn't own one of those $1-million spots that guarantee you a spot in the race but a lot of people who either don't have a horse, period, or don't have one with any chance in the race do. It's going to be a buyer's market and you can bet Hughes can acquire a starting spot for a lot less than the $1 million.
Suppose California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) wins the Classic Saturday and no one else does anything particularly scintillating in the Classic or elsewhere on the card. If that's the case, Beholder could well be the second choice in a race with a $12-million purse. Running her there makes all the sense in the world.
Songbird ran her eyeballs out in the Distaff, and her reputation does not deserve to suffer because she finally lost. She's a great 3-year-old and it's very hard for a great 3-year-old to beat a great 6-year-old. That said, she had no excuses. She got a break when Stellar Wind didn't break alertly and found herself comfortably alone on the lead through non-taxing fractions. Beholder was just better.
After Saturday, the vans will load up and a whole new set of stars who will be on their way to Lexington to begin their second careers. That could lead to a lot of enjoyable days for their owners and syndicate partners, like when one of the stallion's yearlings sells for $1.5 million or someone from the first crop wins the GI Hopeful S. in a canter. That would be great. But not nearly as great as what Hughes, trainer Richard Mandella and jockey Gary Stevens experienced in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Sorry, it just won't.