A 'Princess' who should be Queen

November, 11, 2013

It doesnt happen often, but there are times when you can do something that will end up wrong, but still come away from the experience feeling you did the right thing.

Voting for this years champion 3-year-old filly is one of those occasions.

Judging by the final National Thoroughbred Racing Association Top Thoroughbred Poll, Beholder will be the recipient of an Eclipse Award in January when the hardware will be handed out to the sports champions. Beholder finished third in that poll with 369 points, while her main rival for the 3-year-old filly award, Princess of Sylmar, was sixth with 173 points.

On one level that was hardly a surprise. Beholder did, after all, win the $2 million Distaff at the Breeders Cup, which is considered horse racings world championships.

But my vote will go to Princess of Sylmar for reasons that will not fall in line with popular opinion and yet Im quite comfortable taking a contrarian position.

Keep in mind horse racing is not a professional sport with a certain series or game that crowns a champion.

To explain, keep in mind horse racing is not a professional sport with a certain series or game that crowns a champion. The Breeders Cup, in theory, is supposed to do that, but the champs are actually selected by voters, comprising people from several segments of the industry who are asked to judge a body of work, not a single race, and the intangibles that come into play.

Sometimes there is a definitive race, which most will argue was the Distaff and was won decisively in a 4 ¼-length triumph by Beholder.

Yet for me, what stood out more than Beholders effort on the afternoon of Nov. 1 was that Princess of Sylmar was in the starting gate that day, something that wasnt a given and plenty of owners would not have done.

It cost her owner, Ed Stanco, roughly $100,000 to pay a supplemental nomination fee and ship his filly to California to race at Santa Anita, a track Beholder loves and is ideally suited for her.

Had Stanco kept Princess of Sylmar at home in New York, she probably would have been named the champion. Prior to the Distaff, Princess of Sylmar had beaten Beholder by a half-length in their one meeting, the Kentucky Oaks, a race which is considered the female answer to the Kentucky Derby and attracted a field as good as it has seen in recent memory.

At that point, while Beholder had three Grade 1 wins, Princess of Sylmar had four -- at three different tracks -- and hers carried far more clout as she won both of the years biggest races for 3-year-old fillies, the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama and, like Beholder, owned a Grade 1 win over older fillies and mares.

That perception completely changed when Beholder won the Grade 1 Distaff and Princess of Sylmar was never a factor as she finished last in a field of six, 16 ¼ lengths behind the winner.

It became Beholders fourth Grade 1 win, all of them, though, at Santa Anita.

In a league like the NBA, that would have been akin to a No. 2 seed beating a No. 1 seed and tough luck for the top seed. But horse racing is a completely different animal. There are no mandated schedules that everyone must follow, as there are in the NBA, NFL, NHL and every other professional league. An NFL team cannot pick its own route to a championship. It has to play the 16 games slotted by the league and all of the playoff games and the Super Bowl. Teams cant go undefeated in the regular season, win one playoff game and then call it quits for the season and proclaim themselves a champion.

In horse racing, though, it can happen that way. Horsemen can pick and choose their spots and as a result the matchups fans want to see may never materialize. A case in point was the inability to get the great distaff runners Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra on the same track. Lets not forget either that in July of 2009, owner Jess Jackson decided to skip the Breeders Cup. He ended the fillys year after a win in the Sept. 5 Woodward, which was a division playoff round win -- not a Super Bowl win -- if there ever was one.

The Breeders Cup was diminished by her absence and in spite of that she was still named Horse of the Year over Zenyatta, who went undefeated that year and beat males in the Breeders Cup Classic. It was a set of circumstances that will sink the sport if they are constantly repeated.

To me, the sportsmanship Stanco displayed was highly commendable and is what the sport should be all about. Having Princess of Sylmar in the starting gate turned a good race into a great race, and the sport benefitted from it. That has to count for something in choosing a champion. Not a lot, for sure, but at least enough to help separate two evenly matched rivals.

Making the move even nobler was Stancos gamble on Beholders turf.

While the conditions were indeed equal, that severe bias prevents me from elevating the BC Distaff head and shoulders above the Oaks.

Yes, Beholder won the showdown, but if anyone was watching what happened on that Friday afternoon at Santa Anita, they had to know Princess of Sylmar was facing an uphill climb higher than the San Gabriel Mountains. Horses on or near the lead were nearly impossible to catch and for a closer like Princess of Sylmar, who was running on a tread mill, it was an effort in futility to try and catch Beholder.

Thats why her last-place finish didnt sway me.

Given the days conditions, she appeared to have little chance as she walked toward the starting gate and what happened on the track proved it.

While the conditions were indeed equal, that severe bias prevents me from elevating the BC Distaff head and shoulders above the Oaks. To me, its a coin flip between the two fillies and what gives Princess of Sylmar a very slight edge is her owners sportsmanship.

Beholders connections did absolutely nothing wrong this year. They shipped her back home to California after the Oaks, which made all the sense in the world with the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita.

Beholders victory in the Distaff was very much deserved, but a championship? Shes extremely talented but everything did fall into place for her as she was able to race in five Grade 1 or Grade 2 stakes at Santa Anita, a track where shes won 6 of 7 career starts with one runner-up finish.

Princess of Sylmar took the gamble, which granted is not enough alone to be named a champion. Its when you win the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama and Beldame in succession and then pay $100,000 to race on the other coast over a track that ill suits you, thats a champion.

Most will disagree, but many of those will also gripe when big stars duck each other. You cant have it both ways.

But for an industry that relies in part on sportsmanship to create its marquee matchups, then giving a small bonus point for those who follow the path less traveled does not seem wrong at all. It actually feels like the right thing to do.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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