When Princess of Sylmar won the Beldame, it seemed inconceivable that she would not be named 3-year-old filly champion. She had just won her fourth consecutive Grade 1 race and defeated Royal Delta, the sport's top older mare, in the process. Winning the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club, Alabama and the Beldame is supposed to be more than enough to earn an Eclipse Award.
But fast-forward five weeks, and Princess of Sylmar is in the fight of her life for divisional honors, one she will likely lose.
Beholder trounced Princess of Sylmar and five others in Friday's Breeders' Cup Distaff and will enter voting season with credentials that are also impeccable, forcing voters to choose between two very deserving fillies. Both won four Grade 1 races this year, both lost twice, and they split their two meetings. Princess of Sylmar beat Beholder by a head in the Kentucky Oaks. In the Distaff, Princess of Sylmar clearly wasn't herself. She finished last.
There's very little to separate them, but I will vote for Beholder because of the significance of her Breeders' Cup win.
Winning a Breeders' Cup doesn't always justify an Eclipse Award. Plenty of horses have come out of left field to win on that day, are quickly forgotten and ignored by Eclipse voters. But the Breeders' Cup is the closest thing racing has to a championship, Super Bowl-like event. With perhaps the lone exception of the Kentucky Derby, a Breeders' Cup win means more than any other. Beholder won in the Breeders' Cup. Princess of Sylmar did not. When they are essentially equal when judging them by any other criteria, the Breeders' Cup win tilts the scales.
Sillier still is the idea that she was aided by a bias. If anything, she overcame a bias.
Not everyone is sold on the idea of Beholder being the champion -- and it is indeed somewhat unfair that Princess of Sylmar could have had the year she had and walk away with no hardware. It seems even worse when you consider that she probably would have won the Eclipse had she stayed at home. Her owner-breeder, Ed Stanco, supplemented her into the Breeders' Cup, a rare sporting gesture in a sport where too many people run from challenges. No one would have blamed him had he sat this one out, and now his decision might come back to haunt his filly.
But some of the knocks on Beholder that have come out since her Distaff victory are terribly unfair.
The worst is that her win should be discounted because she took advantage of a speed bias Friday at Santa Anita. For one thing, that shouldn't have any bearing on how someone votes. A win is a win and how it occurred is irrelevant. Sillier still is the idea that she was aided by a bias. If anything, she overcame a bias. It appeared on paper that Beholder was fast enough to wire the field. Instead, jockey Gary Stevens decided to take ahold of her early and sat third, nearly three lengths, behind Authenticity, a quality horse allowed an easy trip on a supposedly speed-biased track. If the track was biased, that Beholder mowed Authenticity down from a stalking position actually makes her victory all the more impressive.
The merits of her wins in Grade 1 races not named the Breeders' Cup, the Las Virgenes, the Santa Anita Oaks and the Zenyatta. If you don't think those are legitimate Grade 1 races, take that up with the graded-stakes committee. A Grade 1 is a Grade 1.
Not that it matters when it comes to this year's Eclipse Award, but let's hope these two meet numerous times next year. A hot rivalry -- Beholder versus Princess of Sylmar, East versus West -- has been born, and racing needs more of those things. Then again, does the sport ever get that lucky? Which one gets retired or injured first?
The debate will continue up to the time the last Eclipse ballot is cast and much of it will develop along geographical lines. The closest thing racing has to red state-blue state is East-West. Both factions tend to favor their own horses and there will be plenty of people on opposite sides of the fence accusing colleagues of bias and ignorance for voting against their favorite filly.
In the end, Beholder will win and for no other reason than she deserves to win. That's going to be hard to swallow for Princess of Sylmar's connections and her fans. But she picked the wrong day to not show up.