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Defining a special filly

Beholder will attempt to define, or redefine, her greatness Saturday in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. "Great" gets tossed around cavalierly these days, and not just because of impoverished vocabularies. True greatness takes many forms and makes itself known in various ways, but astute observers always know it when they see it.

And Beholder's greatness could be spotted from outer space. Since 1976, she is the only horse to win a Grade 1 stakes race at 2, 3, 4 and 5, according to Equibase. The only horse.

A few others -- Wise Dan, Court Vision, Game On Dude, Flawlessly -- won Grade 1 stakes in four seasons, too, and John Henry won Grade 1 races in five seasons. But in 40 years, only Beholder was precocious and fast enough to win a Grade 1 stakes as a juvenile -- the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, in her case -- and then retool that speed to dominate as an older horse. As a 2-year-old, she once ran three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 while winning by 11 lengths in hand; as a 3-year-old, she won the nine-furlong Breeders' Cup Distaff by more than four lengths; as a 4-year-old she returned from a layoff to win the Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita; in her most recent start, while appearing to do little more than lope around Del Mar's oval, she won the Clement L Hirsch Stakes by seven lengths.

And Saturday, in the Pacific Classic, Beholder will take on males for the first time while also racing 1-1/4 miles for the first time. In other words, she'll attempt to redefine her greatness in ways that will ensure her a place in the Hall of Fame. If she becomes the first female ever to win the Pacific Classic, she'll almost certainly lock up a championship, no matter what happens in the Breeders' Cup, and so she would join an elite group of females who have won Eclipse Awards in three seasons - Zenyatta, Royal Delta and Azeri. And by defeating males in such a prestigious race, she'll add her name to a list of great fillies and mares who have beaten "the boys" in Grade I stakes, horses such as Rachel Alexandra, Havre de Grace, Personal Ensign, Lady's Secret, Winning Colors and, of course, Zenyatta.

"She's been so special," said Beholder's Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Mandella, about Saturday's 5-2 favorite. "She's won her races so easily and in total control. She deserves a chance to show what she can do."

But why, at this point, take on males? The obvious answer is that she has nothing to prove within her division. But the reason is profoundly more telling than just that. She's also better than she's ever been, Mandella said.

It's an opinion her regular jockey, Gary Stevens, shares. He gave up the mount on her stablemate Catch A Flight, who's 9-2 in the morning line, to ride Beholder. Stevens won the Californian Stakes and the San Diego Handicap on Catch A Flight, but he didn't hesitate in making his choice.

"There was really no decision," the Hall of Fame jockey said. "I've won six Grade ones on her. It's no slight to Catch A Flight."

Stevens has been riding Beholder since 2013, but he began to appreciate just how special she might be even before he rode her. In the 2013 Kentucky Oaks, Stevens had the mount on a 48-1 long shot named Silsita. They were first to enter the starting gate, stepping forward into the No. 1 position. Two stalls away, in No. 3, was Beholder. Before the start, she became fractious and nervous, flipping over and onto her side. Stevens said he could hear the thud and the oof of her landing, the rush of air pushed out of her lungs, and he thought to himself that the filly's race was over right there.

Silsita flashed some speed but finished far up the track. As she jogged back, Stevens looked up at the tote board to see how the race turned out. And he was shocked, he said, to see that Beholder had finished second. Even after knocking the wind out of her sails just before the start, she nearly won, finishing a half-length behind Princess of Sylmar.

When Beholder returned to competition four months later, Stevens rode her, and they won the Torry Pines Stakes at Del Mar. They've won seven of their eight races together, their only loss being a fourth-place finish, by a length, in the Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont Park, a blemish that probably reflects, as much as anything, Beholder's anxiety about traveling.

"When she was 3," Stevens said, "she was a keg of dynamite just waiting to explode. But she has learned to contain all that energy. … She's definitely improved since then. I think she's even improved since her last race."

Beholder's improvement and tractability are a tribute to Mandella, one of the sport's great horsemen. But her improvement and superlative talent are also evidence that she's a freak of nature. Beholder's sire, Henny Hughes, won the King's Bishop and the Vosburgh, but he never won beyond seven-eighths of a mile. Her dam, Leslie's Lady, never won beyond 6 1/2 furlongs. And their daughter's about to take on Catch A Flight, Bayern, Hoppertunity, Red Vine and Hard Aces in the 1-1/4-mile Pacific Classic.

Bayern, last year's Classic winner, will probably grab the early lead. He needs it, has to have it, if he's to perform well. And his trainer, Bob Baffert, said he expects Bayern to run well and improve on his third-place finish in the Sand Diego Handicap. Beholder will stalk closely. And a length or two behind them in the early running will be Catch A Flight and Red Vine. Hoppertunity and Hard Aces will try to rally from farther back.

And somewhere in the second turn, the serious running will commence. Can Beholder spurt away from Bayern and then withstand all the inevitable challenges and charges in the stretch? On Saturday, Beholder has an opportunity to put a special sheen on her greatness.