I'm not saying she has to win or necessarily will win. Come selection time, I may not even pick her. I am saying that anyway you look at it, Beholder is the most likely winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic and deserves to be the favorite.
That's not a knock on Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Win or lose in the Classic, he has already proven his greatness and, to this voter, locked up the Horse of the Year title Belmont Stakes afternoon. But since Travers Day, when it comes to Beholder and American Pharoah, you have two horses that have headed in different directions, directions that suggest Beholder is right now the sport's best horse.
Things to consider
1. American Pharoah will come into the Breeders' Cup off a loss, his second-place finish behind Keen Ice in the Travers. Since he lost his debut race, it was the weakest performance of his career. It also forced trainer Bob Baffert to alter his plans to get his horse to the Breeders' Cup. Had he won the Travers, in all likelihood he would have run one more prep race before the Classic. It's never a good thing when a trainer has to go to a Plan B when it comes to preparing for such a big race. And training up to the Breeders' Cup off workouts can't possibly be as effective as getting a good tightener in over the racetrack in the afternoon.
2. This will be American Pharoah's first ever start against older horses. As good as American Pharoah is, the waters always get deeper when 3-year-olds go against older rivals. Ten of 31 Classics have been won by 3-year-olds. A very good older horse is supposed to beat a very good 3-year-old.
3.While American Pharoah's road to the Classic has not been a smooth one, things could not possibly be going better for Beholder. Her victory in the Pacific Classic over older horses ranks right up there with the best performance by any thoroughbred in decades and left no doubt that beating males is not the least bit of an issue for her. It is virtually impossible to think that any horse, any age, any sex, from any nation, could have beaten her that day.
She followed that up with what was the ideal next step, a win over fillies in the Zenyatta. That performance lacked the electricity of the Pacific Classic, but it was exactly what she needed. She did what she had to do, scoring a dominant, but not overly taxing, win against over-matched rivals. She could not be heading into the Breeders' Cup in a better fashion.
The only knock I can see on Beholder is that she has never won outside of California and is 0-for-2 in her two starts out of town. She will, of course, have to ship to Keeneland for the Breeders' Cup. But her losses include a very good performance when second behind Princess of Sylmar in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks, so it's not like she was a dud when shipping to run somewhere else.
Actually, neither one of them has to win. Honor Code might be overshadowed by the Triple Crown winner and the charismatic mare, but he is a very serious horse. His win in the Whitney, when he ran down, Liam's Map when doing so seemed impossible, was also among the more impressive performances turned in by any horse in some time. That Liam's Map came back and jogged in the Woodward makes that victory look all the more special. We'll know more about Honor Code after he starts in Saturday's Kelso, at one mile, at Belmont. In most any other year he would be the clear favorite in the Classic. This year he's going to be the third choice.
Another fascinating aspect of this Classic is that it will pit maybe the three best trainers in the sport in Bob Baffert (American Pharoah), Richard Mandella (Beholder) and Shug McGaughey (Honor Code) knocking heads in the race of the year. There's no edge there as all three are fabulous at what they do, but this will be the ultimate test of their abilities.
Should Beholder or, perhaps, Honor Code, were to win the Classic it seems that is going to ignite a Horse of the Year debate. If so, nothing could be more ridiculous. Beholder could win the Classic by 25 lengths and American Pharoah could lose it by 125 and American Pharoah should still Horse of the Year. Since a Horse of the year title was inaugurated in 1936, every Triple Crown winner has been named Horse of the Year. But it's not just that. Look at what American Pharoah accomplished, not only winning the Triple Crown, but ending a 37-year drought when some believed the feat was beyond the reach of modern American horses. He should not only be Horse of the Year but a unanimous selection for the honor.