Shades of Zenyatta: Another Male-Female Match

Gary Stevens won the 1988 Kentucky Derby with the brilliant three-year-old filly, Winning Colors. Now he hopes to make racing history with another female, the splendid five-year-old mare, Beholder.

Beholder meets Triple Crown champ American Pharoah for the first time Saturday in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, America's richest horse race - and where it's still unusual to find a female contender. No one thinks anything of it when the sexes race each other in Europe, but call it sexist or whatever, it's not the norm in America. When a top filly or mare challenges the boys here, it captures the public's fancy.

Beholder is also just coming off another race, the Pacific Classic, in which she trounced the boys by a little over 8 lengths; among them last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner Bayern.

Beholder would be the second mare to win the Classic. Zenyatta was the first female to win it in 2009 when, after breaking poorly, she thrilled us all by squeezing through an opening mid-pack, leaving the colts in her wake. Zenyatta also came in second in the Breeders' Cup Classic the following year, the only loss of her career.

No one wants to see the Triple Crown champ lose, but it's hard not to harbor a soft spot for the mare - especially one of her caliber.

Beholder won the Eclipse awards for best two and three-year-old female champ. However, plagued off and on by fevers, she was given a rest from the sport. As a result, she returned to her fifth year of racing with a vengeance, winning the Zenyatta Stakes and several other races before taking on the boys in the Pacific Classic.

She's also in good - if still somewhat rare - company. Genuine Risk won the Kentucky Derby in the 80s (just prior to Winning Colors), and Rags to Riches won the Belmont in 2007. Rachel Alexandra, another three-year-old prodigy, won the Preakness in 2009, the first female to do so in 85 years. She skipped the Belmont but went on to win other grade 1 races against the colts and older horses, eventually becoming Horse of the Year.

Then there was the late, great Ruffian, the high-strung filly that broke the nation's heart when she faltered during a match race with 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. The sesamoid bones in her right foreleg had snapped during the race but she kept on going. She underwent emergency surgery but eventually had to be euthanized when she kept tearing off the cast. It was always thought that she would have won the race because her times and distances were superior to those of the colt. She was buried at Belmont with her nose pointed toward the finish line.

I had written a long piece on Foolish Pleasure that summer in Saratoga when his trainer LeRoy Jolley allowed me to follow the fabulous colt around the stables for several days. Jolley would later train Genuine Risk, the Kentucky Derby winner, who was also a runner-up in the Preakness and Belmont. Her trainer always said it took a fresh horse to beat her every time.

Clearly, in this case, however, American Pharoah is the superior horse. His accomplishments and lifetime earnings exceed those of the mare. American Pharoah has won almost $6 million compared to $4 million-plus for Beholder.

However, the colt may be tired after a grueling Triple Crown campaign. It's enough to expect a horse to win one of the Triple Crown races - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont -- much less all three.
It's also possible that the mare may not race in the Classic. She's also entered in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (for fillies and mares), a race she has previously won. The Classic is the preferred race but the trainer could always decide to run her in the Distaff.

And what about Horse of the Year? The Classic is usually a determining factor in that outcome. Remember when Zenyatta won the Classic? Much to the disappointment of her fans, she wasn't named Horse of the Year. Rachel Alexandra was.

Still, no matter who wins the Classic, it's hard to deny a Triple Crown winner the title for a racing effort for which we've waited 37 years.