This was the invitation: grab a case of beer on opening day of the 2014 Saratoga Race Course season and camp out at the clubhouse entrance near the jockey statues, just to soak it all in and reminisce.
My kind of invite.
That’s not why it was with much contemplation and reluctance that I’m voting for Beholder instead of Princess of Sylmar for champion 3-year-old filly, though.
No, it was a torturous internal debate because the respective credentials of the brilliant fillies are so evenly matched.
After that, it boiled all the way down to the bottom of the pot, and the only residue left to scrape up with the spoon was Beholder’s convincing win over Princess of Sylmar in the biggest race of the year, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
The brewski proposal came well before the Breeders’ Cup from Princess of Sylmar’s owner, Ed Stanco, and it would be insulting to this gentleman to suggest that it represented anything other than a gesture of conviviality from a good guy who fell in love with Saratoga when he was growing up in Schenectady 50-plus years ago.
I’ve been writing about Princess of Sylmar since February, and what started as a weekly notebook topper turned into one of the funnest stories I’ve covered in over 25 years in this business.
It was fun for two reasons: Princess of Sylmar won a bunch of big races to emerge as a national star, including two at Saratoga, and Stanco and his rollicking gang of family, friends and supporters emerged from obscurity to remind us all what’s great about racing.
Setting that aside, I’m picking Beholder in what is one of the most difficult decisions out of 17 categories faced by Eclipse Award voters this year.
On paper, some key aspects of their records appear to be nearly identical.
Here’s the tale of the tape:
Beholder was 5-2-0 from seven starts; Princess of Sylmar was 6-1-0 from eight.
They each won four Grade I races.
Each has a victory over the other.
Each has beaten older horses, including two-time champion Royal Delta, who gets my vote for older filly/mare.
When you break down the past performances, you can use the pieces to construct a case for Princess of Sylmar:
While Princess of Sylmar maintained a rigorous stakes schedule all year, Beholder was absent from the races from May 4 through October 31.
Except for one instance, Beholder’s racing was confined to California, including the Breeders’ Cup. The one sojourn out of the Golden State? A loss to Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks, one of the most important races on the calendar.
Two of Beholder’s wins were at a mile, including her comebacker on Sept. 1, the ungraded Torrey Pines at Del Mar as the 1-10 favorite against just four others. Essentially a public workout to get back into racing mode.
In retrospect, Princess of Sylmar had a much better chance to win the 3-year-old filly Eclipse by skipping the Breeders’ Cup, but Stanco doesn’t operate that way, for which he was widely and rightfully praised.
On Beholder’s day to shine, against one of the most star-studded fields of the BC weekend, Princess of Sylmar was never a factor.
This is my third year as an Eclipse voter, and although the Breeders’ Cup bills itself as “Championships,” my tendency has been to not automatically hand Breeders’ Cup winners my vote.
In this case, I’m willing to at least make it the deciding factor since everything else is equal enough.
I realize that in a subjective process like this, it’s easy to assume that a voter would be swayed by the hometown connection, which is strong here.
Besides being exceedingly gracious and accommodating, Stanco has brought a genuine exuberance not only for his filly and her accomplishments, but for the context within which she’s achieved them. She spent months stabled on Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs, and won the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama. She’s a hometown heroine.
Coincidentally, Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe wrote a great column this week explaining how we’re writers, not rooters, a piece directed at those who operate under the mistaken belief that sportswriters pull for the teams and athletes they cover. Or should pull for them.
That’s not to say that there aren’t fanboys in our profession.
We’re not robots, either, but if you’re going to do the job properly, you have to make every effort to separate personal feelings from it.
Stanco acknowledged the risk of traveling thousands of miles cross country to run on an unfamiliar track in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, and his parting line rings in defiance of the safe route: “Champions don’t stay home.”
Princess of Sylmar is still a champion in my eyes, in the grander sense of the word, a horse who carries the banner for the sport. She’s just not my Eclipse Award pick this year, and there’s no shame in that.
Ed Stanco said he wants to pop a couple of cold ones with me and my friend and colleague Tim Wilkin out by the jockey statues, two of which will be painted in Princess of Sylmar’s silks, on opening day.
Hell, I’ll buy.