You couldn’t help but think of a year ago. Two great mares battling down the stretch, Stellar Wind and Beholder, with Stellar Wind just getting in front at the wire. Twice.
Beholder has since retired after a similar heart-in-your-throat stretch run in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, beating the previously undefeated Songbird. In fact, her retirement was noted with the renaming of Santa Anita’s Vanity Mile as the Beholder Mile.
So it couldn’t be any more fitting that Stellar Wind duplicated those feats with a similar stirring stretch run to beat the game Vale Dori and win the inaugural $400,000 Beholder Mile on Saturday. The winning margin was a neck.
Vale Dori, who had won her last six races, broke on the lead with Finest City, ridden by Mike Smith, on the outside and Stellar Wind a few steps back in the three-horse race.
Jockey Victor Espinoza then gunned Stellar Wind into a stalking position on the outside of Vale Dori and Rafael Bejarano entering the first turn.
“[Victor] said Mike outbroke him a little bit and then when he thought they were going a little slow he had to rush him up in there to not let Vale Dori get an easy lead,” said John Sadler, trainer of Stellar Wind.
The two remained in that position until the top of the stretch, where the duel got intense. Stellar Wind pulled even before Vale Dori pushed ahead on the inside. Stellar Wind fought back, drew even and took the lead with about 50 yards to go.
Espinoza used the whip nine times down the stretch, usually a sign that a horse is running out of gas. But not in this case.
“I had confidence in her because she’s always like that,” Espinoza said. “She doesn’t do much on her own. She’s an incredible mare,but I had to do my job. She was waiting for me to encourage her to go forward. She’s always been like that. … No matter where she runs, she always wins by a head or neck. That’s enough for her.”
It was Stellar Wind’s ninth win in 14 races.
“She’s a battler,” said Kosta Hronis, who along with brother Pete owns Stellar Wind. “Vale Dori came back again a second time, it really reminded me of the Beholder race when Beholder came back and Stellar fought back a second time. That’s really what we expect out of her. She’s really gutty.”
Stellar Wind was the favorite, paying $3 to win. There was no place and show wagering.
Even with a second-place finish, Vale Dori moved into the top ranks of female racing. While she had previously beaten Eclipse Award-winning Finest City, she redeemed herself from the Zenyatta Stakes last year when Stellar Wind, who also has an Eclipse Award, and Beholder beat her by about 12 lengths.
“I’m very happy with her race,” Bejarano said of the Bob Baffert-trained mare. “We got beat by a great horse. My horse finished strong. When Victor moved like he did [going into the first turn] it put the pressure on us.”
Bejarano shook the reins at Vale Dori several times to keep her going but didn’t use any other encouragement. The horse is described as “flighty” by Baffert, even to the point where she doesn’t like anyone to touch her head.
It is unclear when the two 5-year-olds will meet again, but Stellar Wind probably is pointed to the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar in July.
“She’s so tough and she doesn’t lose photos,” Sadler said of his mare. “It was closer than I thought. But the other horse is really a top mare now. Vale Dori had won six in a row and dominated around here all winter. So we’re thrilled.”
Stellar Wind probably is more suited for a little more distance, having beaten Beholder last year twice at 1 1/16 miles in the Hirsch at Del Mar and the Zenyatta at Santa Anita.
In the co-feature, the Brazilian-bred Bal A Bali rallied down the stretch to win the $400,000 Shoemaker Mile on the turf.
Under the usual careful ride of Mike Smith, Bal A Bali outmuscled Farhaan by a nose. Heart To Heart lead most of the race, even taking a 2 ½ length lead into the stretch. But turf racing is usually a game won by closers.
Bal A Bali paid $8.20 to win, $4.20 to place and $3 to show in the seven-horse field.
In 2014, Bal A Bali came down with a life-threatening case of laminitis, a disease where the bone of the leg can protrude into the hoof.
“It’s very gratifying, but you expect him to win every time because he’s such a good horse,” said winning trainer Richard Mandella. “With the setbacks he’s had … the industry needs to give the credit due that he overcame it and came back to be such a good horse.”