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Beholder, winning the Zenyatta Stakes with jockey Gary Stevens on Sept. 26, will not be able to race in the Breeders' Cup Classic against Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Beholder, winning the Zenyatta Stakes with jockey Gary Stevens on Sept. 26, will not be able to race in the Breeders' Cup Classic against Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. (Benoit Photo)

Horse racing might not be No. 1 in sports fan interest, but it still has the top spot locked up in one category: letting the air out of the balloon.

Thursday, with only two days to go before a Breeders' Cup Classic race here that had stirred up more fan interest than usual, the pinprick came again. Beholder is out of the Classic.

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It was eerily reminiscent of Doug O'Neill's scratch of I'll Have Another at the Belmont three years ago, the day before his Triple Crown try.

Trainer Richard Mandella drew the duty this time, announcing that his star mare, the 5-year-old Beholder, would not race here at Keeneland on Saturday.

That meant the showdown was off.

Beholder, the perceived second-best horse in a classic Breeders' Cup Classic field, would not be taking on Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. The mare who had imparted goose bumps of anticipation for this race with her stunning demolition of the field in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, would not be going to the gate here.

A glum Mandella, a Hall of Fame trainer, made an unscheduled appearance at a late morning news conference and said that Beholder had been found to have some bleeding in her throat after a morning gallop.

He said she had been restless on her trip Oct. 19 from his Santa Anita barn to here and that had produced a low-grade fever to which he was paying close attention.

"But she looked like she had totally recovered from that," Mandella said, "and by this morning, I told the vet that we were probably wasting our time, scoping her again. But you err on the side of caution, and it's a good thing we did."

The vet's routine medical procedure showed the bleeding, and Mandella sadly knew what his decision had to be.

"We feel it is too great a risk to start her in the Classic," Mandella said. "If I put her under the pressure of a race situation, it could have done some real damage."

Ever since Beholder glided, seemingly effortlessly, past the Pacific Classic field on Aug. 22 to win by 8 1/4 lengths, horse racing had crossed its fingers for a Breeders' Cup Classic showdown.

It wasn't just that Beholder was female, and that Zenyatta has been the only female to beat the boys in the richest horse race outside of Dubai. That helped stir some general fan interest.

More important, Beholder is the real deal. She had won two previous Breeders' Cup races — the Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Distaff in 2013. She has a lifetime record of 15 victories in 20 starts and winnings of $4,436,600. This year, she won all five of her races.

A fast female, going against the incumbent and universally celebrated Triple Crown champion — the first to run in a Breeders' Cup race — was a match made in race-fan heaven.

And then, it disappeared.

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"That's why we are always on pins and needles," said Bob Baffert, trainer of American Pharoah.

Baffert could have been happy about the likely boost in chances his horse gets from Beholder's scratch, but he wasn't.

"It's a shame," Baffert said. "That's why I have learned never to talk smack before a race. It can come back and bite you. I've still got 48 hours left [to hope American Pharoah stays healthy] myself."

With the field reduced to nine mostly familiar entries, the general feeling here was that the upcoming Classic now felt mostly like a repeat of this year's Belmont.

Mandella looked devastated but said he was mostly resigned. Asked the depth of his disappointment on a scale of one to 10, he said it was "about a five."

"If she got hurt, that would be a 10," he said, adding that it is likely that Beholder, under the blessing of owner B. Wayne Hughes, will race again next year.

"Mel Stute [a fellow California trainer] had a great answer to this when his favored Snow Chief didn't win the Kentucky Derby" in 1986], Mandella said. "Mel said, 'It's horse racing. I'm good at disappointment.' "

Mandella is especially good at Breeders' Cup disappointment away from Santa Anita. He has won eight Breeders' Cup races, a remarkable achievement. More remarkable, or perhaps bizarre, is that all of them have come at Santa Anita.

In 1993, he won twice. Then in 2003, again in Arcadia, he set a record with four victories, including with Pleasantly Perfect in the Classic.

For that race, for luck, Mandella carried a future-book win ticket in his shoe on Pleasantly Perfect and nearly forgot about it until he was leaving the park. When he fished it out and cashed it, it was worth $820. That made his personal winnings for the day $510,820.

His seventh and eighth Breeders' Cup victories were in 2012 and 2013, both with Beholder, who could have set a Breeders' Cup record of her own by winning this Classic and taking a title in three different races.

Mandella was able to bolster his spirits somewhat by knowing he did the right thing.

"We are the horse's guardians," he said.

He also said he was grateful that Beholder was owned by a man who put his values on the horse's health, rather than on her revenue generating.

"All the credit to Mr. Hughes," Mandella said. "He said from the start that we needed to watch her closely here, every day."

Mandella ended his news conference on a wistful note, saying, "This is still a great race. I just wish I was part of it."

So do several million racing fans.

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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