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Beldame: Lady was a Legendary Champ
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She was a handful, and liked to have her own way.
On May 2, 1904 at Morris Park, Beldame captured the eight furlong Ladies’ Stakes over Kentucky Oaks winner Audience. Reports detailed her bad behavior:
“Beldame ran away nearly a half a mile up the stretch when starting to the post, and then, after being pulled up, bolted again, and ran away a second time while going up the chute for the start of the mile race. A gap in the fence saved her the chance of injury, as she switched through the opening with the agility of a polo pony, and ran on through the trees and around the houses until a stable hand caught her.”
Apparently her shenanigans affected her not a whit. Returning to the track Beldame broke on top, led throughout, and won while being eased at the end.
A dark chestnut daughter of Octagon out of the Hermit mare Bella Donna, Beldame was foaled in 1901 at Nursery Stud outside Lexington, Kentucky, where August Belmont II bred 129 stakes winners. Chairman of The Jockey Club, president of Belmont Park, and chairman of the New York Racing Association, Belmont always considered Beldame the best horse to carry his colors.
As a three-year-old, Beldame delivered one of the greatest seasons by a filly in the history of the sport, posting a record of 12-1-1 from 14 starts and earnings of $54,100. She won the Alabama Stakes, Gazelle Stakes, Carter Handicap, Ladies’ Stakes, Saratoga Cup, First Special, Second Special, Dolphin Stakes, Mermaid Stakes and September Stakes.
When she arrived at the races in 1903, Beldame won the Great Filly Stakes and Vernal Stakes. She posted a record of 3-1-1 from seven starts during her juvenile season with earnings of $21,185.
Overseeing such major projects such as the construction of the New York city subway system and with the new Belmont Park on his mind, Belmont was unable to give his full attention to his racing stable. So late in the season Belmont leased the two-time stakes winning filly to his business associate Newton Bennington. Fred Burlew-- trainer of 75 stakes winners in 124 stakes races-- took over as her trainer.
In her three-year old season Beldame emerged as the "Alpha Mare." She lost just twice in 14 starts, both to older males. Most of her races were marked by wire-to-wire scores. Short or long, on fast or off tracks, or against males or females, she was virtually unbeatable at any distance.
Beldame also stood out with her finicky eating habits. She didn't like oats, rarely consuming three quarts a day. But she devoured ears of corn. Seven or eight were dropped into her manger every day and she stripped them clean to the cob.
Beldame kicked off the 1904 season in the Carter Handicap in April at Aqueduct and bolted to the lead to defeat sixteen rivals, most of them older males, under 103 pounds. Beldame then was assigned only ninety-eight pounds in the Metropolitan Handicap but broke poorly and was beaten four lengths by the highly accomplished four-year-old male Irish Lad. She finished third at 20-1.
After the Metropolitan, Beldame was favored in all but one of her remaining starts that year, including the Ladies Stakes-- first run in 1868 and won by such greats as Miss Woodford and Firenze in the 1880s-- which she won by three-quarters of a length. Up to that time Beldame had been ridden by six different jockeys and won under three of them. After the Ladies and for the remainder of her career, Frank O'Neill was her rider.
Both O'Neill and trainer Burlew had grown up in St. Louis. Burlew took notice of O'Neill during the 1902–03 winter meet in New Orleans and signed the teenager to a contract and took him to New York. In those days Burlew was a rarity, showing as much concern for his stable help as he did for his horses. His men slept on cots with sheets instead of on straw. Burlew ensured they ate well, and he paid their medical bills.
Following the Ladies Stakes, Beldame won four consecutive races before finishing second in the Test Stakes at Brighton Beach. Her ten-length victory in the Gazelle Stakes at Gravesend under the high weight of 124 pounds was special and the Daily Racing Form reported: "Beldame, almost pulling O'Neill from the saddle, won all the way and far outclassed her field and is one of the greatest fillies seen in this country."
However, in an eight furlong race at Sheepshead Bay on June 30 Beldame’s incredible year was very nearly derailed. Excused from parading by the stewards and keyed up while in the starter’s hands, Beldame was all but left at the barrier when the race began, and then she was run into by Revane with such force that Revane fell, and Beldame went away nearly a dozen lengths behind Hortensia.
The Daily Racing Form reported: “Beldame straightened out and she went on with such an electrical burst of speed that when the first quarter pole was reached she had made up the ground lost at the start and was galloping two lengths in the lead.” She won by 2-1/2 lengths. Only her great physical shape kept her from being seriously injured.
In the Alabama, Beldame (1-20) burst out to an eight-length lead “so far outclassing her opponents that she was with great difficulty restrained back to them and her race was only an exercise gallop.”
A week later in the 1¾-mile Saratoga Cup, Beldame was installed as the 9-5 favorite over four year-old Africander, who set a track record in that race the previous year. In addition, American Derby winner The Picket and Lawrence Realization winner Major Dangerfield were in the field. Beldame charged to the front and repelled a stiff challenge by Africander to triumph by two lengths over the sloppy track. The Daily Racing Form reported: "Beldame made the running throughout never fully extended...and she was pulling up at the finish. Nothing ever got near her and she simply played with the others."
Prominent turf writer Neil Newman wrote: "This was an exceptionally high-class field, but Beldame vanquished them in effortless fashion."
Five days later Beldame closed out her 1904 campaign with a victory in the Second Special over Broomstick. She was an easy choice for Horse of the Year and top three-year-old filly. Some turf writers thought Beldame was the best three-year-old filly in the world, better than England's remarkable Pretty Polly, who had won two filly classics, the One Thousand Guineas and the Oaks, plus the St. Leger Stakes over colts.
"It has been stated that Pretty Polly was lucky to have been foaled in 1901, as there were no good three-year-olds to oppose her this year," wrote the Thoroughbred Record. "While this may be true, it cannot be said of Beldame, as there were several real good three-year-olds as well as our best handicap horses that met defeat at her heels...Her victory in the Saratoga Cup we think emphatically demonstrated to the turf that she was by all odds the best horse of any age running in this country and it is the opinion of a great many that she is the superior of Pretty Polly..."
As a four-year-old in 1905, Beldame was once again racing in the colors of August Belmont II. When Newton Bennington's leased ended, Andrew Joyner, who was then training Belmont's horses, left Beldame in the care of Fred Burlew, not believing he could make an improvement in the brilliant filly. Racing ten times, Beldame only won two starts as a four-year-old, but she chose the right times to win.
In the Suburban Handicap Beldame defeated Broomstick by five lengths while carrying top weight. In winning the Standard Handicap she became only the third female racehorse — joining Miss Woodford and Firenze — to surpass $100,000 in career earnings.
Beldame made her final start on August 19, 1905, in the Saratoga Cup. Despite a game try, she couldn't do better than second, beaten a length and a half by Caughnawaga and Beldame retired sound in late August. She was named Champion Handicap Mare and retired with earnings of $102,570. Beldame entered the Hall of Fame in 1956.
As a broodmare, Beldame did not replicate the success she achieved on the track. Even so, her legacy continued. Aqueduct Racetrack instituted a five furlong Beldame Handicap for 2-year-old fillies, first run on November 14, 1905, and won by Flip Flap who the following year took the Gazelle and Advance Stakes. Winners in subsequent years include Veil (1906), Berry Maid (1907) and Imprudent (1909) after which the race apparently was retired.
Seventy-five years ago, the $10,000-added Beldame Handicap was a new addition to the stakes calendar at Aqueduct. It was won by 50-1 longshot Nellie Bly. In recent years, the now Grade-1 Beldame Stakes held annually at Belmont Park in early October has boasted such spectacular fillies as Shuvee (1970), Waya (1979), Lady’s Secret (1985, 1986), Personal Ensign (1987, 1988), Go For Wand (1990), Serena’s Song (1995) and Sightseek (2003, 2004), Princess of Sylmar (2012), Royal Delta (2011) and Horse of the Year Havre de Grace (2011).
A fitting tribute to one of the greatest race mares of all time.
Writer & Historian
Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He started writing historical racing articles for ESPN.com in 2010 and the Jockey Club’s America’s Best Racing in 2012. His work has been featured on premier racing sites including the Paulick Report and Equidaily.com. He is also a member of the Turf Writers of America.
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