April 16, 2021

Historical Cameo – Beldame

Originally appearing on Nov. 26, 2008

Beldame — 1904 Horse of the Year

In light of Zenyatta’s (Street Cry [Ire]) emergence as a candidate for Horse
of the Year honors, this is an opportune time to recall another filly who took the
racing world by storm a century ago: the great Beldame, universally hailed as
the top performer of the 1904 season. Unlike Zenyatta, Beldame took on, and trounced, the leading older males of her day — and she was just a
sophomore.

Beldame was a thoroughly Belmont family production. She was bred by August
Belmont II, the chairman of the Jockey Club who would go on to develop Belmont
Park. Beldame’s sire, Octagon, was himself a Belmont homebred. Hero of the
Withers S. and Brooklyn Derby (the forerunner of the Dwyer S.), Octagon was also
a two-time winner of the Toboggan H. in 1897-98 and third in such prestigious
events as the Belmont S. and Metropolitan H.

Beldame’s dam, *Bella-Donna, was a daughter of 1867 Epsom Derby winner and
noted sire Hermit. The English mare was imported by Belmont’s father, and when
his stock was sold upon his death, Belmont purchased her for $8,800.

Bella-Donna received a handsome compliment from David Dunham Withers, the
race’s namesake and a member of the Jockey Club, and his glowing praise was
preserved for posterity by the great Walter S. Vosburgh in Racing in America,
1866-1921
.

Withers declared that Bella-Donna was “the finest broodmare I ever saw. She has the power
of a cart mare with all the quality of a Thoroughbred.”

Beldame surely inherited that raw power, which once fused with the speed of
Octagon, resulted in a front-running dynamo with inexhaustible stamina. Foaled
at Belmont’s Nursery Stud near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1901, the chestnut filly
grew into a robust specimen, more like a colt in physique.

She was turned over to Belmont’s trainer, John J. Hyland, a future Hall of
Famer who had conditioned such standouts as Hastings, grandsire of the mighty
Man o’ War. In the early summer of her two-year-old season, Beldame made a
promising debut. Despite a problematic start that left her trailing, she rallied
for second in the Clover S. at Gravesend. Next time out in the Vernal S. at
Sheepshead Bay, Beldame duly broke her maiden in wire-to-wire fashion,
foreshadowing the tactics that were to become her hallmark.

Just when she had stamped herself as a juvenile to follow, her campaign went
awry at Saratoga. First, her copper coat was marred by an unsightly skin
condition, and her owner and trainer vehemently disagreed about both its cause
and its importance. While Hyland dismissed it as simple mosquito bites, Belmont
believed that she was suffering from hives or shingles. Beldame’s poor
performance in a Spa allowance, where she raced evenly in sixth, sparked an even
more serious confrontation between her connections. Hyland wanted to continue
aiming for the Futurity S., but Belmont demanded that she be withdrawn from her
engagement. The owner won the argument, Beldame skipped the Futurity, and Hyland decided to resign as Belmont’s trainer,
effective at the end of October 1903.

Beldame ran three more times during Hyland’s lame-duck period, with mixed
results. After winning the Great Filly S. at Sheepshead Bay by a head in a
rousing finish, she lost her subsequent starts at Morris Park when third in the
Matron S. and fourth in the Nursery H.

As the curtain came down on Hyland’s tenure, Belmont announced that he was
taking a hiatus from active racehorse ownership because he simply did not have
the time to enjoy it.

“I rarely have a chance to see my horses run, and I have so many corporate
interests which require my attention that a big racing stable becomes a positive
care to me instead of a pleasure,” Belmont said in a statement quoted in The
Thoroughbred Record
.

Indeed, he was absorbed in several far-flung projects — the construction of
the New York subway system, the building of Belmont Park, and the financial
backing of Judge Alton Parker’s presidential campaign against the incumbent
Teddy Roosevelt are often mentioned in this regard.

Belmont went on to add that “just as soon as I can enjoy the pleasure of
having my own horses trained again I certainly will do so.”

Although the initial statement revealed that Belmont planned to sell all of
his horses in training, and his yearlings, Beldame was not sold. Instead,
Belmont decided to lease her to Newton Bennington, a friend and fellow
businessman, for one year. Was Belmont reluctant to part with her because of her
exceptional potential as a broodmare? After all, he was retaining his breeding
stock.

Belmont’s reasoning for shutting down his racing stable is perfectly logical.
Curiously, however, when famed turf writer Neil Newman reminisced about
Beldame’s career in a 1947 Blood-Horse article, he had no explanation for
Bennington’s lease, and instead found it rather baffling.

To return to the historical record, Bennington wasted no time in sending Beldame to the barn of
Fred Burlew, another horseman who would eventually be enshrined in the Hall of
Fame. For her part, Beldame wasted no time in regaining the winning thread. In
her first start for her new trainer, Beldame promptly
rolled to a four-length victory over males at a sloppy Aqueduct on November 5.
Her front-running coup ended her juvenile season on a high note, and served as a
harbinger of the extraordinary success to come.

“Her action was faultless,” Newman said. “She always galloped with her head
held low. She had a mind of her own, and was inclined to be a bit headstrong.”

After spending the winter at Gravesend, Beldame made her three-year-old bow
versus older males in the Carter H. at Aqueduct, again leading throughout to win
by two handy lengths. Her next sortie against her elders
in the Metropolitan H. did not turn out as happily, and Newman fixed the blame
upon her new jockey, Alfred “Buddy” Brennan, brother of Burlew’s stable foreman,
Willie. In Newman’s view, he “could not do her justice.”

Whether it was exacerbated by pilot error or not, Beldame got off to a slow
start in the Metropolitan, then contested at Morris Park. She never threatened
the impressive winner, the four-year-old Irish Lad, but she showed fine resolve to get up for
third. So ended Brennan’s one and only race ride aboard Beldame. His connection
with her, however, continued apace. According to Newman, Brennan did a fine job
as Beldame’s exercise rider in the mornings.

In her subsequent start, she was to implicate jockey Gene Hildebrand in one
of the most outlandish pre-race antics in the annals of the turf. During the post parade
for the Ladies H., also at Morris Park, Beldame literally ran off — not just for a short distance,
but all the way back to the barn. While today’s modern sensitivities would have
demanded that she be scratched, the hardier climate of 1904 had no scruple about
bringing her back to the starting barrier and allowing her to run, and run she did.

Unfazed by her mad ante-post gallop, Beldame went straight to the lead in the
Ladies. Hildebrand understandably took a fierce hold of her lest she impose her will
upon him again.
Despite her rider’s stout restraint, she simply dusted her opponents as a 3-5
shot should. As the
contemporary Goodwin’s Turf Guide put it, the “favorite galloped in
front all the way” and “won in a comparative walk.” Since a
picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, see the photo in David Schmitz’s
fine essay on Beldame in Women of the Year (2004) — her head is
literally up in the air, and Hildebrand is nearly standing in the irons.

Years later, in a letter to The Thoroughbred Record, Bennington said
that Beldame was not habitually hot-tempered. Rather, she was calm and placid
until she approached a race, and it was only the anticipated competition that
brought out her nervous, high-strung energy.

To prevent her from getting too fired up going to post, the stewards
thereafter gave permission for Beldame’s groom to walk her to the start a few
minutes ahead of the field. There would be no repeats of her pre-Ladies hijinks
if she skipped the post parade altogether.

Beldame clearly had her own fixed ideas. Her idiosyncrasies extended to her
diet. Her finely developed palate did not care for oats, instead preferring ears
of corn. She also formed a steadfast friendship with Burlew’s roan pony, and the
two went everywhere together.

Given her forceful personality, Beldame needed a rider who was simpatico with
her, and who could manage her strong-willed temperament. Thankfully she found
one in future Hall of Famer Frank O’Neill. Having already ridden Beldame to victories in her aforementioned juvenile finale
and in the Carter, O’Neill reunited with her after the Ladies, and he was to be
her exclusive jockey for the duration of her career.

Following an
effortless allowance prep, Beldame routed fellow three-year-old fillies in the
Gazelle S. at Gravesend, where she widened her margin throughout. Goodwin’s
described her 10-length demolition job as an “exercise canter all the
way.” She likewise turned the Mermaid S. into a triumphal march at Sheepshead
Bay. Shouldering 126 pounds, 15 more than her nearest pursuers, she ultimately
cruised home by seven or eight lengths, depending on the source. Beldame extended her winning
streak to five races, in a little more than one month’s time, when she overcame
a rocky start in an allowance. Slowly away after slamming a rival at the break,
she nevertheless dashed to the front by the first call, rapidly opened up by six
lengths, and held sway by two on the wire.

One week later, her skein was snapped in the Test H., at that time featuring
older males at Brighton. Daily Racing Form found fault with O’Neill’s
ride. In a similar vein, Goodwin’s noted that she was trapped in a
pocket, and Newman recapped that she was “blocked on the rail” for six furlongs
of the one-mile event. Once O’Neill broke free, Beldame delivered a stern
challenge to the pacesetting Hermis, the two-time reigning Horse of the Year who
was lugging 133 pounds to her 115. Hermis repelled her charge, but the
five-year-old had to equal the track record to fend her off by one length.
Beldame was herself five lengths clear of third.

Beldame would not suffer the indignity of defeat again that season, and her
exploits were to become the stuff of legend. None of that made it any easier on
those who scribbled the comment lines for Daily Racing Form and
Goodwin’s
, faced with the monotony of her pummeling her rivals into
submission from the start. “Front-running…won easily…pulling up…won
galloping” were routine expressions.

She commenced a new six-race winning streak in the Alabama S., her
last try against her own three-year-old filly division. Beldame turned the
Saratoga showpiece into a procession, at odds of 1-20, and from that point on,
raced only against males. Moreover, as a measure of her lofty stature, she was
dispatched as the betting favorite in each remaining contest of 1904.

Although she had yet to run past nine furlongs, even in something as
experimental as a timed work, she was entered in the 1 3/4-mile Saratoga Cup.
Bennington had not originally intended to nominate her for, let alone pitch her
into, the marathon. Yet, in a gentlemanly spirit that conveys the charm of the
Gilded Age, Bennington said that he acted upon a suggestion to do so. He
accordingly nominated her as a “compliment to the association,” still without
any set purpose of running her.

Noting that Beldame did not need much of a training regimen anyway, and
perhaps appreciating the 18-pound weight concession that she would receive from her
older male opponents, Bennington let her take part in the Saratoga Cup after
all. One surmises that Burlew likely played a significant role in this ambitious
placement as well, and if so, Beldame did not let him down.

Sent off as the 9-5 choice under her lightweight 108-pound impost, she
sprinted to a commanding lead on the sloppy track and was never troubled
thereafter. The only three-year-old in the field, she crushed the defending
champion Africander, who had also taken the previous year’s Belmont and Suburban
H. In third came The Picket, a past winner of the American Derby and successful
in the 1904 Brooklyn H. Trudging home fourth was the accomplished Caughnawaga,
whom Vosburgh described as a “gigantic chestnut colt of great power and bulk.”
In fifth came Major Daingerfield, whose resume included a victory in the
then-prestigious Lawrence Realization.

Back among sophomore colts 10 days later in the Dolphin S. at Sheepshead Bay,
Beldame toted 126 pounds while giving her foes weight and a comprehensive
beating. Another eight days later at the same venue, she dismissed her male
contemporaries in the September S. Among her victims was Ort Wells, later
regarded as the champion three-year-old male of the season.

In the wake of those bloodless coups, Burlew believed that Beldame “could beat any horse in the United States, scale weights at any
distance,” as Newman recalled. She would in due order prove him right.

Beldame crowned her campaign with a pair of emphatic scores in September at
Gravesend, in what may be loosely called the Breeders’ Cup of her time. In the 1
1/4-mile First Special, she confirmed her superiority over Caughnawaga by 1 1/2
lengths in a facile display. True, she received a sex and age allowance of 12
pounds, but that’s nearly identical to the weight advantage that Zarkava claimed
in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1), and few would argue that the weight
sank her rivals.

Newman believed that the First Special was her most glorious achievement. She
was meeting “an exceptionally high-class field, but Beldame vanquished them in
effortless fashion.”

A review in The Thoroughbred Record heaped all manner of praise upon
her effort, in the most florid style of the time:

“Build a separate niche in the Temple of Fame for Beldame! Set the idol in
full view of the race-going public of 1904. And then let the heroine-worshipers
bow down and do homage to the grand daughter of Octagon — Bella-Donna….She
accomplished her task, and with the supreme, even ridiculous, ease that has
characterized all her previous victories….She had the speed to eclipse the
time made, but there was not that in the field behind her which could compel her
to do it. It was Beldame and nothing but Beldame from start to finish.”

If anything, her performance in the 1 1/2-mile Second Special five days later was even more
visually impressive. This time, saddled with a five-pound penalty for her First
Special score and giving two pounds to Travers S. winner Broomstick, Beldame won
as she pleased by five lengths. Broomstick settled for runner-up honors ahead of
classy older male McChesney and Africander. Daily Racing Form commented that Beldame won
“easing up,” while Goodwin’s remarked that she “romped in front the
entire distance” and “won, pulled to a walk.”

In the view of the New York Times correspondent, Beldame “went to the
post looking as fresh and fiery as when she made her first appearance of the
season away back in April, and so much in the humor of running that she tugged
against the hold of the groom.”

Her smashing score “dissipated any doubts that may have lingered in the minds
of racegoers as to her right to the title of turf champion of 1904,” according
to the same observer. “A more convincing victory could not be possible, for
never once in the contest was the great three-year-old filly extended, and with
her field beaten and struggling a half-mile from the winning post, Beldame
romped out the distance and finished fresh and strong, eager even then to go on
further.”

“She could prove nothing more,” as Kent Hollingsworth summed up in The
Great Ones
. “She had beaten the fillies pointless, had handled the colts
with ease, and had given weight and whipped the best older horses ‘apparently
without effort’ at distances from six furlongs to 1 3/4 miles.”

In a season spanning from April through September, Beldame had raced 14
times, won 12, and placed behind older males in the other two. Such renown had
she won that The Thoroughbred Record actually canvassed its readership to
answer the question, “What Stallion in the World Is Best Suited to Mate with
Beldame.” An international committee of experts sided in favor of *Meddler, but
Beldame was not about to bid adieu to her racing career just yet. A
four-year-old campaign beckoned.

With the expiration of Bennington’s lease, Belmont resumed his active
ownership of Beldame, and his racing stable. He had appointed as his trainer the
great Andrew Jackson Joyner, another future Hall of Famer whose earlier
luminaries included Africander, a victim of Beldame in the Saratoga Cup and
Second Special. Seeing
the magnificent job that Burlew had done with Beldame, however, Joyner insisted
that she stay with her present trainer in 1905.

Unfortunately, the four-year-old Beldame was no longer the irresistible
machine of 1904. Making her debut in the Metropolitan H. at the grand opening of
Belmont Park, she tracked in third early but ultimately faded to ninth, well
adrift of the dead-heating pair of the great Sysonby and Race King. She
turned in a more encouraging performance next time out in a Gravesend handicap,
finishing second under a 126-pound assignment to Garnish, who was carrying a
mere 107. The beaten field included Kentucky Derby winners Alan-a-Dale and
Elwood. Three days later at Gravesend, she prevailed in the Standard S., despite
conceding 10 pounds to the runner-up.

Beldame did conjure up one last, dazzling hurrah at four, and she chose the
Suburban, the nation’s premier handicap, as her venue. Slight favoritism went to
Delhi, the previous year’s Belmont winner and recent hero of the Brooklyn, at
3-1. Beldame attracted her share of support as the 7-2 second choice.

Although Delhi was setting a frenetic pace by the standards of the day,
Beldame was on cruise control in second. The New York Times offers a
compelling color analysis of the far turn and the stretch drive at old
Sheepshead Bay:

“To that point Delhi was striding along easily in front, but as the turn was
begun Beldame began to move up on him gradually, and going away from the others
behind her, cut down Delhi’s lead of three lengths to a length and a half in the
middle of the big bend, where with three furlongs of the race still to be run,
O’Neill, who rode Beldame, sent the filly on with a flash of speed, and in the
next half-furlong took her up to the side of Delhi, which already was doing his
best in a futile effort to retain his place in front. Just where the bend
straightens out into the quarter stretch Beldame showed head and head with
Delhi, and (Delhi’s jockey) Burns drew his whip and made a last call on the
favorite, while the shout of ‘Delhi is beaten’ went up in chorus from the
watching thousands. For just a fraction of a second Delhi seemed to respond to
the whip and hung with the filly, and then Beldame drew to the front.”

She had well and truly cracked Delhi, but victory was not yet assured. For at
the eighth-pole came Proper, who was closing beneath his 109-pound impost.
Beldame, shouldering more than scale weight with 123 pounds, was in theory
conceding much more than 14 pounds — according to scale, she was really
spotting him 21 pounds. Yet she rose to the challenge, as the New York Times
recounts:

“There it was that O’Neill, looking back, saw Proper coming on in resolute
style, and drew his whip on Beldame. The mare rallied and finished with gallant
courage, won, ridden out, by a length and a half from Proper.”

Beldame was given a rapturous welcome as she returned to the grandstand. The
band, just as it had done throughout her Horse of the Year campaign, struck up
the tune “There’s Only One Girl” in tribute to the heroine.

Nine days after her Suburban, Beldame tried to give reigning Kentucky Derby
winner Agile 10 actual pounds in the Advance S. and narrowly failed, the pair
finishing 50 lengths clear of third. She was then transferred from Burlew to
Joyner. Her five remaining races were anticlimactic.

Whether she simply had enough of racing at this point in her career, or she
missed the Burlew barn, Beldame’s form deteriorated. Daily Racing Form
commented that she “sulked” when beaten by her old rival Ort Wells in the
Brighton Mile. Beldame was twice third, to the high-class filly Artful in the
Brighton H., and to Caughnawaga in the Saratoga H. Only fifth in the Delaware
H., she succumbed to Caughnawaga again when attempting to defend her Saratoga
Cup title.

Beldame was promptly retired to the relief of her admirers. She compiled a
career mark of 31-17-6-4 with more than $102,000 in earnings, the precise figure
varying according to Daily Racing Form or Goodwin’s calculations. Beldame was
only the third distaffer in American racing history to surpass the $100,000
threshold, following Miss Woodford and Firenze.

“She seemed to have lost her old-time vim and dash (at four),” observed
The Telegraph
, as reprinted in The Thoroughbred Record, “and the
public has never fancied seeing her strike her colors to horses that have always
been looked upon as her inferiors in the point of class.”

The great turf scribe John Hervey, writing under the pen name of Salvator in
The Thoroughbred Record, blamed her downfall on an overzealous schedule
at both three and four. In an August 30, 1905, column entitled “Raced Off Their
Legs,” Salvator opined:

“Again, she has been set tasks this season that it would have been
practically impossible for any mare to achieve….It speaks volumes for the mare’s
physical superiority that she was not sent to the hospital long ago….But she was
bound to crack somewhere — and it was her temper and speed that suffered….It is
extremely difficult for an American owner to be discreet in the manipulation of
a great racehorse.”

More than two decades later, in 1928, after Beldame, Belmont and Burlew had
all died, Salvator put forth a more sinister explanation for Beldame’s downward
spiral. He repeated a bit of racetrack gossip that Beldame had been “doped” to
ensure a victory in the Suburban, and she subsequently went into a tailspin as a
side effect.

Bennington was still very much alive in 1928, however, and leapt to the
defense of Beldame’s reputation in a forcefully written letter to the editor of
The Thoroughbred Record: “There was never a greater injustice than this
statement carries,” he wrote, adding that Burlew was “violently opposed to
stimulants of every kind.”

Bennington concluded that “It is inaccurate statements of this kind from
‘supposed authorities’ that lead the public to believe that racing is really a
sport of vandals and crooks.”

Turf authority Abram S. Hewitt also mentioned the unsubstantiated rumor in
his Great Breeders and Their Methods (1982), only because the doping of
racemares was thought to ruin their broodmare careers, and Beldame failed to
produce any noteworthy offspring herself. Hewitt was careful to note that it may have happened to Beldame, unbeknownst to Belmont.

On the other hand, Newman, who described Beldame as a “very masculine type,”
noted that she was “never in season while in training.” While that could be the
natural result of a physically stressful occupation, perhaps she was just not
biologically wired to be a top-notch matron. Her foaling pattern may provide
some corroborating evidence of this. She began her mothering career by producing
three foals in three years — the filly Ballot Bred, so named because she was
the product of the advised mating with Meddler, and a pair of colts by *Rock
Sand named Belfrey II and Belamour. Then she had only three foals in the next 11
years. In 1915, she ended a six-year drought by producing the filly Belvale, by
Watervale, but
did not have another foal for four more years. Her final two came along in 1919
and 1920.

If doping affected the ability to conceive and bring a foal to term, Beldame
certainly was unaware of that side effect for the four years immediately
following the Suburban. If doping were thought to harm the quality of the future
offspring, that’s an open question, for none of her six foals amounted to much.
Although the truth cannot be established at this remote distance in time, it
must be emphasized that Beldame is hardly alone among great racemares who have
not been successful broodmares.

Despite the disappointments of her own progeny, however, Beldame still
appears as a tail-female ancestress in a very notable modern pedigree. Through
the marvelously quirky ways of genetics, her great grand-daughter Gala Belle
(*Sir Gallahad III) was a successful producer who kept Beldame’s line going.
Today, her highest-profile descendant is multiple Grade 1 hero Lion Heart. A
speedy chestnut like his ninth dam Beldame, Lion Heart is now a hot freshman
sire.

Finally, for whatever it’s worth, Beldame’s behavior prior to the Suburban
may provide a clue of sorts. The New York Times noted that she “stood at
the post quietly and without any display of the temper or high spirit which she
usually shows.”

If a performance-enhancing drug, of the type available in 1905, were coursing
through her system, would she be so uncharacteristically quiet, or would she be
even more on edge? Could her lack of spirit instead suggest that she was getting
wiser to the game? That in and of itself might be a precursor to mental fatigue,
a concomitant lack of interest, and ultimately a loss of form, especially given
her exceptionally busy campaign.

Remember that Salvator himself believed that she was a victim of overracing,
long before he unleashed the bombshell doping charge. Indeed, since she came
right back after the Suburban to run a heroic second to Agile, the so-called
side effect apparently did not manifest itself right away.

There remains the question of why she was switched to Joyner two races after
the Suburban, and in my research for this article, I did not dig up an answer.
Even more exhaustive mining of the primary sources may yield something in the
future.

In any event, it’s tragic that rumor has tainted, however slightly, and
arguably unjustifiably, the great name of Beldame. Whatever the truth of the
Suburban, even Salvator did not claim that she was ever medically enhanced
during her stellar three-year-old campaign. Upon that glittering season her
greatness rests, and she deserves to be honored for it.

And so Beldame is indeed honored. She was inducted into the National Museum
of Racing Hall of Fame in 1956, but her memory burns brightly every fall, with
the running of the Beldame S. (G1) for distaffers at Belmont Park. In one
respect, the venue is ironic considering that she threw in the worst race of her
career at Belmont. But in another sense, it is entirely apropos. The Belmont
homebred did not sport his silks during her exalted 1904 season, but her name is
forever linked with the racetrack that bears his family’s name.

Legendary turf writer Joe Hirsch penned a suitable epitaph for Beldame:

“August Belmont II bred two of the greatest horses ever to race in America.
One was Man o’ War. The other was Beldame.”