Medical research has proven that when horses pay $49.60 to win a stakes race, endorphins are directly released into the facial muscles of those directly connected to the result. After James Tafel's 4-year-old filly Softly won the $200,000 Churchill Downs Distaff (gr. II) on Nov. 9 the appreciative crowd greeted her return with a standing ovation. For the connections, the tension meltdown ending wasn't one of those ho-hum, here we go again with another trophy moments. In the winner's circle, Carl Nafzger was beaming. "We have always been high on this filly," the trainer said, rushing back under the tunnel to watch the replay. "But today it was like she was never going to get out of there down the lane. When she finally got in a position to win the race, there just wasn't anywhere for her to go." Few stakes races in November are as deep as this year's Distaff. Claiborne Farm's veteran Trip was the warhorse in the field with 11 victories. A win in the Distaff would make her a millionaire. Victory Ride, never off the board at the mile distance, had developed the nice habit of winning major races. Habibti brought her credentials to Churchill Downs a month early and had been prepared with the usual Baffert bullets. The race was delicious to decipher. Eight of the nine fillies and mares arrived in the paddock looking thin and racy. Softly turned a few heads. She stepped into the walking ring like a spring-coiled tiger, her wide haunches swaying with each placement of the hoof. As far as size and build, she looked like big mama in against the kittens. Have at it, girls. Away from the gate clean and quick, four horses came down the chute in a single wave. Noses and heads, flank to flank--Victory Ride, Trip, Flaxen Flyer, and Adoration triggered the first quarter in :22.42. Flaxen Flyer flashed her usual speed and broke loose as the lone front-runner, passing the half-mile marker in an accelerated :44.56. Bare Necessities fell in behind the wall of horses and eased down to the rail around the far turn. She was full of run. Farther back and next to last, Softly began to come on under Jon Court. Collared by favorite Victory Ride at the head of the long lane, Flaxen Flyer hit the wall and began to flatten out. The 3-year-old Bare Necessities, advancing from the inside, found sufficient real estate to mount an attack. Adoration, under pressure, came into the picture from the outside. The serious running was under way and now there was a new wall of horses to contend with. Softly caught up to the gang of four but could not get through or around. It looked impossible. She peeked in. She angled out. As far as Softly was concerned "lack of room" was a cruel understatement. Each move turned into a dead-end street. With a furlong to run, Bare Necessities had taken the lead and it looked like you could circle her name on the program. Not to panic. Waiting, watching for the hole to open, Court reached up and dropped his final set of goggles. What he saw wasn't warm and fuzzy. But enough is enough. Softly smelled blood. Still relaxed but aggressive, she dug in just as a hole opened. Feeling a left-handed whip, Softly surged up to bite those who had set the rapid pace. Closing ground with every bound, she caught Bare Necessities in the last stride to win by a neck. Victory Ride, who ran hard the whole way, finished third. Final time for the one-turn mile was 1:35.07.
What appeared to be a last gasp, skin of your teeth thriller, Court described as the natural unfolding of a plan. "I just followed up on my instructions," Court said. "Mr. Nafzger told me not to get in too much of a hurry. Let the speed go out there and duel with each other and make one late run. Down the stretch she really got after it. It was tight for a while but we got the money." Tafel, who owns the daughter of Binalong, was reached by telephone moments after the race. "Unbelievable. I'm almost speechless," Tafel said. "It looked hopeless. I could see that she wanted to run but that other horse was gone." According to Nafzger, Softly will stay home and run next in the Falls City (gr. II) on Nov. 30. "We're here now," he said. "Don't stop when you're hot." (Chart, Equibase)