A Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) for the ages on paper played out in real time in the most dramatic and epic way.
In a stretch run that will be remembered forever, it was the older, more experienced champion who edged the other by the slimmest of margins at Santa Anita Park in what was Beholder's final race.
"I've been in battles before, but never the length of the stretch," said winning jockey Gary Stevens. "I mean, it was a full almost five-sixteenths—definitely a quarter of a mile of just a street fight."
Fox Hill Farms' Songbird never relented in her first defeat. She was simply second-best Nov. 4. The official margin was a nose, but the win photo showed barely more than a whisker. The final time was 1:49.22 for 1 1/8 miles. Forever Unbridled finished third, 1 1/4 lengths back. Those facts will likely fade into history. Memories of the stretch battle will not.
“She ran incredible and I’m so proud of her," said Songbird's jockey, Mike Smith. "The real Beholder showed up today. That was probably the best race she has run in her life. My filly made her reach down as deep as she has. In losing, I feel like we won. We got beat a short nose. It’s easy when you are winning and you have to take it when you lose. Beholder is retiring, but my filly will get bigger and stronger next year as they all do when they get older. She’s a true champion.”
"She’s a champion and it took a champion to beat her," added Songbird's trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer
Both Songbird and Beholder broke from the gate like consummate professionals, the best of the eight-horse group, but the filly kept on from the inside, while the mare eventually settled into fourth, three wide in the first turn.
"My mare came off the bridle and just got into the rhythm that she gets into when I work her out in the morning," Stevens said of the Spendthrift Farm runner. "It was basically that kind of mode for her and myself until about the five-sixteenths pole."
Songbird did what she does best and cruised into her easy, effortless stride through a first quarter in :23.62 and a half in :47.16. Six furlongs went in 1:11.14 and Beholder made her move in the final turn, with I'm a Chatterbox between the two champions. A multiple grade I winner in her own right, I'm a Chatterbox was no match for the two champs Friday and faded at the quarter pole.
The only horse to make up substantial ground was Forever Unbridled, who trailed the field early but rallied for the show honors at 15-1. Stellar Wind, who defeated Beholder in their last two meetings, got left at the start and made mild gains, but came in a non-threatening fourth.
“She hopped at the start and the race was over for us. She ran well," said Victor Espinoza, who was aboard the 5-2 second choice.
As Songbird and Beholder dueled to the wire, the race was marred by the breakdown of Corona Del Inca. Jockey Pablo Falero pulled up the Argentine-bred mare in the final turn and she stopped at the top of the stretch. After sustaining condylar, sesamoid, and pastern fractures in her right front leg, Corona Del Inca was euthanized.
“Sadly the radiographs of Corona Del Inca revealed that she had a much more serious injury than it was apparent on the racetrack. ... The nature of these injuries was so severe that there was no way she could be kept comfortable nor the prognosis be good for treatment. For those reasons she was euthanized," said Dr. Scott Palmer, the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
I'm a Chatterbox came in fifth, followed by Curalina and Land Over Sea, to complete the order of finish. Beholder paid $8.60, $3.60, and $3 across the board. Songbird, who opened at 1-5 but went off as the even-money favorite, brought $3.20 and $2.80.
The Distaff was Beholder's 11th grade I victory, and her third Breeders' Cup win—she also took the Distaff in 2013 and the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) in 2012.
"I don't know what to say," said winning trainer Richard Mandella. "It's been something I wouldn't have been able to have imagined. I won four races on Breeders' Cup day in (1993) ... and I thought 'Boy, this will never happen again.' Then in 2003 we won four Breeders' Cup races and this mare just keeps running.
"I don't know what I did to deserve it."
Mandella gave indications following recent losses that Beholder may not have been entirely cranked up for them, but there was no doubt the 6-year-old Henny Hughes mare was at her best Friday.
"I thought the game needed suspense, so I got her beat a couple times, figuring it would make it like like I did something special at the end," the Hall of Fame conditioner said with tongue firmly in cheek. "You know, it's all in the planning. ... Anybody that saw her train would have the same confidence. People would come out of the stands and tell me what they saw on TV, so it wasn't hard to see. She was really at her best."
And she will retire at her best, according to Spendthrift owner B. Wayne Hughes. With a long list of accomplishments—the three championships, a breathtaking victory against males in the Pacific Classic (gr. I), the 18 overall wins, and the more than $6.1 million in earnings—the lasting impression of the classy bay mare will almost surely be the last battle, when a previously untouchable filly brought out her best.