Mike Smith took his helmet off and looked to the heavens, a traditional post-race routine for the Hall of Fame jockey. He then picked up the reins of the champion filly beneath him, who had her ears pricked as she so often does after her brilliant on-track exploits, and guided her a few strides in the direction of the winner's circle—the only post-race gathering place she had ever known.
It was in that moment that Smith stopped and turned his gaze towards the Santa Anita Park big screen, needing to see for himself just what it took to deny the filly some believed could not be stopped from embarking on what had been her routine for 11 prior starts.
"It's hard to be disappointed in that," Smith said as he made his way down the tunnel through throngs of well wishers. "It's just too bad someone had to lose."
It took a photo finish decided by barely an inch, and a career-best effort from a Hall of Fame mare who already had a laundry list of milestone triumphs, but Fox Hill Farms' previously unbeaten champion Songbird did suffer defeat for the first time, losing the narrowest of decisions to now three-time Breeders' Cup race winner Beholder in the $2 million Longines Distaff (gr. I) Nov. 4.
The greatest of sporting outcomes often rely upon protagonists of equal stature, and the 33rd running of the Distaff more than delivered on that front. Where Beholder was heading into her final start with three Eclipse Awards and victories in the 2012 Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) and 2013 Distaff, Songbird emerged as the heir to the throne, winning her 11 starts by a combined 60 1/2 lengths, including her 5 3/4 length win in last year's 14 Hands Winery Juvenile Fillies (gr. I).
What the 3-year-old daughter of Medaglia d'Oro had yet to face were older girls with the quality that Beholder, fellow champion Stellar Wind and multiple grade I winners I'm a Chatterbox, Curalina, and Forever Unbridled brought to the table. Smith was able to get her in her usual, cruise-control stride on the front end through fractions of :23.32 and :47.16, but when I'm a Chatterbox came to her hip and forced the issue heading into the final turn, it set the stage for Beholder to range up three wide and call upon all her future Hall of Fame class in a stretch duel for the ages.
"I didn't want to have to move that early," Smith said. "If that didn't happen, I probably wind up on the winning end. But that's horse racing—you have to beat them all. You can't just beat them whenever you want. It was just a gallant effort on both parts."
With the grandstand cheering for her upon her return from the gallop out, Songbird had the demeanor of a horse still untouched by defeat. The image that played out before Smith's eyes told him different, but the result was the only thing his champion mount lost.
"(Jockey) Gary (Stevens on Beholder) was celebrating at the wire and I was like 'I hope he's wrong,'" Smith said. "But my filly ran incredible. I'm so proud of her."