Sometimes a sporting event does live up to the hype.
On Friday, the classic stretch duel in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff lasted more than a quarter of a mile and will long be remembered as one for the ages.
There was 6-year-old Beholder, in her last race, and 3-year-old Songbird, just getting started and undefeated in 11 tries, trading the lead side-by-side until the final stride when Beholder barely pushed in front.
The official margin was a nose but it seemed even closer. Call it a nostril.
Neither horse would give in. Some thought Beholder, who had lost three in a row and was defeated by Stellar Wind twice this year, was a shade past her prime.
Songbird had never even been seriously tested until Friday, but she proved she was every bit as worthy to run in the most important race for fillies and mares. She was rewarded by the Friday record crowd of 45,763 at Santa Anita with a huge ovation when she returned to be unsaddled.
Beholder, of course, got an even bigger ovation.
“I’ve been in battles before, but never the length of the stretch,” winning jockey Gary Stevens said. “For 6 years old, I would just say the way she’s been managed throughout her career [by trainer Richard Mandella] allowed her to do what she did on her final day of racing. She laid it all on the line.”
Beholder finishes her career with 18 wins in 25 starts and most likely her fourth Eclipse Award.
Horse racing has a way of tempering any high moment with a low one. Corona Del Inca, an Argentine import running her first race in the United States, broke down near the top of the stretch in the eight-horse race. The 5-year-old suffered a fracture of her right foreleg and after examination at the equine hospital was killed.
Even in defeat, Songbird jockey Mike Smith, had enough compliments to fill a large feed bucket.
“She [Songbird] ran incredible and I’m so proud of her,” Smith said. “The real Beholder showed up today. That is 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 by a short nose.”
The race also had a third star in the making in 4-year-old Stellar Wind. But she ran a disappointing fourth.
“She hopped at the start and the race was over for us,” jockey Victor Espinoza said. “But she ran well.”
Beholder paid $8.60 to win, $3.60 to place and $3.00 to win. Songbird returned $3.20 and $2.80 while Forever Unbridled paid $4.40.
Before the race, Stevens was tight-lipped over how he wanted to run the race, saying he had all the scenarios covered in his mind.
“[This race] was Plan 1,” Stevens said. “With the trip I got, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I could hear someone coming up on the outside. … I assumed it was Stellar Wind. I said, ‘Here we go again.’ And all of a sudden the noise on the outside left me and it was just two. It was just myself and Songbird.
“It ended the way all of the scenarios had gone. It wasn’t supposed to be that close, but I’ll take it, for sure.”
The race was actually pretty simply run. Songbird, as expected, broke on top and carried the lead to the top of the stretch. I’m A Chatterbox stayed with her throughout the backstretch then started to fade in the far turn just as Beholder started to rally.
“The fractions were a little slower [23.32, 47.16] than I thought they’d be early, but she still ran her race,” said Jerry Hollendorfer, Songbird’s trainer. “She dug in through the stretch when the other mare came alongside of us.”
Beholder was approaching legend status even before Friday. She has won Eclipse Awards as 2-year-old filly (2012), 3-year-old filly (2013) and older dirt female (2015). She won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2012 and the Pacific Classic in 2015 with a move around the far turn that racing aficionados still talk about. She was supposed to run against American Pharoah in last year’s Classic but got sick just before the race.
Her total earnings exceed $6.1 million.
“I don’t think I’ll ever have another horse like this,” said owner B. Wayne Hughes. “I’m very grateful to be part of it. I really compliment Richard. I don’t know of any trainer that could have taken a horse for six years and done what he’s done.”
Hughes said he was lying when he said he didn’t know which stallion would be first bred to Beholder. But she’ll start that career at the beginning of the year.
While Beholder will have to replace racing instincts with maternal ones, Songbird most assuredly will replace Beholder as the best female horse in North America, if not the world.
Songbird might own the future, but Beholder cemented her role as one of the greatest female horses ever.