Epic Battle of Wills Decides Longines Distaff on Breeders' Cup Friday

Beholder and Songbird

By Bob Ehalt, special to the Breeders' Cup

ARCADIA, Calif. — Far too often, widely anticipated sporting events fail to deliver the expected amount of drama.

Never can that be said about the 2016 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

What was billed as a classic showdown turned out to be an epic battle of wills as the 6-year-old, 3-time champion mare Beholder outdueled the previously unbeaten 3-year-old superstar Songbird in a spellbinding stretch duel to capture the $2 million Distaff by a slim nose.

Side-by-side from the quarter pole until the wire, it was a final lunge by Beholder that handed Songbird her first defeat after 11 straight wins and turned Beholder into a 3-time Breeders’ Cup winner in the final start of a spectacular career in which she won 18 of 26 starts.

“I’ve been in battles, but never one that lasted for the length of the stretch. It was a quarter of a mile street fight,” winning jockey Gary Stevens said. “Three times I had Songbird put away and each time she came back. This race was worth the price of admission. It was horse racing at its best.”

Spendthrift Farm’s Beholder went off as the 3-1 third choice in a field of eight and paid $8.60 to win.

“I think she had cemented her place in history prior to 2016, and she just added a star to it today,” Stevens said. “I’ve never seen a racehorse stay at this peak form, especially a filly, and one that can be temperamental a little bit. But she thrives on racing … thanks to (owner B. Wayne Hughes) for keeping her around and being a sportsman.”

For trainer Richard Mandella, the final chapter in Beholder’s glorious career might have been her most magnificent. Friday’s thriller marked the first time Beholder had ever won by a margin less than three-quarters of a length.

“I don’t know what I did to deserve her,” Mandella said about a mare who earned $6,156,600 in five seasons of racing. “I don’t think you can find one any better. I mean, she got beat a few times, but you can just lay that one me … I thought the game needed some suspense, so I got her beat a few times … She’s always been a great horse.”

Forever Unbridled was third, just 1 ¼ lengths behind Fox Hill Farm’s Songbird, the 6-5 favorite, while Stellar Wind, the 5-2 second choice, had trouble at the break and wound up fourth.

“She hopped at the start and the race was over for us,” said Victor Espinoza, who rode Stellar Wind.

Beholder, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2013 (both times at Santa Anita, where she won 14 of 16 starts), came into Friday’s stakes off losses to Stellar Wind in the Zenyatta and Clement L. Hirsch – with a runner-up finish behind California Chrome in the Pacific Classic between them. Yet unlike those losses to Stellar Wind when Beholder set the pace in a small field, the daughter of Henny Hughes was able to stalk the pace-setting Songbird from third and make her move on the final turn.

From there, the two fiercely determined runners put on a show worthy of Affirmed and Alydar, with neither giving way until the wire popped up and Beholder, on the outside of her valiant 3-year-old rival, prevailed by this much.

“She laid her heart out there on the racetrack and gave me absolutely everything that was running through her veins,” said Stevens, who came out on the short end of the Distaff’s other fantastic finish when Personal Ensign capped an undefeated career by beating Winning Colors and the Hall of Famer rider in the 1988 edition of the mile and an eighth race. “It was fun to be a part of.

“It’s probably the most emotional race of my career,” he added, “because she’s so special to me and it’s her last race.”

Though Songbird suffered defeat for the first time, her gallant performance in her initial race against older rivals only confirmed the platitudes attached to her since she won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies to clinch an Eclipse Award as the year’s champion 2-year-old filly.

“I have new respect for Songbird, even in defeat,” Stevens said.

Never before had anyone been within 3 ½ lengths of her at the finish of a race. Yet after setting fractions of 47.16 seconds for the opening half-mile and 1:11.14 for six furlongs, when she was joined by Beholder she never backed down from the challenge and fell only an inch shy of remaining undefeated while covering the nine furlongs in 1:49.20.

While Beholder will be heading home to the breeding shed in Kentucky after the Distaff, Songbird is expected to return as a 4-year-old and figures to be one of the sport’s brightest stars in 2017.

“She ran incredible and I’m so proud of her,” jockey Mike Smith said. “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 (ever) 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.”

Just like Beholder.

The Distaff was the fourth and final Breeders’ Cup race on Friday’s card at Santa Anita Park.

Tamarkuz wins the Dirt Mile

In the day’s biggest surprise, 3-5 favorite Dortmund faded to fourth as Shadwell Stable’s Tamarkuz ($25.80) prevailed in the $1 million Las Vegas Dirt Mile for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and gave jockey Mike Smith his 23rd Breeders’ Cup win.

Taking note of the race’s sponsor, McLaughlin quipped afterwards, “Do we get a trip to Las Vegas?”

No, but Tamarkuz might get a trip to the breeding shed as Shadwell representative John DeSantis said it was uncertain if the newly minted Grade 1 winner would be retired or continue racing.

Tamarkuz, who rallied from seventh in a field, won by 3 ½ lengths, snapping a string of back-to-back seconds in the Grade 2 Kelso and Grade 1 Forego.

“This finally gets the monkey off my back with my first Breeders’ Cup win (since 2007 with Lahudood in the Filly and Mare Turf),” McLaughlin said.

Tamarkuz’s victory also helped clear up why the star of McLaughlin’s stable was not in the race.

“Well, now the media knows why Frosted is running in the (Breeders’ Cup) Classic,” McLaughlin said. “We thought we had one good enough to win the (Dirt Mile) already.”

Gun Runner, who was third in the Kentucky Derby, finished second, a neck ahead of Accelerate.

Turf races go to Americans

Horses based in the United States got the better of their rivals from overseas in the two Grade 1 $1 million grass stakes for 2-year-olds.

Amerman Racing Stables’ Oscar Performance took home the trophy in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, beating Europe’s Lancaster Bomber by 1 ¼ lengths for trainer Brian Lynch.

“Absolutely fantastic,” Lynch said. “You always hope it’s in the stars and it’s lovely when they line up.”

Ridden by Jose Ortiz, Oscar Performance paid $15.20 to win as the 6-1 third-choice in the wagering.

Good Samaritan, the 5-2 favorite, was a neck behind Lancaster Bomber in third.

New Money Honey ($15), owned by e Five Racing Thoroughbreds and trained by Chad Brown, triumphed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf by a half-length under three-time Eclipse Award-winning rider Javier Castellano.

“She’s made of steel,” Brown said. “She’s a terrific chapter in a terrific story.”

The victory was the third for Brown in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, the last one coming in 2014 with Lady Eli, the morning-line favorite in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. It was also the third time Brown used the Miss Grillo Stakes at Belmont Park as a springboard to success in the Breeders’ Cup.

“It was a really good field,” said Brown, who expressed his thanks to the New York Racing Association for its help in providing turf training time for his stable. “We’ve competed in this race in virtually every year since it started and I thought this was one of the stronger editions on paper.”

Coasted was second at odds of 23-1 and Cavale Doree (FR) was a length back in third.

Record Friday attendance

• Attendance for the first of two days of action at Santa Anita was a record 45,763, eclipsing last year’s mark of 44,497 at Keeneland.

The total handle Friday for the 10 races at Santa Anita was $50,935,934, a jump of 13 percent over the non-separate pool of $44,949,165 in 2015.

“Racing fans today saw a truly remarkable, championship performance by one of the legends of our sport in a classic renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff,” Breeders’ Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel said. “We want to thank our hosts at Santa Anita and congratulate the connections of Beholder and all of today’s winners. We look forward to tomorrow.”

• The Breeders’ Cup continues Saturday as part of a 12-race card at the Arcadia, California, track. First race post time is 10:15 a.m. (PDT) and the first of nine Breeders’ Cup races is the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at 12:05 p.m.

• The centerpiece of the day will be the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, featuring Horse of the Year favorite California Chrome. Post time for the Classic, which will be aired live on NBC TV, is 5:35 p.m.

• NBCSN will provide coverage of Breeders’ Cup races from 11:30 a.m. through 5:00 p.m.

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