USA: Beholder touches off Songbird in Distaff thriller

Beholder (orange) fights out a titanic finish with Songbird

PICTURE: Edward Whitaker ( Beholder edges out Songbird in Distaff
l By Nicholas Godfrey at Santa Anita 11:45PM 4 NOV 2016

Report: USA, Friday

Santa Anita: Breeders' Cup Distaff (Grade 1) 1m1f, dirt, 3yo+ f/m

A CLASH of the titans was promised in the Breeders' Cup Distaff – and how the $2 million event delivered as Beholder (Richard Mandella/Gary Stevens) just got the better of Songbird after the two superstars went eyeball-to-eyeball in an epic duel down the Santa Anita stretch.

American dirt racing doesn't get any better than this sort of heart-stopping drama. Put simply, this was a sensational contest, a pair of awesomely talented horses refusing to give an inch in a race for the ages destined for an enduring place in the memory af anyone privileged enough to be among a crowd of 45,763.

The six-year-old Beholder, who goes into retirement in a blaze of glory, was held off the pace by Gary Stevens before being produced with a menacing three-wide challenge on the far turn. Hers was a murderously intimidating presence, but Songbird refused to buckle under, giving as good as she got in a magnificent encounter.

In the end, neither really deserved to lose, but one had to – and Beholder handed three-year-old Songbird the first defeat of her brilliant career by a nose. A dramatic result looked too close to call to the naked eye.

"It's probably the most emotional race of my career because she's so special to me and it's her last race," said veteran jockey Gary Stevens, winning the 11th Breeders' Cup race of his long, interrupted career.

"She gave me absolutely everything," added the 53-year-old. "I have a new respect for Songbird, even in defeat. Beholder, even in the past, has never given me everything like she gave me today.

"People ask me why I came out of retirement. People ask me on a daily basis, 'why are you still riding you old fart?' And I can't replace that, what I just experienced. I've had some good feelings in racing but this is tops, right here. I'm drained physically and I'm drained emotionally – it's bittersweet because I know I'll never ride another one like that. It's the ultimate."

Never worse than second in 16 starts at her home track and a three-time US champion filly, Beholder was winning her 11th Grade 1 contest and her third Breeders' Cup event altogether, having won the Distaff in 2013, the year after she had won the Juvenile Fillies.

"I made the statement that they better have their running shoes on to beat her," said trainer Richard Mandella. "Then I kind of kicked myself for saying it. But it turned out I was right. She's just a great horse. She understands my training better and better!

"I've always said really great horse appreciate my training better than others," he grinned.

Songbird may have forfeited her unbeaten record on her 12th start, but if anything she embellished her already massive reputation. "As she got beat, you'd like to say she didn't run her race – but you can't say that," said her jockey Mike Smith, who is a close friend of Stevens. "If I couldn't win, I'm glad Gary did," he added.

"She ran incredible and I'm so proud of her," Smith went on. "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."

Beholder, who stopped the clock at 1m49.20s, was returned a 3.3-1 chance, with Songbird the 11-10 favourite. Another length and a quarter away in third was Forever Unbridled, but she was never a factor; ditto Stellar Wind, who had beaten Beholder on her last two starts but could finish only fourth here.

>>There was a sad aftermath to the Distaff when Grade 1-winning Argentine mare Corona Del Inca was put down after suffering multiple fractures of her off-fore leg during the race, during which she was pulled up at the head of the stretch.

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