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Beholder touches off Songbird in thriller that lives up to billing

Epic encounter: Beholder (Gary Stevens, near side) grapples with Songbird in the Breeders' Cup Distaff
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Report: USA, Friday
Santa Anita: Breeders' Cup Distaff (Grade 1)

On paper, the Breeders' Cup Distaff looked a potential thriller. On the track, the $2 million event produced nothing short of a race for the ages, an epic encounter as Beholder and Songbird, champions both, went eyeball-to-eyeball, nostril-to-flaring-nostril, for the entire length of the Santa Anita stretch.

American dirt racing simply doesn't get any better than this, a pair of supremely talented horses refusing to budge in a duel destined for an enduring place in the memory of anyone privileged enough to be among a crowd of 45,763 for Day One of the 33rd Breeders' Cup.

In the end, neither horse really deserved to lose, but one had to. The six-year-old beat the three-year-old as Beholder finally wore down the gallant Songbird to hand the runner-up the first defeat of her brilliant career – by a nose. The result looked too close to call to the naked eye.

"I've been in battles before, but never the length of the stretch," said winning jockey Gary Stevens. "I mean, it was definitely a quarter of a mile of just a street fight."

Trained by Richard Mandella, Beholder was held off the pace before being produced with a menacing three-wide challenge on the far turn. Hers was a murderously intimidating presence, but 11-10 favourite Songbird would not surrender, giving as good as she got in defence of her 11-race unbeaten record.

“I didn’t know how much fight Songbird had in her,” Stevens said. “I found out. I put her away three times down the stretch.”

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. She will now be retired to owner B Wayne Hughes's Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky.

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

"People ask me why I came out of retirement," added the 53-year-old. "People ask me on a daily basis, 'why are you still riding you old fart?' I can't replace 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. "She gave me absolutely everything and 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."

Songbird, who is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, 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 jockey Mike Smith.

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

Grade 1-winning Argentine mare Corona Del Inca was put down after suffering multiple fractures of her off-fore leg during the Distaff, in which she was pulled up at the head of the stretch.

I can't replace what I just experienced
E.W. Terms