Losing Nothing in Defeat

The Life
Beholder (left) and Songbird match strides in the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Everyone brings a bucket of dreams to the Breeders’ Cup. Among the wishes in my bucket were wins by Songbird in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff and Lady Eli in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.  My hopes were denied, but the racing gods proved beneficent. Like thousands of other emotionally wrung fans, I left the racetrack on Saturday with a bucket brimming with magnificent memories and renewed fervor for a sport which exalts in the beauty and courage of one of nature’s most glorious creatures. Favorites Songbird and Lady Eli may have finished second, but their tenacity in the face of defeat took us to a better place. The sum total of their losing margins equaled less than a few inches, but the distance which they travelled to the bottom of their hearts is unmeasurable.

Songbird, champion 2-year-old female of 2015 and undefeated in 11 starts, faced a fierce competitor in Beholder, a three-time Eclipse Award winner who was aiming for a third Breeders’ Cup victory. Many felt that the 6-year-old mare, who had lost her three previous races, would be vulnerable. Facing older company for the first time in her career, there was speculation as to how Songbird might respond if faced with an eyeball to eyeball challenge. She was to answer that question to stunning effect.

Jockey Mike Smith and Songbird in the paddock. (Cynthia Holt photo)
  Songbird left the gate with her usual good speed and led the Distaff field with effortless grace, holding off all comers until the final turn, when Beholder set her sights on Songbird and motored towards her opponent like a mare on a mission. Once Beholder was within range of Songbird’s body heat, it became the clash of the titans, as the reigning queen and her heir apparent matched each other stride for stride, head bob for head bob. Beholder proved that she had not forfeited anything to age, and Songbird showed that she is not a melodic lightweight, but is capable of heroic roles. The finish was razor close. The magnificence of these two horses left one grasping for words and gasping for air. Following the race, an awestruck Mike Smith quipped, “We were actually in front. Her (Beholder’s) neck was longer. I think we showed people in our own way that she (Songbird) is one of the great fillies of all time, not just a great 3-year-old.”

Gary Stevens reflected on the intensity of the race the following day, expressing perfectly what everyone had to be feeling. "It was number one. It was an epic race. I’ve been in some battles before, but none like the extended battle that happened between Beholder and Songbird. That one last quarter of a mile was like a heavyweight fight, just both girls putting in everything that they had. Unfortunately, there had to be a loser, and it was by the narrowest of margins. It was the best race I have ever ridden in.” 

For owner Rick Porter, a 15-year cancer survivor, Songbird has been a source of strength and a tonic for the soul. Her performance on Friday lifted our souls, too. 

In the summer of 2015, fate played a potentially deadly hand to two-year-old rising star Lady Eli. Returning to trainer Chad Brown’s barn following her sixth straight career victory in the Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes, Lady Eli stepped on a nail, which penetrated her left front hoof. One week later, symptoms of laminitis appeared in her right front hoof, with signs in her left following shortly. Lady Eli was soon fighting for her life against the dreaded disease which had claimed Barbaro and Secretariat, as well as countless other horses. But the same DNA which had made her a warrior princess on the track had also gifted her with an indomitable will to live. Miraculously, Lady Eli defied the odds. She began jogging in December of 2015, and returned to the races in the Ballston Spa Stakes at Saratoga in July, finishing a solid second. Her next start was in the Flower Bowl Stakes at Belmont, in which she flashed her former brilliance, scoring a 3/4-length victory.

Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., and Lady Eli in the paddock. (Cynthia Holt)
Lady Eli returned to Santa Anita, the site of her dominating win in the 2014 Juvenile Fillies Turf, with a record of 7 wins in 8 races.  Life had come full circle, and a storybook ending to her difficult odyssey seemed written in the stars. But once again, fate dealt a tricky hand. Lady Eli was boxed in at the rail towards the back of the pack going into the first turn, and was still in confined quarters as the field approached the far turn. Finally able to find an opening, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. swung the filly four wide as they rounded into the stretch. Firing on all cylinders, Lady Eli demonstrated her devastating turn of foot as she flew for home, overtaking pacesetter Avenge. However, British invader Queen’s Trust was gaining ground on the outside, slicing relentlessly into Lady Eli’s lead, until she pulled alongside, matching Lady Eli stride for stride. In a mirror performance of Songbird’s courageous run the previous day, Lady Eli battled desperately towards the wire, but was unable to stave off her determined foe. In a re-run of the Distaff, Lady Eli lost on the wire in less than a heartbeat.

That two such splendid fillies should lose their races so similarly seems like a bad joke on the part of the racing gods. Or was it? “Some defeats are more triumphant than victories,” French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote many moons ago. His words are just as relevant today. It is in how we face our most testing challenges that we are defined. On Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday, Songbird and Lady Eli defined themselves as being the very essence of Thoroughbreds. In what may well have been their most remarkable races thus far, they proved themselves to be winners in the truest sense of the word.

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