By Lenny Shulman (@BH_LShulman)
There will certainly be many bigger fields in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better lineup than that of the Longines Distaff on Nov. 4. In fact, it seems a shame this race doesn’t have a Saturday slot for maximum viewership, because it may well be the most exciting race on the Breeders’ Cup roster.
Three champions grace the eight-horse field for this $2-million, 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 event for fillies and mares – Songbird, Beholder, and Stellar Wind.
When looking at the field, one must begin with the undefeated superstar 3-year-old Songbird, simply because no one knows how good she really might be.
Although no other horse has finished closer than 3 ¾ lengths behind Songbird in any of her 11 races, she has been geared down in most of her efforts. Songbird possesses a high cruising speed that usually sees her on the front, but she has also shown the ability to sit just off the pace and attack at will.
Installed as the 6-5 morning-line favorite in the Distaff, Songbird will have to begin her run from the rail – a post position she has overcome before in both the Santa Anita Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks.
"You certainly want to get out of the gate and, good lord willing, she jumps well and you just go on about your way, which is how we've been doing," said Hall of Famer Mike Smith, regular rider for Songbird. "I think she'll be forwardly placed on the lead and I’ll let her do what she does best, and that's run and run fast."
Rick Porter, who owns Songbird in the name of his Fox Hill Farms, reported the week before the Distaff that the Medaglia d’Oro filly continues to train beautifully for Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. There is no fear in facing older foes, as Porter said that Songbird has filled out and "already looks like a 4-year-old."
One would never have thought a couple of months ago that Beholder would be the likely third choice in the Distaff, but Stellar Wind, the champion 3-year-old filly of a year ago, has forced herself into the conversation as the most likely to topple Songbird.
After a fine second in last year’s Distaff, Stellar Wind was given plenty of time and didn’t resurface until June, when she was defeated by Beholder in the Vanity Mile Stakes. But Hronis Racing’s Stellar Wind has turned the tables on the multiple champion since then, besting her in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes and the Zenyatta Stakes. In each of those two races, she also showed the ability to lay just off the lead and not let Beholder get too far out in front of her, a new dimension for Stellar Wind that will come in handy if nobody else decides to take on Songbird early in the Distaff.
Beholder is already a two-time Breeders’ Cup winner, winning the Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Distaff a year later, both at Santa Anita. She has won 13 of 15 at her home track as part of an overall 17 of 25, with six seconds. The 6-year-old has fallen a bit from her best form, losing to Stellar Wind twice and to a dominant California Chrome in the Pacific Classic last summer, but she will go down as one of the dominant racemares of her era.
Richard Mandella, who trains Beholder, knows quite a bit about winning Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita – his four victories on one card at the 2003 World Championships has never been matched, and he won an additional pair 10 years earlier there. But the question must be asked whether this current version of Beholder is the same as the one we’ve become accustomed to seeing, which adds yet another layer of mystery and excitement to this race.
One intangible in Beholder's favor for the Distaff is that she drew outside in post 8, allowing jockey Gary Stevens the ability to watch what other horses do instead of being forced to gun to the front. Beholder was installed as the 5-2 co-second choice on the morning line along with Stellar Wind.
"It will be nice to get her off the rail," Mandella said of the draw. "But no matter what post you have, you have to have good luck. I'm a bigger believer in good luck than good posts. But I'm happy to be out there."
Curalina added the La Troienne Stakes this year to a pair of Grade 1 wins in 2015. Aron Wellman, president of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, said Curalina threw a front shoe in both of her defeats to now-retired Cavorting this season. He has also scaled back her schedule this year, feeling that her run in the Beldame Stakes last year compromised her in the Distaff, when she finished third. She is a fresh filly this time around and will also be up close to the pace if her back form is to be believed.
I'm a Chatterbox was most impressive taking Keeneland's Juddmonte Spinster Stakes last out after stalking the pace. The Larry Jones-trained 4-year-old filly would be the beneficiary of a hot early pace as she certainly has the ability to sit back off the tempo, and she probably will do so here. She is certainly capable on her best day, but a lot has to go right for her.
Forever Unbridled comes in off a win in the Beldame. She also took the Apple Blossom Handicap this year and is a top-shelf filly. She, too, will be dangerous if the pace gets too hot early.
Alicia Wincze Hughes (@BH_AHughes) contributed to this report.