Breeders’ Cup Fantastic Finishes: A Distaff Duel for the Ages

The compelling stretch duel between beholder, left, and Songbird, right, in the 2016 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The 2016 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park did not lack for star power. Two popular racemares, Lady Eli and Tepin, were on hand to contest the Filly and Mare Turf and Mile, respectively, while the Classic served as the first matchup between 2014 Kentucky Derby and 2016 Dubai World Cup winner California Chrome and the recent Travers Stakes winner Arrogate. But the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff was second to no other race at the 33rd World Championships as far as marquee matchups go … and boy, did it live up to expectations.

2016 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff

Date: Nov. 4, 2016

Venue: Santa Anita Park

1st: Beholder

2nd: Songbird

3rd: Forever Unbridled

Payouts: $8.60 to win, $3.60 to place, $3 to show; $2 exacta paid $25.20

Winning jockey: Gary Stevens

Winning trainer: Richard Mandella

Winning owner: Spendthrift Farm

Winning breeder: Clarkland Farm (Ky.)

The Distaff, held as the final Breeders’ Cup race on the opening Friday of the two-day event, was headlined by unbeaten 3-year-old filly Songbird, who had recorded 11 consecutive wins to start her career dating back to July 2015. The Jerry Hollendorfer trainee had not been seriously challenged in any of her victories, which included a 5 ¾-length romp in the 2015 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland that netted her an Eclipse Award and four Grade 1 stakes wins during 2016, topped by a seven-length tour de force in the 1 ¼-mile Alabama Stakes at Saratoga. Songbird raced for owner Rick Porter, who had scaled the heights of the sport earlier in the decade with 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and who was battling cancer as his latest star rose to fame. Her jockey, Mike Smith, had piloted the legendary Zenyatta to glory in the late 2000s and knew of which he spoke regarding superior fillies.

“Everyone loved her, they loved her on both coasts,” Smith told Bob Ehalt for Thoroughbred Daily News. “You couldn’t help but love her – you don’t see too many horses like her.”

One horse who was very much like Songbird would meet her in the Distaff. Beholder had first turned heads on California circuit as a 2-year-old with precocious speed and an independent mindset in 2012. Trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella for B. Wayne Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm, the Into Mischief filly was a handful from the start, headstrong and tough.

“I’d say she brought me along,” Mandella told the Chicago Tribune in 2015 when  reflecting on Beholder’s career. “I haven’t brought her along.”

Even so, Beholder’s talent was undeniable, and she took the 2012 Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita to secure her first Eclipse Award and only got better from there over the next year and a half, winning the 2013 Distaff back at ‘The Great Race Place’ to earn another Eclipse. She headed into 2014 at age 4 as a main contender in the older female division, but Beholder developed a series of health problems that caused her to miss the World Championships. She returned in 2015 to absolutely crush male opponents by 8 ¼ lengths in the TVG Pacific Classic, leading Mandella to say, “I’ve never felt emotion over a race like this.” A lung issue forced her to miss the 2015 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland and a highly anticipated meeting with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Classic, but Beholder still won her third Eclipse Award, and Mandella brought her back for one more campaign as a 6-year-old in 2016.

Beholder won two stakes races to kick off the year, but then finished second three times in a row, including behind California Chrome in her bid for a Pacific Classic repeat. Beholder also was runner-up to West Coast rival Stellar Wind in two Grade 1 stakes for fillies and mares in California, leading to speculation that the three-time champion had lost a step. That recent form led to Beholder going off as the 3.30-1 third betting choice behind 11-10 favorite Songbird and 5-2 Stellar Wind in a Distaff field that also included under-the-radar Forever Unbridled, a 15.70-1 longshot who entered off of a win in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes.

Songbird broke on the lead as she had in most of her 11 previous wins and set a comfortable pace under Smith, while Beholder and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens stalked in third after a half-mile. Stevens had taken the mount on Beholder in fall 2013 and had been aboard her in 16 of her 17 starts since then, and he kept her off the rail and out of any traffic through the backstretch while Stellar Wind, who broke poorly, and Forever Unbridled raced farther back.

Midway through the far turn, Stevens gave Beholder her cue and she moved up to challenge Songbird at the top of the stretch. Although Forever Unbridled briefly made a threatening rally behind the top pair, she flattened out in midstretch, leaving the focus squarely on Beholder and Songbird.

The two champions commenced to give bettors and racing fans what they always hope to see in a horse race – a pure test of will and courage.

When the photo finish was finally revealed, Beholder had prevailed by a nose in the Distaff, ending Songbird’s unbeaten streak … but as any veteran railbird will tell you, there are photo finishes, and then there are photo finishes. This one still appeared inconclusive to many a naked eye and led to Internet speculation about a rigged outcome, a sad reminder of these conspiracy-fueled times. Truthfully, there was no loser in what is without question one of the best races in the event’s storied history.

"The real Beholder showed up today,” Mike Smith told BloodHorse. “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.”

Unforgettable stretch duel. (Eclipse Sportswire)

"I've been in battles before, but never the length of the stretch," Stevens said. "I mean, it was a full almost five-sixteenths – definitely a quarter of a mile of just a street fight."

The Longines Distaff marked the end Beholder’s racing career; she retired with a career record of 18 wins from 26 starts and earnings of $6.15 million. Beholder earned her fourth Eclipse Award in 2016, her second as champion older dirt female, and Songbird was voted champion 3-year-old filly to accompany her honors as a juvenile the year prior.

Songbird came back for her 4-year-old season and won the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes and Grade 1 Delaware Handicap, but unlike so many of her earlier wins, she had to dig deep to fend off challenges in both races. She then finished second by a neck to Forever Unbridled in the Personal Ensign Stakes, giving up the lead late, and that turned out to be Songbird’s final start as she retired with a record of 13 wins from 15 starts and earnings of $4.69 million.

In November 2017, Songbird sold at the Fasig-Tipton November sale to Mandy Pope for a hefty $9.5 million. Both champions now reside in Kentucky – Beholder at Spendthrift Farm and Songbird at Pope’s Timber Town Farm – and are well into their second careers as broodmares. Forever Unbridled, meanwhile, used the Personal Ensign Stakes as a springboard to another try at the Longines Distaff. She won the Distaff by a half-length at Del Mar, and was honored as champion older dirt female of 2017.

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