ARCADIA, Calif. — For the last quarter of a mile, Songbird and Beholder refused to yield. They ran neck-and-neck, with their Hall of Fame jockeys looking for the tiniest edge.
Gary Stevens, aboard Beholder, called it “just a street fight.”
The 6-year-old mare landed the final blow, with Beholder edging Songbird by a nose in the $2 million Distaff on opening day of the Breeders’ Cup on Friday at Santa Anita.
Even jockey Mike Smith had to agree it was “an amazing, amazing race” after his 3-year-old filly Songbird lost for the first time in 12 races.
“It was fun to be part of a battle,” Stevens said. “The show that those two just put on is worth the price of admission for everybody that showed up. This was horse racing at its best.”
It was a thrilling finish to the four Cup races, three of which involved New York-based long shots winning on an 80-degree day.
Nine Cup races will be run on Saturday, capped by the $6 million Classic in which California Chrome is the early favorite.
Beholder ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.20 and paid $8.60, $3.60 and $3 as the 3-1 third choice.
“I’ve had some good feelings in racing, but this is tops right here,” said Stevens, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner.
It was Beholder’s third Cup victory, having won the Distaff in 2013 and the Juvenile Fillies in 2012. She was supposed to have run in last year’s Classic at Keeneland against male horses, but developed a fever.
The Distaff was Beholder’s final career race, ending on her home track, where she was never worse than second in 16 starts at Santa Anita. She finished with 18 career victories. The 6-year-old mare is a three-time Eclipse Award winner.
“She was really at her best,” Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said.
Songbird returned $3.20 and $2.80 as the even-money favorite. The loss spoiled her 11-0 career record.
“You saw the real Beholder show up today, maybe even the best race she ever ran in her life,” Smith said, “and she had to do it to beat us.”
When the win photo was shown on the video board, the announced crowd of 45,763 roared at the slight margin between Beholder and Songbird, who was along the rail with Beholder on her outside.
“It was closer than I thought it was,” Stevens said.
Songbird set the pace through the early stages of the race, with I’m a Chatterbox and Beholder in close pursuit.
On the far turn, I’m a Chatterbox and Beholder both went after Songbird but by the top of the stretch it was a two-horse duel Beholder and the 3-year-old filly. They kept it up through the stretch, with neither horse willing to give an inch. Nor were their jockeys: the 53-year-old Stevens and 51-year-old Smith.
“I put my head in front and Songbird came back again,” Stevens said. “She put Songbird away three different times through the stretch, and she kept coming back, like she wouldn’t go away.”
Smith thought he could put a length or two between his filly and Beholder when they got to the far turn.
“But, man, she jumped on me,” he said of Beholder. “I couldn’t do it.”
Stevens let out “a pretty loud holler” just past the finish line.
“Coming down the stretch, I was riding with my head down, riding for all I was worth,” he said. “I was thinking that finish line has got to be coming.”
Mandella earned his ninth career Cup victory, along with sharp farewell from Beholder.
“She kicked me on the way up,” he said. “She’s 90 percent of the time the sweetest thing you could find. The other 10 percent is dynamite.”
Forever Unbridled was another 1 1/4 lengths back in third and paid $4.40 to show.
Stellar Wind, the 5-2 second choice who finished second last year, finished fourth in the eight-horse field.
I’m a Chatterbox was fifth, followed by Curalina and Land Over Sea.
Argentina-bred Corona Del Inca was euthanized after sustaining multiple fractures of her right front leg in the race.
The mare’s injuries were much more serious than it appeared after she was pulled up at the top of the stretch by jockey Pablo Falero, according to on-call veterinarian Dr. Scott Palmer.
He said Corona Del Inca’s injuries were “so severe that there was no way she could be kept comfortable nor the prognosis be good for treatment. For those reasons she was euthanized.”
The day’s biggest upset belonged to Smith aboard 11-1 shot Tamarkuz, who won the $1 million Dirt Mile by 3 1/2 lengths for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. It was Smith’s 23rd career Cup victory; he leads all jockeys in victories and money won in the world championships.
In the $1 million Juvenile Turf, 6-1 shot Oscar Performance won by 1 1/4 lengths, giving jockey Jose Ortiz and trainer Brian Lynch their first Cup victories.
Trained by Chad Brown, 6-1 shot New Money Honey won the $1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf by a half-length under Javier Castellano.