Stepping from the Santa Anita dirt toward the winner's circle aboard Beholder after Friday's Breeders' Cup Distaff, Gary Stevens looked down at trainer Richard Mandella and spoke seven simple words.
"She gave me everything. Great training job."
And then some. Beholder, with help from Mandella and Stevens, gave everything. But she had to, because Songbird gave trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and jockey Mike Smith just as much as the two champions battled to the final inch of the 1 1/8-mile Distaff. At the wire, live, as it happened, Stevens thought he won. Watching the replay in the champagne room afterward, he leaned back like a gambler trying not to suffer a tough beat. It was that close.
Too good to have a loser, the race was decided by a nose - though racing might want to consider a slimmer official margin - and sent Spendthrift Farm's Beholder into retirement with 18 wins in 26 starts, $6.1 million in earnings and what will be her fourth Eclipse Award as champion older female of 2016. Mandella, Stevens and owner B. Wayne Hughes tried to explain the moment in a post-race press conference and did OK, considering the circumstances.
"I had some good feelings in racing," said Stevens, a Hall of Famer with 5,078 lifetime wins, "but this is tops right here."
"You know, I've had some very special moments in the Breeders' Cup and special horses," said Mandella, a Hall of Famer who won four Breeders' Cup races in 2003. "So I couldn't - I don't even want to compare it. It couldn't get any better than this, I'll tell you that."
"Well, I don't have as much experience as Richard (or Gary)," said Hughes, who bought historic Spendthrift in 2004, "but I can say that she's by far the best horse I've ever had or ever expect to have."
Purchased for $180,000 at Keeneland September in 2011, Beholder is the best horse loads of people have ever had with Grade 1 wins in each of her five seasons of racing, Breeders' Cup wins in 2012, 2013 and 2016, and Eclipse Awards at ages 2, 3, 5 and (surely) 6. She's the horse of several lifetimes, but came into Friday's race with something to prove after losing three consecutive times this year - seconds to Stellar Wind in the Clement Hirsch and Zenyatta sandwiching a second to California Chrome in the Pacific Classic. Hardly disgraced, Beholder had never lost two races in a row and won her last eight before the mini-slump. At 6, had she lost a step? It was a concern, even a topic of conversation, and hung over Friday's race like the fronds on the palm trees near the paddock. How dare we?
Unbeaten and hardly tested, Songbird was favored at 6-5 on the morning line. Beholder and Stellar Wind were co-second choices at 5-2. All were champions last year, putting them in rare company in a race that also attracted Grade 1 winners I'm A Chatterbox, Forever Unbridled and Curalina plus Grade 2 winner Land Over Sea and Argentine Group 1 winner Corona Del Inca.
As expected, 3-year-old filly phenom Songbird bounded to the front from the inside post in a field of eight. Breaking from stall five, Stellar Wind hesitated and spotted the field 2 lengths early. From the outside stall, Beholder blasted into stride and looked for a moment ready to challenge for the early lead before coming back to Stevens and allowing I'm A Chatterbox to take the second spot. Songbird covered the first quarter-mile in :23.32 and was 2 lengths ahead. I'm A Chatterbox sat second, Beholder third on the outside.
Standing tall in the saddle and flattening his wrists, Smith let his filly work and she ran with typical ease - on her own and 2 lengths clear through a half in :47.16. Florent Geroux let I'm A Chatterbox test the leader after 6 furlongs in 1:11.14 and Stevens followed the move on Beholder while three wide. Late on the turn, I'm A Chatterbox blinked and left the chase to Beholder. The daughter of Henny Hughes responded to Stevens at the quarter pole and went after the leader. Smith and Songbird answered the challenge. Early in the stretch, Beholder looked poised to sweep past. Then Songbird battled back. Then Beholder dug in. Then Songbird did. Beholder didn't draw even until the final six strides. She never got past. Only the camera, and a finish line in a computer, decided it after 1:49.20.
"I've been in battles before, but never the length of the stretch," said Stevens. "It was a full almost five-sixteenths (of a mile), definitely a quarter-of-a-mile of just a street fight. For 6 years old, I would just say the way that she's been managed throughout her career allowed her to do what she did on her final day of racing, and she laid it all on the line."
Smith and Stevens, as hard as they tried, barely used their whips and neither horse could have run faster. Live, at full speed, Beholder looked like she won - perhaps because she carried a bit more momentum. Stevens raised his fist like a winner. Smith pumped past the finish line. Slow-motion favored Songbird, a little.
When announced, the official order of 8-1 surprised no one though it could have just as easily been 1-8.
Both horses returned to massive ovations from the crowd of 45,673. Songbird came first, and didn't enter the winner's circle for the first time in 12 tries. Smith let her stand in, doffed his helmet, saluted the heavens, then said, "Oh, man," as trainer Jerry Hollendorfer arrived at his filly's side. A fan yelled, "She didn't get beat."
She didn't lose either. But Beholder won. When it was her turn, the 6-year-old mare accepted the cheers and got a little wound up when someone tried to place the winner's blanket across her withers. Mandella, with a small cut on his right hand thanks to a kick from his star mare, arrived and wrapped her in a hug as cameras of all types tried to preserve the moment.
Stevens looked wowed, like the rest of us.