11/04/2016 9:37PM

Beholder by a nose over Songbird in thrilling Breeders' Cup Distaff

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John Bambury
Beholder (left) duels with Songbird for the length of the stretch to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff by a nose Friday.

ARCADIA, Calif. – A champion mare produced a storybook ending to an amazing five-year career Friday at Santa Anita.

Beholder, the 6-year-old making her 26th and final start in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff, wore down the previously undefeated Songbird in a stretch-long street fight to win by a nose in a race for the ages.

There were tears everywhere in the Santa Anita winner’s circle, where trainer Richard Mandella, jockey Gary Stevens, and owner B. Wayne Hughes celebrated the win by Beholder ($8.60). It was her third Breeders’ Cup win, 11th Grade 1 victory, and also her swan song.

“It’s probably the most emotional [win] of my career, knowing this was her last race,” Stevens said immediately afterward. “I just asked Mr. Hughes if he has a paddock for me next to her. I probably should be getting on the plane with her and walking out right now.”

Beholder will retire to become a broodmare at Hughes’s Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, and there was no second-guessing by Hughes after the race. “I think it’s time for her to go the normal route to go back to Kentucky and not having to have Richard and Gary to deal with,” Hughes said.

It was good-natured kidding delivered by a man with utmost appreciation for his trainer and rider.

“I don’t think I'll ever have another horse like this, and so I’m very grateful to have been a part of it,” Hughes said. “I mean, I really compliment Richard. I don’t know of any trainer that could have taken a horse for six years and done what he’s done. But Gary has been a big part of it.”

Beholder won at least one Grade 1 race in each of the past five years and was most effective utilizing the stalking style she employed Friday.

The race unfolded as expected, with Songbird and jockey Mike Smith shooting to the front. Stevens said Beholder “broke sharper than she ever has in her career,” but when I’m a Chatterbox went up inside to press Songbird, Stevens was happy to allow Beholder to sit third on the outside.

The fractions were modest. Songbird went the opening half-mile in 47.16 seconds and six furlongs in 1:11.14. Nearing the quarter pole, Beholder ranged outside Songbird. From the quarter pole to the wire, Stevens said, “it was a street fight.”

Songbird, a 3-year-old facing older fillies and mares for the first time after winning her first 11 starts, refused to surrender. “I didn’t know how much fight Songbird had in her,” Stevens said. “I found out. I put her away three times down the stretch.”

Beholder raced outside, Songbird battled along the rail, and the two dueled to the wire. Stevens thought he had it won late. “I saw the purple with all the banners [on the rail] down the stretch, and said … ‘We’re close!’ ”

The margin was a nose; even-money favorite Songbird finished 1 1/4 lengths in front of Forever Unbridled. Stellar Wind, the 5-2 second choice, finished fourth. The order of finish was completed by I’m a Chatterbox, Curalina, and Land over Sea.

Corona Del Inca, a Breeders’ Cup Challenge winner making her first start since May in Argentina, was injured and euthanized. She sustained a condylar fracture of her right foreleg, a sesamoid fracture, and fractured the first pastern bone.

Distaff winner Beholder goes out like the three-time champion she already is. Beholder retires having won 18 races and $6,156,600.

As for Songbird, her future is bright. She will continue to race next year at age 4 for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and owner Rick Porter.

Hollendorfer said he “could never be disappointed with Songbird. She ran great, just the other horse ran a little better.”

Beholder did it throughout her career. She won the BC Juvenile Fillies in 2012, the BC Distaff in 2013, and won at least one Grade 1 for five years running.

“I’ve never seen a racehorse stay in peak form [that long],” Stevens said. “I know I’ll never sit on another one like her. In a way, I wonder, should I be walking out too? But I have [Saturday] to ride. Who knows what lies beyond that?”

Attendance on Friday was 45,763; the pick-six carryover into Saturday is $511,261.

– additional reporting by David Grening