Updated on 11/16/2016 12:43PM

Hovdey: Beholder shows storybook endings really happen

Beholder wins the Distaff on Saturday for her third Breeders' Cup victory.

“Okay, just one,” Richard Mandella said. “Come on in here.”

It was Friday afternoon and time for Beholder to leave the Mandella barn for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff. It was also the last time Beholder would leave the barn for any race, so feelings were decidedly mixed. There was hard business ahead, with Songbird and Stellar Wind waiting down the road. Beholder’s blue earplugs and black earmuffs were in place. Her engine was starting to rev.

And yet, Mandella could not say no when security guard Wanda Johnson asked for one last cellphone photo with Beholder. Groom Ruben Mercado held on tight, the trainer forced a genial smile through his nerves, and Johnson stepped in quickly for a picture to remember.

“Now go on girl, do your thing,” Johnson said as the entourage departed. “This is your house.”

Santa Anita had been Beholder’s house for five years, from her breakthrough win in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, to her disdainful treatment of Royal Delta and Close Hatches in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, to her return earlier this year at 6, determined to prove that age was not an issue.

She had held court in the corner stall across from the office, taunting Mandella at his desk with a mischievous sneeze, snorting at the sight of a sucker with a treat, making a mess on the ground of Mercado’s neatly packed hay net. To maneuver anywhere in the Mandella barn, you first had to deal with Beholder – kiss the ring, offer a mint – otherwise there would be heck to pay.

On this day, though, heavy hearts were in fierce competition with the kind of quiet excitement that kids feel on Christmas Eve. Yes, Beholder had lost her last three races, two of them to Stellar Wind. And yes, there was the looming spectre of Songbird, with her 11 starts' worth of unchallenged perfection, a 3-year-old in name only.

“I really don’t see any change in her,” Mandella insisted, even as the skeptics at the windows rendered Beholder third choice in the Distaff betting. “I know there are doubters. I’ll just have to believe what I see.”

A few minutes later, after going to the receiving barn for the last time, getting her lip flipped and her shoes checked, then walking through an appreciative gauntlet of fans in the paddock gardens, Beholder threw one of her mini-fits and kicked Mandella in the hand while saddling. The trainer shook it off – it was a long way from his heart, as Charlie Whittingham would say – and described once again the nature of the beast.

“Ninety percent of the time she’s a sweetheart,” Mandella said. “The other 10 percent, watch out. She can be dynamite.” Clearly, the fuse was lit.

Watching the Distaff with any degree of neutrality required a certain amount of chilly discipline. Not since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer met in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for their fourth and final battle of 1989 has the confluence of two outsized talents been so anticipated, and the presence of champion Stellar Wind, second in the race in 2015, added heft to the occasion.

Then again, all that was on paper. In the real world it was unreasonable to predict that the race would be as exciting as the desperate duels of Ginger Punch and Hystericalady in the slop of Monmouth Park, or of Hollywood Wildcat and Paseana, when Eddie Delahoussaye dropped his whip and hollered his filly home, or the drama of 1989, when Bayakoa swatted away four Wayne Lukas fillies to win her first of two straight Distaffs.

And it was downright sacrilegious to even suggest that some day there would be a Breeders’ Cup Distaff that remotely resembled the 1988 running, when Personal Ensign somehow found that last ounce of will to nod Winning Colors and a much younger Gary Stevens on the wire in the gloaming of Churchill Downs.

“You okay?” Mandella asked his foreman, Jose Vera, who stood near the stairway to the box seats overlooking the finish line, gazing at the jumbo screen image of Beholder warming up.

Vera replied with a tight smile and a nod, then headed for the rail, while Mandella settled in with his wife, Randi, and daughter, Andrea. All eight of Mandella’s Breeders’ Cup wins had come at Santa Anita, and if he ever wanted a ninth it was now.

The history of the 2016 Distaff will note that Stellar Wind stood dazed when the gates opened, while Songbird and Beholder burst forth from their inside and outside stalls. I’m a Chatterbox and Florent Geroux elbowed their way into the plot early, chasing Songbird and Mike Smith, and getting a “merci” from Gary Stevens in the bargain.

“Of course I liked seeing someone go after Songbird,” Stevens said. “The last thing I wanted to do was have to take my mare out of her game.”

As Songbird cruised, Stevens and Beholder began their assault entering the far turn. Forever Unbridled was putting in a strong run as well, which gave Stevens pause.

“I heard something coming and thought it had to be Stellar Wind,” Stevens said. “I was ready for it to be the three of us from there. But it wasn’t her, and when Forever Unbridled couldn’t keep up it was just us two.”

The bitter rules of racing dictate that one horse wins and the rest lose. Dead-heats are rare as hens’ teeth and never particularly satisfying unless, like Mandella has before in the Breeders' Cup, you train one of the winners. Neither Stevens nor Smith, with 104 years between them, were ready to go quietly. It was punch-counterpunch from the top of the stretch to the wire.

“You know what amazed me?” said Janeen Painter, the former jockey better known as Beholder’s exercise rider. “Songbird had never been headed before. As a rider, I know they can sometimes get confused when it happens for the first time. But she never blinked. Every time Beholder looked like she had her, Songbird came on again.”

Up in the stands, owner Wayne Hughes was torn. His decision to keep Beholder in training for her 6-year-old season was coming down to a final, frantic stretch run.

“I wanted to close my eyes,” Hughes said. “But I didn’t dare.”

As the crowd of more than 45,000 went nuts, Beholder, Songbird, and the finish line came together in a blur. Larry Collmus called it for Beholder on NBC and Stevens agreed, although later, when he was given a print of the official finish, he was heard to go, “Gulp!”

“I knew it was close,” Stevens said. “I didn’t know it was that close.”

Smith refused to be downhearted. For the first time, Songbird did not celebrate in the winner’s circle.

“I treated her just like I do when she wins,” Smith said. “I patted her and gave her some love. And when I brought her back, the fans were cheering her. She doesn’t know she lost, and I don’t feel like she did. The other mare won.”

Storybook endings happen only in storybooks. This was a joyous exception. Beholder's record will live on long after she is retired to Spendthrift Farm as the winner of three Breeders’ Cup events and four Eclipse Award titles. But to an even greater point, the Distaff of Beholder and Songbird literally passed the torch from one generation to another.

“Coming down the stretch, Winning Colors actually came into my mind,” Stevens said. “I really didn’t want it to end up that way again.

“But today, with these two, the only thing better would have been a dead heat,” Stevens added. “I mean that. The money doesn’t matter. They both deserved to win.”