11/04/2016 8:00PM

For Smith, another heartbreaking loss with a previously undefeated superstar

Barbara D. Livingston
Mike Smith aboard Songbird after the filly's nose loss to Beholder in Friday's Breeders' Cup Distaff.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Mike Smith has been here before.

While Smith is the all-time leader in wins in Breeders’ Cup history, he may also be the leader in heartbreaking defeats. Six years after Smith lost a heartbreaker in the Breeders’ Cup Classic when the previously undefeated Zenyatta fell a head short to Blame, Smith was on the short end of another photo finish in Friday’s $2 million Distaff at Santa Anita, where the previously undefeated Songbird lost by a nose to Beholder.

While Smith said “they both hurt” when asked to compare the losses, the Hall of Fame rider had a smile on his face Friday in the tunnel at Santa Anita. It was a far cry from the tears that streamed down his face in the interview room at Churchill Downs in 2010.

That loss signaled the end of Zenyatta’s career, one that went in the books with 19 wins and one second from 20 starts.

Songbird, while suffering her first career defeat in her 12th start, is expected to race again at age 4.

“The good thing … I’m praying  anyway, this mare’s going to run again next year,” Smith said. “She’s going to get bigger and stronger, and she’ll be a force to reckon with next year.”

Songbird has been a force to reckon with as a 2- and 3-year-old. She had won her first 11 starts by a combined 60 lengths, turning aside a few futile challenges to usually win comfortably.

The Distaff was going to be her sternest test, taking on older fillies and mares for the first time, including three-time champion Beholder and another champion in Stellar Wind.

Jerry Hollendorfer, the Hall of Fame trainer of Songbird, exuded confidence all week. And as he left the paddock after all the horses headed to the track, he said, “My opinion is we can win.”

Hollendorfer settled into a chair in the film theater alongside his longtime friend Marvin Kirsner. Hollendorfer watched as Songbird, as is her custom, made an easy lead through modest fractions of 23.32 seconds for the quarter, 47.16 for the half-mile, and 1:11.14 for six furlongs.

When Songbird entered the far turn and switched leads, Smith said he was hoping to put a length or two on the competition, as she had done in her prior races.

“But, man, she jumped on me,” Smith said, referring to Beholder. “I couldn’t do it.”

So, as Beholder hooked up with Songbird leaving the quarter pole, Hollendorfer jumped out of his chair and inched closer to the big-screen television above his head to watch the stretch drive.

As much as Beholder kept coming, Songbird kept fighting back. It wasn’t until the final yards that Beholder, a soon-to-be four-time champion, got her nose in front. Kirsner thought Songbird won it; Hollendorfer knew she hadn’t.

“The way I saw it coming down the lane, I didn’t think she would get past us, but she did at the end,” Hollendorfer said. “She is a champion, that’s what it took to beat us.”

Said Smith: “I think we saw the real Beholder show up today, maybe even the best race she’s ever run in her life. She had to do it to beat us. I take my hat off to her. She did it, and I’m just really proud of our filly.

“Most fillies would have caved, would have gave up; she never gave up,” Smith added. “Even galloping out, she was determined to stay with her anyway. Other than losing, it was an amazing, amazing race. That much more, and I would have been the one hooraying. Someone had to get there first, it just wasn’t our turn today.”

Just like six years ago.