An Epic Distaff
By Jonathan Stettin
There have been many great horse races that turned into epic battles of heart and will. The 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff definitely falls into that category by any standards. This race just was not a test of heart, will, and determination for only the horses, but for the riders and trainers as well. Especially when it comes to the first two finishers, Beholder, under Gary Stevens, and Songbird under Mike Smith.
This race was not jockey Gary Stevens first dance in an epic Distaff. If you go back to Churchill Downs and 1988, Gary rode Winning Colors, who he had won the Kentucky Derby on earlier that year to a gut wrenching second to the great and undefeated Personal Ensign. Gary put Winning Colors where she liked to be that day, on the lead, and it looked like the strong filly was going to be able to carry her speed all the way. Personal Ensign, under Randy Romero, just did not know how to lose. She rallied on a track she appeared not to like and won a photo you’d have a hard time putting a sheet of paper through. Gary still recalls that race today like it was yesterday and as with any true champion it is motivating to not let it happen again. He didn’t.
Fast forward to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff of 2016. Not only did Gary not know if he’d be riding the race and his big mare earlier in the year, nobody knew if the great Beholder would even be there. The prior year, 2015, Beholder was heading to the Breeders’ Cup in career form. She romped against the boys in the Pacific Classic in one of her best performances and she jogged in the Grade 1 Zenyatta. Both races with Gary in the irons. That was supposed to be her last year, but things changed. That happens in the Sport of Kings. Beholder missed the Breeders’ Cup and had she run, Mike Smith and not Gary Stevens would have ridden her. Gary, her regular rider had to take a hiatus to have a full knee replacement. With Mike having been given the replacement call for the Breeders’ Cup, Gary was not sure he would ride her back when her connections announced she’d be back for a 2016 campaign with the Breeders’ Cup as the goal.
Gary kept the mount, and deservedly so. He continued to be an integral part of the Beholder campaign, and having a rider with Gary’s experience, talent and resume can only help to get a top horse to peak on the day you want them to. Having Richard Mandela calling the shots increases that edge tenfold as few if any are better at getting one ready for a big dance. The team was in place, but Mike Smith joined his own team with a worthy adversary doing the running, a fast-classy filly named Songbird. These two would not meet until the Distaff later in the year, but unbeknownst to anyone a collision course was underway.
Songbird, under Mike Smith, and prepared by Jerry Hollendorfer, a man who also knows his way to the winners’ circle, ran the table in 2016. Her speed and class carried her all the way home everywhere she raced. She would go into the Breeders’ Cup Distaff undefeated as Personal Ensign had back in 1988. The difference here was Songbird was the three-year old, and Beholder the older mare. A reversal from three-year old Winning Colors and older Personal Ensign.
Beholder did not have as smooth a run to the Distaff. As opposed to entering as the champion she was, she came in as somewhat a forgotten horse who many said had lost a step. Gary knew that was not the case at all.
Beholder started the year with two easy cruise control victories Gary describes as paid workouts. Then things got interesting. Stellar Wind, who Gary and Richard Mandela respected, but felt was no Beholder upset their mare at 10 cents to the dollar in the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch. It was a tough fought half-length loss but there was no panic. Gary knew Beholder was not fully cranked up, and the eyes were on the prize, the Distaff to end the year and great career. Beholder went against the boys again in the Pacific Classic and caught California Chrome on one of his best days, again without her being all the way revved up. The goal stayed the goal. In the Grade 1 Zenyatta Beholder was more prepared for the re-match with Stellar Wind. 100% cranked, no, but more cranked then when she lost that half length race earlier in the year. Stellar Wind surprised Beholder again and beat her by only a neck this time. Nonetheless she beat her last two times on the square. With those two losses, the loss to California Chrome, and Songbird running the table, Beholder was heading to the distaff as the forgotten horse who lost a step and wasn’t as good as she was the year prior. It was time to tighten the screws. By race time Gary felt his mare was ready.
Gary and Mike Smith are close friends. That doesn’t mean they don’t like and strive to beat each other on the racetrack. They do. Competitors are that way, and you don’t get to where either of these riders did without being a competitor. Gary has been that way since he was a kid striving to compete and beat his brother Scott, an accomplished and excellent rider in his own right. Gary felt Mike and Songbird were the ones to beat heading into the Distaff.
Despite the friendship, and pending chess-match, not a word about it was spoken between the two jockeys leading into the race.
Fortunately for Gary and the Beholder camp there was one more smile than there was an “Oh S…” Yes, there were two times in this epic Breeders’ Cup Distaff the winning Hall of Fame rider thought to himself “Oh S…”
The first smile came following the draw. Beholder drew outside, and that is what Gary was hoping for. It gave him options in the chess match he would not have had if Beholder drew inside. He felt he had a tactical advantage being outside of Songbird, the horse he knew he had to beat. He expected her to go for the lead, and he wanted to follow her around. The Hall of Famer felt he had an edge thanks to the draw.
“My plan was stalk and attack.”
Heading to the gate Gary was confidant.
“I wanted to let her know we weren’t going to the lead, so I kept her as calm and relaxed as I could.”
The second smile came shortly after the break. Mike Smith put Songbird on the front end and Gary sat back watching things unfold. He was exactly where he wanted to be, and Songbird was exactly where he thought she’d be. Gary, who knows as much as any rider could what is under him smiled at that point. Beholder felt like she did when she trounced males in the 2015 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. She won that race by just over 8 lengths, so there was reason to smile.
A little after they went a half mile in 47 flat Gary said to himself;
“Let’s see what this filly will do when a tough older mare hooks her.”
He gave Beholder a cue and she responded and get closer to Songbird. Songbird kept rolling and Gary had to ask his mare for some more. Beholder gave it and by the time they turned for home the two horses and their riders were engaged in a fight.
Gary, being a thinking rider, thought to himself right about the 1/8th pole;
“I’m gonna intimidate her, make it tight and tough on her.”
He floated in a bit just to make things very tight on the three-year old champ to his inside. We already know Mike Smith can handle that situation with the best of them, but could Songbird? Indeed, she could. Instead of weakening or being intimidated, Songbird showed heart, and class. She pinned her ears and dug in not giving an inch.
“She pinned her ears and was fighting back hard. She really started digging in and I thought to myself, Oh S…, what did I do?”
It was too late to do anything else at that point. The final 6-7 seconds was an all-out race and fight to the finish.
“Well, this is what we wanted I thought to myself as the wire neared. This is what everyone wants to see.”
“I pumped my fist right after the wire. I was sure I won.”
Shortly after the wire Mike Smith yelled over “Congrats.” Then came the second ‘Oh S…” Donna Brothers was on the pony covering the race and said to Gary are you sure you won?
“I just sank, I thought how I could have been wrong. Oh no.”
Donna yelled over it’s up, you won. I was relieved.
Then came the last smile. The one that counted the most.
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