Gary Stevens has seen some things. The kinds of things only visible from the saddle in a career spanning nearly four decades and 28,700 races. But in Friday’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita, the 53-year-old Hall of Fame jockey climbed an entirely new summit on the back of the peerless bay mare Beholder.
“I’ve had some good feelings in racing, but this is tops right here,” Stevens beamed just moments after piloting his champion past Songbird, the previously the unbeaten filly half her age, by a literal whisker.
It was the 18th career win and third Breeders’ Cup championship for Beholder, who joins Goldikova as the only three-time Breeders’ Cup winners in history. It’s also her last, as she’s set to depart from the stable of Richard Mandella for a well-earned retirement at the parcel of Kentucky paradise of owner B. Wayne Hughes. As her connections talked about the pre-race preparation and penultimate performance, you get the feeling she sensed it, too.
“She actually put Songbird away three different times through the stretch, and she kept coming back like she wouldn’t go away,” Stevens explained. “Even in Beholder’s previous three defeats it was almost like she knew she was beaten midway through the stretch and looked after herself. Today, she didn’t look after anything. She laid her heart out there on the racetrack and gave absolutely everything that was running through her veins, and it was fun to be a part of.”
In July, Beholder saw an 8 race win streak thwarted by the 4-year-old filly Stellar Wind. Two more runner-up efforts followed—she was no match for California Chrome in August, and yielded yet again to Stellar Wind last month. The public consensus seemed to be the mare had clearly lost a step and while still a force, the proverbial torch had already been passed down to her younger foes. She probably heard those whispers, too.
The great ones often possess an astuteness to match their athletic prowess. A perception beyond the basic task at hand, answering the bell when the call of duty becomes more than horse race.
“I’ve been in battles before, but never the length of the stretch,” Stevens continued. “It was a quarter mile of just a street fight.”
The same can be said for Songbird, whose career record is now but a few millimeters from perfection. A loss is a loss, but in defeat, Songbird proved she too is a once-in-a-generation type of talent who is expected to come back for a 4-year-old campaign.
“She ran incredible and I’m so proud of her,” said jockey Mike Smith. “The real Beholder showed up today, but my filly…she’s a true champion.”
Songbird entered the race a perfect 11-for-11, a displaying a devastating blend of sheer power and professionalism rarely seen among 3-year-olds. The filly shot from the gate in the rail position, carving out comfortable fractions while being flanked by multiple Grade I winner I’m A Chatterbox. Breaking from the outside, Beholder raced wide just off the pace before locking eyes with her rival at the top of the stretch. It was horse racing at its best. Two champions, all heart.
“It’s probably the most emotional race of my career because she’s so special to me and it’s her last race.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever have another horse like this, and I’m very grateful to have been a part of it,” said Hughes. “I really compliment Richard. I don’t know of any other trainer that could have taken a horse for six years and done what he’s done.
“For a 6-year-old, I would say the way she’s been managed throughout her career allowed her to do what she did on her final day of racing,” added Stevens.
Mandella, ever grateful for the fortune of having such ah horse under his care, will undoubtedly miss Beholder’s daily presence, even if it means a safer work environment.
“She kicked me on the way up,” the trainer joked. “90% of the time she’s the sweetest thing you could find. But the other 10% is dynamite. You better watch out.”
“I’ve never seen a racehorse stay at this peak form, and one that can be temperamental a little bit,” Stevens said. “She Thrives on racing. She thrives in her environment.”
It’s only fitting Beholder saved her best for last, on her home track no less. Here, under the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains, one of the sport’s all time greats cast her own one final time.