ARCADIA, Calif., Nov. 2 (UPI) – Friday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff pits champions Beholder and Stellar Wind against the undefeated 2-year-old champ from last year – Songbird – in one of the most-anticipated events of the weekend at Santa Anita.
Beholder won the 2012 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and the 2013 Breeders' Cup Distaff but was forced out of last year's Breeders' Cup after spiking a fever.
Stellar Wind just missed in last year's Distaff, finishing a half-length short of Stopchargingmaria. But in her last two races, at Del Mar and Santa Anita, she has beaten Beholder by narrow margins in small fields.
Songbird, a 3-year-old, has won all 11 starts, including five over the Santa Anita strip. She has never really been challenged and her smallest margin of victory has been 3 3/4 lengths. But Friday, she faces older rivals for the first time and, by any measure, more talented ones than the fellow 3-year-old fillies she has left in her wake this season.
Mike Smith, who rode Zenyatta throughout her almost-perfect career, also has been aboard Songbird for all 11 wins. Gary Stevens rides Beholder and Victor Espinoza, he of American Pharoah, California Chrome and "Dancing with the Stars" fame, will pilot Stellar Wind.
None of the riders was talking much on Wednesday about plans for the Distaff, which shapes up as a tactical race with all three horses normally running on or near the lead.
"I'm not going to give away what my race plan will be," said Stevens, who will start from the outside gate in a field of eight. "The race will be dictated by pace, as all races are. She's adaptable."
Stevens said despite three straight second-place finishes, Beholder has not lost a step.
"Her speed figures are every bit as fast as they were last year" when she won all five starts, Stevens said. "She's been an extremely consistent race mare throughout her career. She continues to train forwardly and train consistently and train willingly."
The Distaff likely is the last race for the 6-year-old Henny Hughes mare, trained by Richard Mandella and owned by Spendthrift Farm.
Smith said Songbird has begun to show promise of being something as exceptional in her own way as Zenyatta, whose only lost came in her last race in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"The good thing about her, that she has that a lot of other fillies don't have," Smith said, "is that her cruising speed is phenomenal. The mechanics, it's so easy for her that she's able to go really quick. I mean, I look over at the competition and they're struggling. You can see the struggle in their face. And we haven't even got ready yet.
"And so that's a plus for her," Smith added. "And then it's a matter of her being good enough at the end. At some point, they're going to come at her. I gotta keep on running."
Smith was bitterly disappointed when Zenyatta lost to Blame in the Classic, coming up just short with a desperate late run. At the time, he blamed himself for the loss. Now, he more correctly sees it as a learning experience.
"Without you even realizing it, I think the experience teaches you something," Smith said. "Even if you already know what it taught you. For some reason, I'm more comfortable than I was the last time Zenyatta ran."
For Espinoza, Stellar Wind is another in a phenomenal series of mounts. After riding California Chrome to two-thirds of the Triple Crown in 2014, he completed that challenge with American Pharoah last year -- an accomplishment that landed him a spot on last fall's edition of "Dancing with the Stars," where he was accorded an early exit.
With American Pharoah retired, Espinoza returned to California Chrome, won this year's $10 million Dubai World Cup despite having his saddle slip, then won all three starts upon his return to the United States.
A win aboard Stellar Wind on Saturday would set Espinoza up for a Distaff-Classic double.
While attention centers firmly on the top three, none of the other five in the Distaff is exactly chopped liver. Three of the four -- I'm a Chatterbox, Curalina and Forever Unbridled, are Grade I winners. Land Over Sea seems a bit out of her depth but did win the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks in the springtime and finished second in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks.
Corona Del Inca is a Group 1 winner in her native Argentina and a true wild card here. She got into the Distaff through the Breeders' Cup Challenge program that awards automatic starting spots to the winners of selected races.