Eight horses exploded from the starting gate, quickly reaching almost 40 mph, competing for the world championship among female horses. Each had won top-level races. Six had garnered winnings exceeding $1 million, one had won $2 million, another $3 million and Beholder, the horse on the outside, had won well over $5 million over the past five years.
Pamela and I sat mesmerized as eight magnificent animals rushed toward the first turn, competing for position. We were in Southern California at the Breeders Cup, a two-day extravaganza of top-level racing, enjoying temperatures in the mid-70s along with more than 40,000 other horse-racing fans.
The female championship (Distaff) highlighted the first day’s races, matching two of the best female horses ever — Songbird and Beholder. Fate — the draw for post position — had placed those two horses in their favored positions. Songbird always takes the immediate lead and favors running next to the rail. Drawing post position 1 answered her trainer’s prayers. She had won all 11 of her races using this strategy.
This would be Beholder’s last race, her opportunity to go out on top. She prefers to stalk the leader from the outside, staying in third or fourth place. She stays there until the last furlong (eighth of a mile). With this approach, she had won 17 out of 25 races, including several against top male horses. Drawing post position 8 was ideal.
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Both horses’ dark brown coats shone in the soft late afternoon sun. Their riders, both in their early 50s, had been elected to the Jockey Hall of Fame and won thousands of races on thousands of horses. Gary Stevens, on Beholder, had artificial knees and had retired twice, once to star in the film “Seabiscuit.” Mike Smith, on Songbird, had won virtually every marquee race at least once, many several times, as had Stevens.
After the first quarter mile, it became clear that either Songbird or Beholder would win. They glided along effortlessly, as they coiled and sprang. The jockeys sat quietly, allowing their horses to determine how they would run. Songbird showed no sign of weakening, stting the pace as usual; Beholder stayed slightly behind, holding much in reserve.
At the final turn, after the initial mile, Songbird looked confident. She slingshot off the turn and gained another length, assuming Beholder could not catch her.
Stevens and Beholder responded with a powerful move that brought them even with Songbird, surprising horse and rider. The two horses suddenly strode side by side, neither willing to concede an inch. The race would be decided in the next 12 seconds and 220 yards.
French existential philosophers wrote about privileged moments, when time stands still and seconds expand enormously. Forty thousand spectators entered this hyperaware state as the moment riveted itself into their memory. Every instant took on heightened meaning and intensity.
Songbird and Beholder pinned their ears back, offering every ounce of strength and determination they possessed. While ordinarily a younger horse would yield at this point or the older horse would succumb to age, neither horse showed any sign of backing off.
The two horses traded the advantage as they bobbed their heads at each stride. It was impossible to determine which was ahead or which would win. As the finish line approached, 40,000 people screamed in anticipation, knowing they were watching a race they would remember forever.
As the horses flew through the finish line, the crowd screamed, uncertain as to the winner. Those around us buzzed with excitement. “What a race!” “Songbird had the final bob.” “Beholder caught her at the wire.” After an interminable wait of perhaps three minutes, the photo of the finish showed Beholder prevailing by less than 2 inches.
The crowd erupted. I happily clutched my betting slip, soon to be exchanged for $130, but realized it hardly mattered. What we’d won was more than money — it was the experience of two champions giving maximum effort, epitomizing what the sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote in 1932: It matters “not that you’ve won or lost, but how you played the game.”
Stuart Grover lives in Tacoma. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org