When the gates of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff clanged open and a field of talented racehorses all uncoiled into action, two men sharing a decades old friendship were about to share something more special than anyone could have hoped for…
an epic battle between champions.
What unfolded was a showdown of champions; a home stretch run where two filly phenoms matched eye to eye, stride for stride, in a bid to reach the wire first.
What unfolded was two men–brothers at heart–matched eye to eye, stride for stride, each knowing only one could prevail. And though there was only one winner, and though victory was had by only the smallest of margins, it was a race that became one of the greatest moments in a brotherhood long in the making.
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It started in 1985, when nineteen year old Mike Smith shared a valet and a locker with Gary Stevens at Oaklawn Park. It was Gary’s first race for a purse of such magnitude, and young Mike admired the more accomplished jockey. For Mike, it was like the pair had been friends their whole lives–those were the first moments a brotherhood was formed. As the years have passed the men have grown closer, often looking to each other for advice and sharing in great defeats and great victories alike.
The pair have had many moments between them of successes that they have accumulated over the years, but for both men there is one moment they share that is particularly special:
“There have been so many great moments and they were hard to separate until (2016) with Beholder and Songbird coming down the stretch with my best friend riding Songbird.” Gary states.
“We didn’t talk about that race beforehand,” Mike recalls. “We talked about every race except for that one,” Gary echoes. “It’s almost like we’re telepathic…I knew where he was going to be, he knew what I was going to do. Throughout the race it was exactly how he had planned it – how I had planned it – and we knew it was going to be a battle from a quarter of a mile out.”
“We knew it was going to be a battle and we were both going to give it our all,” Mike remembers, “and when the dust settled we would see who was going to be in front.”
“And it was…” Gary says, “it was an epic, epic battle that I’ve never seen in a horse race, let alone competed in.”
“It was all it was supposed to be and more,” Mike adds. “When you come away from everything it was one of the few races where I didn’t even feel like we lost. [Songbird] ran so good, so hard, and they both hit the wire together. It was just incredible; they both ran their hearts out and we rode our hearts out… If i was going to get beat by anybody, well, who better to get beat by than my brother, you know?”
“The horses didn’t let anybody down. I think that we both rode flawless races and there really didn’t deserve to be a loser. Even though I won, it was bittersweet,” Gary admits.
In a moment where two filly phenomenons battled it out on a world stage, two champions–two brothers–lived a very different moment. A moment that was decades in the making, and that meant more to them than any of us could imagine.
“That was the moment,” Gary declares. “That was the moment that will never, ever, be topped – I can tell you that right now.”
Header photo by Samantha Bussanich and our friends at Eclipse Sportswire
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