August 2016 | Unbeaten Songbird Soars Into Saratoga
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Unbeaten Songbird Soars Into Saratoga

Terry Conway - August 2016

Race after race she is marching her way into the ranks of female racing royalty. Zenyatta.  Rachel Alexandra. Royal Delta. Rags to Riches. All thoroughbred magnets that have connected so passionately with racing fans. Now it's Songbird's time.

She kept her perfect record by winning an eighth straight race with yet another dominating performance, taking the $200,000 Summertime Oaks (Grade-2) by 6 ½ lengths under Mike Smith at mile and a sixteenth at Santa Anita on June 18. Songbird rated kindly early in the race then went by Bellamy headed into the far turn and looked like she was cantering all the way home. Typical of her recent races, Smith geared her down for the final furlong.

“Her cruising speed is just amazing,” Smith noted. “She started lengthening her stride on the backstretch.  I knew she was fine, I just had to stay out of her way. She did it with ease. She's got things figured out at a young age. It scares me to think how good she can be."

"She was very comfortable, with her ears up, looking for something," added trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. "The opportunity presented itself to be just a little off the pace and now we’ve shown everyone we can do that."

In her eight victories, including seven graded wins and four Grade-1s, Songbird has yet to be tested with a serious challenge in the stretch.  However, after her victory in the Santa Anita Oaks a low-grade fever prevented Songbird from starting in the $1 million Kentucky Oaks where she would have been the heavy favorite on May 6. She missed 17 days of training before returning to the track in early May.

The big, bay filly is a daughter of the great stallion Medaglia d’Oro out of the Grade-2 winning West Acre mare Ivanavinalot. She is bred along similar lines to Medaglia d'Oro's best performer-- 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra-- both being out of Forty Niner-line mares.

From her first start Songbird has exhibited exceptional speed and class-- traits of a classic racehorse. Rick Porter, a native of Wilmington, Del., races the filly in his distinctive red and white Foxhill Farm colors. Seven of her races have been in southern California—either at Santa Anita or Del Mar. Her one away game ended with the same result-- a decisive victory in the 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland. Songbird’s unbeaten season and Breeders’ Cup win clinched her the Champion Two Year Old Female Eclipse award.

Porter is the third generation of his family to own automotive dealerships dating back to 1925. He got his start in the thoroughbred business by claiming two horses in 1994.

“It’s such a fantastic feeling when you get a horse like this,” Porter said. "I’ve had some good ones, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had one this good. If it doesn’t put a smile on your face the way she’s been running, maybe you should try another business. She runs these quick fractions in just a gallop and when Mike urges her a little she takes off like a bullet. When Mike knows she's going to win, he just gears her down. 

"Jerry talks about what a great mind she has and how she's easy to train. It’s so exciting to see the horse perform time after time unasked. I’m so fortunate to have a horse like this.”

Songbird has won her eight starts by a combined 42 1/2 lengths. With the $120,000 winner’s share of the Summertime purse, her earnings now stand at $2,102,000.

Named for Singer
Porter named the filly for the late Eva Cassidy, a shy, and relatively unknown performer who sang jazz, blues, rock and gospel. Cassidy died in November 1996 of cancer at age 33. Two years later her angelic rendition of "Over the Rainbow" was played on BBC2 radio in the UK and became a sensation. It resulted in the compilation of her work in the album "Songbird."

"My longtime assistant Victoria Keys discovered the story of Eva Cassidy," Porter related. " There is some great music on her album, including the song 'Songbird,' originally sung by Fleetwood Mac. Everyone ought to listen to it. I just love her voice. We've been in touch with Eva's family about them coming to Saratoga to watch our filly run."

Songbird’s next appearance was to be at Saratoga in the Coaching Club American Oaks (Grade-1) on July 24. She has been slated to tackle Acorn Stakes victor Carina Mia and Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia. The $600,000 Alabama Stakes (Grade-1) will be next on Aug. 20. Then it's on to the $1 million Cotillion Stakes (Grade-1) at Parx racetrack on Sept. 24 which will be used as a prep race for likely the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Nov. 4. Porter said Songbird might run in the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic if she is at the top of her game.

"I've been hearing reports that Cathryn Sophia might opt out and go in the Test Stakes," Porter said. "That's too bad, we are looking forward to competing against both of them. Either way it's a dream come true bringing Songbird to Saratoga for a pair of Grade-1 races. It doesn't get any better. I'm sure there will be a huge and spirited crowd for those races."

Overmatched rivals
Over the past decade Porter has owned some top-flight racehorses. He campaigned 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, who defeated males in the Woodward and finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Havre de Grace sold for a record $10 million at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton November Sale, the highest price ever for a broodmare at public auction. He also raced two Kentucky Derby runners-up, the colt Hard Spun (2007) and the filly Eight Belles (2008). He won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff with Round Pond.

Bred in Kentucky by John Antonelli, Songbird was put on Porter's longtime bloodstock agent Tom McGreevey's short list. He purchased her for $400,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton New York Saratoga yearling sale.   McGreevey also bought Hard Spun and Havre de Grace for Foxhill Farm.

When McGreevy evaluates a sales prospect he looks for a beautiful walk, a fluid movement that shows that all of the yearling's parts fit together. Then there are the intangibles, such as confidence and attitude and how a young horse deals with the pressure of a busy, noisy sales venue. It's their first time away from a farm, their first exposure to a city environment. It tends to reflect how the young horse will handle the physical and mental stress of performing at a racetrack.

"At the sales you want them to come out of the stall and be able to adapt very quickly to this new environment," McGreevey explained. "You want the horse to appear confident in everything they do. Songbird has been like that from the get- go."

Porter sends his young horses in the fall to Bill Recio and his team in Ocala: Eugene Recio, Lila Aquirre and Allyson Walker who rode Songbird from her earliest days. Together, they teach young horses step by step the ropes of the racing game. In the training business since 1970, Recio also tutors young horses from Lane's End Farm and Lael Stable-- Roy and Gretchen Jackson's racing operation.

"Songbird arrived as a grand looking filly with a great mind, comfortable everywhere she went," recalled Reci, 68. "She had such a fluid way of moving and very high energy. She never made mistakes, never got tired, both very rare. After a work she came back as fresh as when she went out. The only thing that concerned me was she didn't grow until April, then she really shot up.

"We match the babies up evenly head-to-head, so as not to damage their spirits. I put Songbird with a nice filly by Tapit in the morning and all of a sudden Songbird starts running away from that filly.  Afterwards Allyson tells me, 'I can't hold her back anymore.' But you know she's such a sweetheart. Never out of line, did everything the right way.  So confident. The babies go out across an expansive field to work and there's Songbird out ahead of the lead pony, not back with the rest of the babies.  With a filly like Songbird, I was just patient and tried to stay out of the way. She was truly a gift."

When his longtime trainer Larry Jones was unable to take any more horses in 2015, Porter sent Songbird to Hollendorfer's barn at Santa Anita. The Hall of Fame trainer conditioned Blind Luck who defeated Havre de Grace by a neck and a nose in 2011. A gracious and unassuming man, Hollendorfer ranks third all-time in total victories with more than 7,100 wins and counting.

"We’re very grateful to have a filly that can do the things she can," said the 70-year old trainer. “We liked her from the very beginning. You don't really expect to get horses that win that easily, or win by a lot."

Songbird broke her maiden at Del Mar, winning at six furlongs by 6 ½ lengths. In her next two stakes it was the same story-- shooting to the lead, galloping at a comfortable pace and then pulling clear on the far turn to win easily at Santa Anita. 

“When she came to Jerry's barn, from the first time I got on her I knew she was the real deal," observed jockey Smith, 50, who was contemplating retirement until Songbird arrived. "The way she runs is so dominant. She’s so big and has a huge stride for her age."

In the filly's final race of the season, the 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (Grade-1) at Santa Anita, Songbird demolished nine foes steadily drawing away on Oct. 31.  Smith has collected 22 Breeders' Cup victories, the most in the history of the event.

Effortless Performances
After the victory Porter sent the filly to Winstar Farm for a thirty-day rest and to be evaluated by Dr. Larry Bramlage who performed a nuclear scan that she passed with flying colors. Songbird returned to training in California last December.

At odds of 1-10 in the Las Virgenes Stakes, Songbird blew away her five opponents by 6 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita on February 7. In the Santa Ysable Stakes also at Santa Anita the champion filly went to the lead early and cruised home on March 5. She upped her record to 6-for-6 with a 3 3/4-length romp.

It was more of the same in Santa Anita Oaks on April 5. Her toughest opponent that day was the sloppy and sealed track. It didn't faze her. Racing on an off-track for the first time, Songbird turned in another effortless performance covering 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.14

“She’s just incredible," Smith raved. "I keep pinching myself, having to remind myself that I’m the one that gets to keep the weight on her. That’s really all I do. She’s so professional, so good at everything. She was spinning her wheels a little bit going into the first turn but once we got to the backside, she found her rhythm and she got comfortable and it was all her again. 

"She has gears and mentally this year she's upped her game.  She gives you so much confidence. I'm blessed to be part of this team."

Porter was confident that Songbird would handle the off track in the Santa Anita Oaks.

"We’ve found that most really good horses can handle any kind of surface – today, she didn’t show us anything different," Porter observed.

From the start of the year the owner was peppered with questions on whether his filly would compete in the Kentucky Derby. He never wavered in his stance.

"She was too young to battle the colts in a 20-horse stampede," Porter said. "It would have been too tough for her running against colts multiple times in prep races. She only turned three on April 30. I wasn't looking to increase her broodmare value. She's pretty much already reached optimal value, other than being named 'Horse of the Year.' If she's healthy and doing well, I would like to race her at 4 and 5."

Still, the speculation continues to when she'll take on the boys. Mike Smith has no doubts.

"She can run a lot faster," Smith insisted. "If I’d even just gathered her up and asked her, there’s no telling how fast she can run. As for taking on males, she’s been ready. She’s just that special.”