A racing fan watched the post-race interviews conclude after the Cotillion at Parx Racing Saturday and called to me from the far side of the winner's circle. "Joe, hey Joe, Joey, hey Joey, come here. What did Jerry say? What does Rick want to do? Which Breeders' Cup race are they going to run in? They have to run in the Classic, don't they? They have to test her. If she's a great one, she's got to be tested. It's the Classic, right?"
Wrong. It was never the Classic. It was always the Distaff.
Jerry Hollendorfer, a Hall of Fame trainer of champions, said so. Rick Porter, an owner well versed in the highest highs and the lowest lows of Thoroughbred racing, said so too. And they're right.
Undefeated 3-year-old filly Songbird, trained by Hollendorfer for Porter's Fox Hill Farm, aims for the Breeders' Cup Distaff and a likely match-up with champions Beholder and Stellar Wind Nov. 4. As Hollendorfer put it Saturday, that assignment will be tough enough.
"We're trying to think in the smartest way in handling this filly," he said while standing next to Porter. "You come to a point in the road where you have to meet the big ones and there are a couple of big ones out there at Santa Anita in Beholder and Stellar Wind. Those horses can really run and our horse can really run so we'd like to try those and I think that's good competition if we all get there. You have to get there first. We'll be looking forward to it if we can get there and I think we can."
Boy I hope that guy at Parx reads that quote.
Hollendorfer thinks Songbird can get to the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Nobody but a horse trainer talks like that about a horse as good as Songbird. She's run 11 times, and won them all. She's a champion. She's earned $3.3 million. She's been first in 45 of 54 points of call in her races. She runs with a fluidity and an ease that baffles even her all-world jockey Mike Smith.
Hollendorfer doesn't care. The Distaff, Songbird's first start against older rivals, comes next. The Classic will be left to California Chrome, Arrogate and the rest. It's the right call. The trainer's first job is not to "test" Songbird, it's to take care of Songbird. Every day of her life as a racehorse is a test. And if you don't get that, you don't get trainers and horses. Hollendorfer trained Shared Belief, who won 10 of his first 11 races, but was injured coming out of the starting gate (at 3-10) in the 2015 Charles Town Classic. Less than eight months later, the champion died of colic.
Porter doesn't care either, though he probably thought about the Classic a little more seriously than Hollendorfer. Porter is the risk-taker of the two. He's the guy who ran Havre de Grace against males as part of her Horse of the Year campaign in 2011. He's also the guy who ran Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. She finished second, but broke down while galloping out and was euthanized. The court of public opinion was not kind. I wouldn't have begrudged Porter if he never ran another horse, let alone one who made it to the biggest stages in racing.
"The Distaff is the race to run her in, Jerry and I agree," Porter said Saturday, while standing next to Hollendorfer.
A reporter asked if the owner had any second thoughts on that choice. "No," was the immediate answer. "You know, Jerry doesn't like to run against the boys," Porter said. "I only like to when we win. The time will come next year when we talk about it."
I hope they talk about it for a long time. Like that guy at Parx, the racing fan in me hopes they go for it. The trainer's son in me hopes they don't. Neither decision will be wrong.
Songbird will be 4 next year, older and more mature. She won't be at the end of a campaign that started in February. She won't be, or probably won't be, the youngest horse in the race. Havre de Grace won the Cotillion in 2010 for trainer Tony Dutrow. The next year, she won the Woodward at Saratoga and finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic for trainer Larry Jones.
As she's proven this year and last, Songbird will be pretty tough to handle - for any rival - no matter where she goes. She won all four of her starts last year, rising from maiden in July to juvenile filly champion by the end of October. This year started in February. She won three at Santa Anita and was headed to the Kentucky Oaks before a fever sidelined her. She returned in June and won another Santa Anita stakes before winning two Grade 1 stakes - at 1 1/8 miles and 1 1/4 miles - at Saratoga.
Those victories in the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama were tests. She passed each, then aced the Cotillion. Next comes the Breeders' Cup Distaff, and champions Beholder and Stellar Wind, back home at Santa Anita.
"I'm a little bit happy, but you can't complain," Hollendorfer said of the end of the road trips - for now. "If it works out, how can you complain? We made a plan and we stuck with it and I think that shows a lot of the kind of team we have."
And the kind of filly they have. They can test her when they think she's ready.
Cotillion Slideshow from Tod Marks (click on image below).