Beautiful Song

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Mike Smith let the question dangle, let it roll around in his head, let it swim like a whiskey over ice. Over the phone, it’s hard to see, but there’s no doubt, Smith looked up at the sky, squinted his eyes like mail slots and blew a kiss in the air.

Royal Delta, Zenyatta, Azeri, Sky Beauty, Inside Information, Heavenly Prize…

“As far as the ones I’ve ridden, I’d say, she’s probably most like Inside Information, high cruising speed, gears, well balanced,” Smith said. “In saying that, it’s hard to compare any of them, they’re all so good in their own ways. She’s done absolutely nothing wrong, hope we can continue to grow and get better and see where it takes us.”

Yes, Songbird belongs in Smith’s Distaff Hall of Fame (he’s got a separate roll call for the boys). Four-for-four last year, resounding Eclipse Award winner, she returned for her 3-year-old debut, taking on five overmatched rivals last Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

The daughter of Medaglia d’Oro picked up where she left off, with a stroll in the Grade 2 Las Virgenes. Using his natural light touch, Smith perches over Songbird’s withers like he’s doing another photo shoot for ESPN, she does the rest. Saturday, she opened up 2 lengths, then 2 1/2, then 6, then 10, then dropped it back down to 6 1/2 lengths after a mile in a geared down 1:36.84. Geared down, as in, weighed-in-saddle-cleaned-on-the-way-to-dinner geared down.

“It was just as it looked, literally, a public exhibition, she just went around there cruising on her own, I never even got down to really ask her,” Smith said. “She’s bigger, mentally she’s so much stronger and sure of herself and so confident, she was having a good time out in the post parade. When she first started running she’d get a little nervous, a little hot and washy, she was as cool as could be.”

After four wins by a combined 22 lengths, it was hard to imagine the dark bay filly getting better. And then she went out and looked better.

“It’s scary, the sky’s the limit for her. She has such a high cruising speed, man, I’ve never even had to ask her for everything yet,” Smith said. “So far I haven’t had to worry, just slowing her down, like, ‘Hey, let’s not do too much.’ She’s very well balanced, both leads, she’ll fall into a turn and, man, whoosh, she’ll hit a gear, wow, you look back and you’ve opened up six, seven on them, like, ‘where the heck did that come from?’ It’s crazy.”

As for the list of greats, she’s on it. And climbing.

“With so much more time left in her career, look at what she’s already done, she’s put herself up there with some of the best of them, we’ve just barely started her 3-year-old year, who knows when this year is over and her 4-year-old year,” Smith said. “I’ve been blessed to have ridden so many good horses, each one took me to a new level. Holy Bull, Lure, Thirty Six Red was really my first graded stakes horse. Zenyatta, Azeri, Inside Information…the list seems to go on and on and it hasn’t stopped yet. I hope it doesn’t stop. Each one takes you somewhere higher and higher.”

–  Gary Stevens, 52, has a list of greats, as well. And it’s growing as well. The Hall of Famer added Mor Spirit to the list as the Bob Baffert-trainee added the Grade 3 Robert E. Lewis, a race before Songbird’s demolition job. Owned by Michael Lund Petersen, the son of Eskendereya stalked and slammed Uncle Lino and I Will Score.

It’s only February, but Mor Spirit has the look of a May horse. He’s now won three of five (with two seconds), comes from off the pace and is gradually getting better.

– While Songbird and Mor Spirit stole the show early Saturday at Santa Anita, French-bred Flamboyant won the Grade 2 San Marcos and did it well enough that the track’s publicity department pegged him as the “now horse in California’s marathon turf division.” The 5-year-old son of the Sunday Silence stallion Peer Gynt added the San Marcos to his win in the Grade 2 San Gabriel last month, which followed a string of 10 losses that included a stretch of five straight off-the-board efforts.

Hoppertunity won the gallop out when he met California Chrome in the Grade 2 San Pasqual in early January and won the race this time – without the 2014 Horse of the Year in the field. The 5-year-old son of Any Given Saturday not only won the Grade 2 San Antonio by a nose from Imperative to earn a trip to Dubai for the $10 million World Cup but he also ended a nine-race losing skid.

– Gulfstream Park rolled out a six-pack of stakes Saturday, including back-to-back Grade 1s to close the card. Mshawish became a Grade 1 winner on turf and dirt when he rolled to a 2-length victory in the Donn Handicap for trainer Todd Pletcher. The 6-year-old by Medaglia d’Oro won the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap on last year’s Donn undercard.

After 20 consecutive starts on turf and synthetic, Mshawish switched to the dirt in November, finishing fourth in the Cigar Mile.

“It was something we talked about all the way back to Saratoga 2014. When he came in, he was very impressive to watch breeze on the dirt, but we always had turf options, if you look at his form from Europe, his turf form was good, we weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel,” Pletcher said. “He ran a bang-up race in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile, after that, it was like, ‘OK, we’ve got to try the dirt.’ He just hung a little in the Cigar Mile, it was creditable enough to keep moving forward on the dirt.”

Mshawish came back to win the Hal’s Hope on the dirt in January and secured the Donn, going 9 furlongs on the dirt and booking his ticket to Dubai for the Dubai World Cup.

“We were impressed in the Hal’s Hope. After we saw that race, we felt like we needed to make a decision on what would be the best option for Dubai, I think we answered the question we were hoping to answer, to earn a shot in the World Cup,” Pletcher said. “We needed to see it in a Grade 1 scenerio, two turns, I loved the way he finished, the way he galloped out. Does that mean he’s going to get a mile and a quarter against the best horses in the world, we don’t know, but it gives us room for optimism. The World Cup has an international flavor with an extra helping of America.”

Canadian champion Lukes Alley, second to Heart To Heart last time in the Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale, appreciated the extra sixteenth in the 9-furlong Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and got up to beat the pesky Shining Copper by a neck with The Pizza Man a non-threatening fifth as the favorite.

Lukes Alley improved his career record to 8-for-14 (with four seconds) while claiming his biggest career victory. A homebred of Eugene Melnyk, Lukes Alley is by Melnyk’s Travers winner Flower Alley, out of Melnyk’s undefeated A.P. Indy mare Vaulcluse. Canadian-based Josie Carroll trains Lukes Alley.

– Kiaran McLaughlin racked up a career-best $9,635,721 in purses last year and the barn is off to a quick start in 2016. Two days after Frosted got his 4-year-old campaign off to a winning start in Dubai, Lady Shipman won her sophomore debut and first for McLaughlin in the $75,000 Ladies’ Turf Sprint Stakes. Power Alert took the day’s other turf sprint stakes, defeating Amelia’s Wild Ride in the $75,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint.

– Marquee Miss lived up to her name Saturday at Oaklawn Park, edging Grade 1 winner Nickname in the $100,000 Martha Washington to earn a spot back in graded company next time. Another 3-year-old that impressed in Hot Springs was Alex and JoAnn Lieblong’s Mo For The Money winning a 6-furlong allowance Sunday. The son of Uncle Mo raced well back after a bad break and won by 5 1/2 lengths for trainer Tony Dutrow.

– Trainer John Hertler, truly one of the game’s great guys, was lauded at Aqueduct after Storied Lady won the inaugural running of the $100,000 Biogio’s Rose for New York-breds. The win was the second of the year for Hertler from six starts and it was Storied Lady’s first win since the Bay Ridge Stakes Dec. 31, 2014 at Aqueduct.