Songbird looms large over a star-studded field for Friday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park, a 3-year-old filly taking on accomplished older rivals for the first time in the headlining event on the first day of the World Championships.
She's been the star attraction many times over, from her brilliant victory in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, when she looked like a winner the moment she walked into the Keeneland paddock, to this year's Santa Anita Oaks and Cotillion Stakes.
And who could forget her two victories at Saratoga Race Course, wins that came after owner Rick Porter and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer eschewed any sense of protecting the filly by keeping her at home and making the sporting decision to send her East to put her on the biggest stage.
The Saratoga Special covered her victories in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks and Grade 1 Alabama Stakes and figured what better time to relive the magic than before she bids for the Distaff against the likes of Stellar Wind, Beholder, Curalina and I'm A Chatterbox.
The three below appeared in the first Sunday issue of the season, July 27. Check out the July 27 issue, the Aug. 21 issue that covered Songbird's Alabama win and all 33 of our issues from 2016.
Champion filly Songbird stays undefeated after duel with Carina Mia
By Sean Clancy
Julien Leparoux looked victory in the eye. Sitting stone still aboard Carina Mia, the jockey sidled next to Mike Smith and Songbird, the first to look the undefeated champion in the eye in her nine-race career. Leparoux looked and liked what he saw, as the 3-year-old fillies locked onto each other nearing the quarter pole in the Coaching Club American Oaks Sunday.
"When I got to her, I was doing it very easily, I see Mike moving and not responding, I see the filly looking at me, looking, looking," Leparoux said. "She was not struggling but I really thought, 'Uh oh, maybe I got her in trouble today.' "
Smith thought the same thing.
"I think I panicked more than she did," the Hall of Famer said. "I got scared, she didn't."
Carina Mia grazed Songbird's right flank as she made the assault. Smith felt it. Songbird abhorred it.
"He hit her behind, which is fine, just to discourage her, but actually it was a mistake, because she jumped forward and I didn't have to do anything," Smith said. "I said thank you. When he touched her, I was like, 'Whoa, OK, good.' Then, she let him stay right there."
And then she didn't.
Turning into the stretch, Songbird and Carina Mia swapped to their right leads and it was over. Leparoux went from looking victory in Songbird's eye to feeling defeat in Carina Mia's legs.
"When we switched leads, yours went . . ." Leparoux said to Smith back at the jocks' room, glancing his hands across each other, a bullet past a post.
"Mine went . . ." Leparoux said, pulling his hands apart like a preacher forgiving a sinner.
Smith squinted and screeched.
"You scared me, I know that," Smith said. "That's the hardest anybody's made her run, by far. I've only had to let her run two jumps, you made me run for a sixteenth-of-a-mile, man, I mean, like, freaking run."
In eight starts, back to her maiden debut at Del Mar last summer, through the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in November to the Santa Anita Oaks in April to her most recent start in the Summertime Oaks, Songbird has broken sharply and controlled the race, her high cruising speed slicing a chasm between herself and her overmatched rivals. There had been 55 chances spread over eight races for a filly to hook Songbird and it hadn't happened.
Until Sunday at Saratoga.
Coming off consecutive scores, including a win in the Grade 1 Acorn in June, Carina Mia was just the one to make it happen. Trained by Bill Mott, the six-time winner broke next to Songbird and was the only rival with a weapon in the 9-furlong stakes. Songbird broke well from the rail while Carina Mia broke slightly slower. Smith sat, Leparoux nudged, forcing Smith to drape low and encourage Songbird for a few strides before establishing her usual spot, on stage, microphone in hand.
Outside in the four lane, Songbird loped through the first quarter mile in :23.86 and a half in :47.52 while Carina Mia settled, outside at Songbird's tail. Fourth choice Mo d'Amour found space in third on the rail, longshot Flora Dora followed her and Ashland winner Weep No More lagged in her customary spot in last.
Leaving the backside, Leparoux teed it up and went after Songbird.
"He came to me hard, which is a great move on his part," Smith said. "It caught me off guard more than anything, I didn't realize that filly had that kind of acceleration."
By the middle of the turn, Songbird's solo act had become a duet as Carina Mia attacked from the outside. Smith wasn't subtle, going from sitting to scrubbing on the 1-5 shot, while Leparoux hovered on the 2-1 second choice.
They turned for home in lockstep, with one question to be answered.
Does Songbird have fight? In eight starts, her brilliance had been on full display, but her moxie hadn't. Ability, yes. Fight, who knows?
Smith didn't even know that answer.
"I didn't know because it's never happened," Smith said, as he was mobbed by autograph seekers chanting anything from Zenyatta to Holy Bull to Songbird. "I always imagined that she would and certainly hoping that she would. Today, she showed something unbelievable."
Songbird switched to her right lead, Smith tapped her once left-handed, waved his whip and tapped her again.
"I've hit her before, only to get her going," Smith said. "Today I was worried."
Songbird turned worry into relief, maintaining as much as accelerating to win by 5 ¼-lengths, a margin that belied what had really happened.
Owned by Fox Hill Farm, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Songbird finished 9 furlongs (her first try at the distance) in 1:49.56.
It takes a champion to provide solace to the defeated.
"We tried her, we are the ones who tried her the best, I guess," Leparoux said. "We love our filly, I thought coming into the race, we had a great chance to win it, so I rode her to win. The plan was sit off of her and at the three-eighths pole, go ahead and make a race out of it. After that, she just has a big heart, I guess, and rebroke.
"We made a good race out of it, a good second, we just got beat by a champion."
As Smith pulled off Fox Hill Farm's silks, the Hall of Famer was already looking ahead.
"This race should make mine go up and it might hurt the other one. My mare's never had to dig, you know what it does to champions sometimes," Smith said, swelling up his chest. "All of a sudden, they've got some new air."
Different air, that's for sure.
The Best Medicine
Songbird, joyous fans complete big moment for Fox Hill's Porter
By Tom Law
Rick Porter walked out of the paddock Sunday after his Songbird and the rest of the Coaching Club American Oaks field went to the racetrack, made a quick right toward the clubhouse and was intercepted by a group of fans gathered by the various kiosks.
The lively group had assembled for a photo and reacted quickly when they spotted Porter, difficult to miss in his bright red jacket that matches the same hue on his Fox Hill Farm silks. They asked him to join the photo, he quickly accepted and cameras clicked away.
"If we win, come to the winner's circle," Porter told the group of about 15 before making his way again to the clubhouse and eventually to a hastily borrowed box in the second row on the finish line. The group didn't crash the winner's circle presentation after Songbird crushed the Coaching Club American Oaks field, not that Porter would have minded and he actually chatted with one of the men after a television interview. Those fans, and thousands of others, weren't shy about recognizing the owner for his filly and his sportsmanship in bringing her to Saratoga from her Southern California base.
Songbird and Mike Smith jogged back in front of the clubhouse stands for the presentation and the cheers continued to echo through the grounds as Porter led the undefeated champion into the winner's circle.
The scene was quite a bit different than three months earlier, when Songbird missed the Kentucky Oaks with an illness and Porter nearly lost his life. Porter started treatment for lymphoma last fall – his first two chemotherapy sessions coming before and after Songbird's dominating win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland – and he suffered a setback this spring.
"We went back to Florida after the Santa Anita Oaks and I got sick," Porter said Sunday in the Saratoga Room, where he watched the CCA Oaks at least five times with friends and family. "I started having fevers, night sweats, nobody could figure it out. They put me in the hospital for six days, and I don't remember any of it. I was going down the tubes.
"Finally they got me home to Delaware, where they found it had transformed from the indolent, non-aggressive form of lymphoma, which only happens in 2 percent of the people, into a very aggressive type of lymphoma. They gave me chemo as soon as I got to Delaware. I responded. It took awhile. I was in the hospital three weeks. My doctor, I'm sort of friends with him, he told me later he said, 'Rick, when I saw you on Sunday, May 1, I didn't think you were going to live, so I'm counting my blessings."
Songbird is obviously a big blessing, the latest top-class runner to carry Porter's white and red colors along with the likes of Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and graded stakes winners Hard Spun, Round Pond, Jostle, Joyful Victory, Eight Belles and Rockport Harbor.
"I've been good since then; got out of the hospital May 18," Porter said. "I'm seeing a doctor I've been seeing for a while and another at the Dana-Farber (Cancer Institute), one of the top blood-cancer centers, the two of them are working together. I'm pretty lucky, plus I've got a good horse. It makes you happy. And I've been pretty fortunate to have some good ones and this one might be the best. I didn't think there would ever be one better than Havre de Grace."
Early on the people closest to Songbird – Porter, bloodstock agent Tom McGreevey and Bill Recio of Lynwood Stable based at Florida's Classic Mile Park – weren't even sure she was the best 2-year-old filly in the Fox Hill contingent.
Then it was Southern Girl, a daughter of Tapit purchased for $775,000 at the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale, who was considered the best. Songbird, who brought $400,000 at the Fasig-Tipton sale, wasn't far behind.
"Originally, yes," Porter said of his impressions that Southern Girl might be better than Songbird.
Earlier, as he and the Fox Hill group relaxed in the air-conditioned executive suite as a guest of Fasig-Tipton, Porter talked about the decision to split the two fillies up.
"We thought (Southern Girl) was the best so we sent her to Larry Jones," Porter said. "And Songbird we decided to send out West to Jerry (Hollendorfer). That was our original thought. After awhile it became clear that Songbird was a little further along, and at the very end I told Larry that I didn't want to change my mind. I'd already told Larry and Jerry who was getting what. Larry was great about it; he's our biggest fan."
Three hours earlier Sunday, Jones sent Southern Girl out to win an allowance race by 3 lengths at Laurel, her second win in three starts. Porter watched the race on a television in the clubhouse and later said Jones was one of the first to call and congratulate after the Coaching Club.
"He told me, 'There's nothing like her,' " Porter said, turning his eyes up toward the replay monitor again from under his purple Breeders' Cup Songbird hat. "She just knows where that quarter pole is. She's a different horse when she sees that red and white. Wow, this was a special thing to watch right here."
Hollendorfer handles pressure, produces perfect Songbird
By Joe Clancy
Jerry Hollendorfer walked up the horsepath from the Saratoga Race Course paddock, past the paddock bar, the pedestrian crosswalk, the At The Rail Pavilion.
Ahead of him walked the five entrants for Sunday's Coaching Club American Oaks. Behind him came a passel of security guards, veterinarians, racing officials, horsemen and fans.
They all came for the same thing – the ninth start in the burgeoning career of 3-year-old filly Songbird. Owned by Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm and trained in California by Hollendorfer, the undefeated phenom was 1-5 (for a bit, it was 1-9) for a $500,000 Grade 1 stakes at a track occasionally referred to as the Graveyard of Champions for a historic list of upsets covering Man o' War, Secretariat, Forego, American Pharoah and beyond. Songbird shipped from California to put her record on the line against Grade 1 winner Carina Mia, and all that history.
Hollendorfer – in sunglasses, gray suit and black not-quite-sneakers – turned left at the end of the path and stepped into the clubhouse dining area. He walked around a table, bypassed two benches and took off his sport coat, never changing expression, never slowing.
"He looks nervous," a fan said as the Hall of Fame trainer walked past. She doesn't know Hollendorfer, who smiled when asked about his nerves after Songbird lit up the old Spa and its ghosts with a 5 1/4-length win over a hard-trying Carina Mia.
"Not too nervous," he said. "This is no easy spot here. I would say I anticipated the race and I wanted her to do well and we shipped and everything so a little worrisome but not nervous, no."
Songbird would ease the nerves of a high-schooler on a first date. She's calm, sweet, matter-of-fact, predictable. And fast and competitive too. Winner of the Grade 1 Acorn going a mile last out, Carina Mia went after the champion early – shadowing her through a first quarter in :23.86 and a half in :47.52. Jockey Julien Leparoux cranked up the volume with a move midway on the turn. They drew even, maybe, and pressed Songbird into the stretch.
Hollendorfer applauded the challenge, even if the live version probably stung a bit.
"I was thinking that was a good strategy for Carina Mia and Billy Mott and Julien Leparoux," Hollendorfer said. "I've ridden Julien a lot so I commend them for that kind of challenge. We were better and who knows what happens in the future, but it was a brilliant run by Carina Mia as well as Songbird. They gave it their best shot and I've got the greatest admiration for Bill Mott. He's one of my favorites."
Feeling more urgency from Mike Smith than in any of her previous eight starts, Songbird repulsed the bid from Carina Mia and crossed the finish line alone – much like her other races. Coming back, she drew the Saratoga applause – from fans at the rail, as well as horsemen on the track – reserved for champions. Point Given got it. So did Lonesome Glory. Rachel Alexandra got it. So did Royal Delta.
Songbird has only been a racehorse for 12 months – the CCA Oaks came two days shy of a year since her debut at Del Mar last summer – but Songbird has earned it too.
The daughter of Medaglia d'Oro won all four starts last year, culminating with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and an Eclipse Award. This year, she swept three stakes to start her path to the Kentucky Oaks on the first weekend in May, only to be sidelined by illness. The $400,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling purchase returned to win the Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita June 18, then aimed for Saratoga.
Hollendorfer keeps it simple, says it's a privilege just to have her in the barn, and works to bring out her best.
"She's like any other athlete," he said. "You're in this sport or that sport, all the great athletes are always trying to get better so we're trying to get better and we have to help guide her because we can only train her by observation. We're trying to get her better. I think she will improve. She looked like she handled this pretty well.
"I just feel blessed to have a filly like this, very grateful. That's my attitude."
And he's not nervous.