Sweet Sound

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The air is still at 5:30 Friday morning, the sky a gentle gray glow, like an old lamp slowly finding the strength to light again. Horses trickle down veiny dirt paths through the body of the backside. The gaps around the track will open soon, allowing the faintly illuminated bays, chestnuts and grays inside.

Jim Bond’s first set waits along the west side just off of Clare Court. Barclay Tagg’s horses stand outside his barns. Others circle nearby shedrows.

And Songbird, the unbeaten champion, favorite for today’s Grade 1 Alabama and the horse most everyone in Saratoga wants to see, waits.

Outside a barn tucked away from the main drag and blocked by metal barriers with red “Saratoga” covers, Songbird strolls. She’s tacked up, the white ‘ER’ of exercise rider Edgar Rodriguez visible on a black saddle. The saddle covers a blue pad, monogrammed with ‘JH’ for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

Songbird’s front socks flash in the low light. Her hind socks are concealed by royal blue polos.

Left, right, left, right, her hooves press down over a small wood-chip oval, occasionally pausing. Delicate ears prick as she gives someone or something the side-eye, resuming when she feels like it. Iconic, just doing her thing, like a 1950s Audrey Hepburn not giving a second thought to anyone’s opinion or schedule.

The racehorse-turned-pony Fly Dorcego and outrider Juan “Bam Bam” Galvez ride down the road and into the yard, waiting to escort Fox Hill Farm’s icon. Assistant Christina Jelm, holding Songbird’s bridle as she walks, gives Rodriguez a leg up. They take another turn about the yard, in no hurry. Jelm hands Songbird to Galvez, and the bay filly walks off beside the darker bay gelding, passing under orange streetlights to the track. The glow casts shadows over carved muscles. She could be an Olympic sprinter in a fitted ball gown.

They walk up the road, past the kitchen and onto the track pulsing with horses. Turning left, they make a pass along the outside rail, Fly Dorcego at a rhythmic jog, Songbird at a languid canter. Their bodies blend with others in the dim light as they distance themselves from the gap.

The rising sun washes over clouds, transforming the expanse from gray to the color and soft texture of peach fuzz. To the west, wispy clouds subtly mask a lowering full moon.

A green light blinks from the helmet of a rider in the stretch.

Songbird and her pony pass before the clubhouse and grandstand, two equine heads and two helmets framed by the light from somewhere inside the porch. Songbird turns down the path to the paddock and disappears. She makes two laps, walks out again and jogs the wrong way to the eighth pole.

Rodriguez lets her pause and she takes a look around.

Galvez lets go and off she goes, down the center of the track. Rodriguez crouches over Songbird’s withers, a feather positioned atop a freight train. His gloveless hands clutch reins that Songbird’s tightly wound body threaten to rip away. Her head, neck and haunches magnify with each stride. She’s larger than life, or appears so, like a soft-spoken opera singer whose singing voice blows away an audience in a brimming concert hall.

Around the turn to the backside, relaxed and steady, she’s under wraps, the serious work completed for today’s mile-and-a-quarter test. She’s won all nine starts, a string of perfection commencing July 26 of last year and reaching July 24 of this year. Today, she tries to make it 10 in a row – 27 days after winning the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. She’s already a champion, but could leap another level with a second win at America’s oldest racetrack.