The air up there

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Mike Smith swelled up his chest after Songbird won a battle with Carina Mia in the Coaching Club American Oaks July 24.

“My mare’s never had to dig, you know what it does to champions sometimes,” he said. “All of a sudden, they’ve got some new air.”

Twenty-seven days later, Songbird walked into the gate for Saturday’s Grade 1 Alabama Stakes, her nine-race win streak on the line. She was breathing new air.

“She didn’t move, man, I’m telling you, she was staring down the track,” Smith said, holding his hands a foot apart like two sides in a tunnel. “Boom, in front, like now.”

Songbird rocked out of stall 6, ready for a cue from Smith. He did that once, never again.

“I showed her that one time,” Smith said. “I hit her leaving there as a 2-year-old before we ever ran her because she drew the 1 hole, ever since then, she shoots out of there. She’s so good at it.”

Luis Saez coaxed Go Maggie Go from post 4 while Smith draped over Songbird, who waited for a sign from Smith. The Hall of Famer rocked his hands with her motion, a long loop in the reins as Black-Eyed Susan winner Go Maggie Go ripped the first quarter-mile in :23.76. Songbird relaxed, two lanes outside the leader. Dark Nile, riding a four-race win streak, found a spot in third while Grade 2 winner Family Tree and CCA Oaks third Flora Dora kept in touch. Going For Broke, making her stakes debut, lagged 8 lengths behind the peloton and Ashland winner Weep No More plummeted to last.

Go Maggie Go and Songbird ran as a team through a half-mile in :47.77 and three quarters in 1:11.13, opening a 5-length gap on Family Tree. Passing the three-eighths pole, Smith had seen enough, allowing Songbird to pull the trap door on a spent Go Maggie Go.

“Really quick, for a mile and a quarter, we were running, brother, we were running hard early, they wanted to make us run early and they did,” Smith said. “She never got a deep breath, even when she put away the other filly, she pricked her ears for about three strides, and then I said, ‘OK, come on, you’ve got start marching.’ “

Cue the band.

Songbird cruised into the stretch, her natural cadence propelling her forward while her rivals paddled, doing the math for second and third money. Smith slapped her on the right shoulder, changed his hold, slid his whip through to his left hand and smacked her three times. He questioned his audacity afterward.

“I couldn’t see, I don’t know if I had sweat in my eyes but it was so blurry,” Smith said. “I just kept thinking about Weep No More rolling down the outside and nailing me for some odd reason. I said, ‘Come on, come on, come on, just stay here, just keep this pace.’ I didn’t want her to gear down because I wasn’t going to get back going again.”

No worries about gearing down or going again as Songbird pasted a 7-length hammer blow on Going For Broke with Family Tree third. A dark bay daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, Songbird finished 10 furlongs in 2:03.01.

About the time Smith was smacking Songbird left-handed, her trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was heading to the winner’s circle. The Hall of Fame trainer watched the race from the left corner of a fourth-row clubhouse box, next to his best friend Marvin Kirsner. As Songbird rolled past the sixteenth pole, Hollendorfer got up, stepped out of the box and headed to the winner’s circle before Smith had said whoa.

Hollendorfer didn’t utter a word, as he walked down the steps and checked his flip phone.

“He’s a very quiet guy,” said Kirsner, who met Hollendorfer at the University of Akron. “I’ve been with him back at the barn for three days, he didn’t say anything then either. We’ve been best friends for 40 years, I own parts of horses with Jerry, but never had one like this.”

Few have.

Fox Hill Farm purchased Songbird for $400,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Select Sale across the street in 2014. She ripped through her 2-year-old season undefeated, culminating in a facile score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. This year, she won the Las Virgenes, Santa Ysabel, Santa Anita Oaks before needing a break when she got sick before the Kentucky Oaks. Freshened, she tacked on the Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita in June, the CCA Oaks in July and the Alabama in August.

“Saratoga’s tough, we ran against really good fillies. We accomplished our goal and that’s hard to do here at Saratoga,” Hollendorfer said. “I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m glad it ends up the way that it does. She just has all the parts that make her special and a big heart, just one of those horses that can do what she does and there’s not too many of them. I don’t ever like to say easy in racing, a lot of it and most of it isn’t.”

In her nine previous starts, there was only one moment that wasn’t easy.

In the CCA Oaks, Carina Mia hooked Songbird with an aggressive move on the turn. The champ looked like she was in trouble. Smith admitted that he panicked more than she did.

That anxious moment seems like a long time ago after a connect-the-dots score in the Alabama. But, with every race, there is pressure and Smith felt it Saturday morning when Songbird’s connections told him that owner Rick Porter (who has been battling cancer) was in the hospital and wouldn’t be making the trip to Saratoga.

“I don’t want to say pressure, but I’m just so worried about Mr. Porter,” Smith said, after the race. “I didn’t want to get beat today, I’m not sure I’m even feeling the joy yet, because he’s on my mind. He took a turn, man, and it scared everyone. She won by 10, I didn’t need to do all that, but in my head today, I just had to win today, you have to win all of them, but this wasn’t for me, this was for one man, to lift his spirits. I hope we did. I hope this gives him some fight. It was just so important to win today, man, normally I would have stood up, looked there, looked back, geared her down but I was like, ‘Not today. Not today.’ “

At the end of the day, Smith asked for a moment, “Let me thank the Lord real quick.”

Smith knelt down, did the sign of the cross and prayed.

“You can’t go anywhere without him,” Smith said.

Or Songbird.