From coast to coast Songbird is marching her way into the ranks of racing royalty.
A perfect 11-for-11, the 3-year old filly faces her stiffest competition yet in the $2 million Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff where she tackles older horses for the first time, including multiple champions Beholder and Stellar Wind at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 4. With a victory in the 1 1/8 mile race she will stamp herself as a champion for the ages.
Songbird has captured the imagination of racing fans all over the country not seen for a filly since the prime time of Rachel Alexandra, Rags to Riches and Zenyatta. Trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, the big bay has dominated her competition in all eleven starts, winning by a combined 60 lengths. A daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, the same sire as Rachel Alexandra, Songbird's narrowest margin of victory recorded is 3 3/4 lengths. She has captured seven Grade-1 (racing's highest level) races faster than any filly in history and boasts earnings of $3, 372,000.
From her first start Songbird has exhibited exceptional speed and class-- traits of a champion racehorse. Rick Porter, a winter resident of Hobe Sound, Fla., races the filly in his distinctive red and white Foxhill Farm colors. I've covered Rick and his impressive stable of racehorses over the past dozen years as well as utilizing him as an insightful source for many racing stories. For a number of years we both lived in Wawaset Park in Wilmington, Del. Porter has been battling health issues for most of the year.
Porter is the third generation of his family to own automotive dealerships dating back to 1925. Porter got his start in the thoroughbred business by claiming two horses in 1994.
"She gives me chills every time," said Porter, 76. "I've been fortunate enough to have some nice horses. We won Horse of the Year with Havre de Grace in 2011, but Songbird's a cut above. She's raced on both coasts taking on the best fillies and she's so impressive every race. Heading into the Distaff, Jerry keeps telling me, 'boss she can't be doing any better.'"
On the first Saturday of autumn in the $1 million Cotillion Stakes Songbird took command on the far turn without any urging from jockey Mike Smith and roared down the stretch to yet another easy victory. She hit the wire by 5 3/4 lengths ahead of Carina Mia at Parx racetrack, outside Philadelphia.
"We’re very grateful to have a filly that can do the things she can," said Hollendorfer, 70. "We liked her from the very beginning. You don't really expect to get horses that win that easily, or win by a lot."
The Cotillion was the second visit to the East Coast since July from her home base in southern California. In the summer, the best horses run at Saratoga Racetrack. She romped in both the $600,000 Alabama Stakes and the $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks. After each race Smith rode the filly up and down the stretch so her adoring fans could take pictures.
Smith knows all about champion fillies. He's ridden Azeri (11-time Grade-1 winner), Sky Beauty (9 Grade-1 wins), Inside Information (6 Grade-1 wins) and the great Zenyatta, a 13-time Grade-1 winner.
"Songbird is extremely intelligent and a really, really smart filly," said Smith, 50. "You show her once, she's got it. She's so well balanced, there's no wasted action. Gets over the ground so effortlessly. She does things so easily. I'm so blessed to be a part of her."
"If she doesn’t put a smile on your face the way she’s been running, maybe you should try another business," said Porter with a laugh. "She runs these quick fractions in just a gallop and when Mike urges her a little she takes off like a bullet. The Distaff will be her toughest race, but we're confident she's up to the challenge."
Porter named the filly for the late Eva Cassidy, a shy and relatively unknown performer who sang jazz, blues, rock and gospel. Cassidy died in November 1996 of cancer at age 33. Two years later her angelic rendition of "Over the Rainbow" was played on BBC2 radio in the UK and became a sensation. It resulted in the compilation of her work in the album "Songbird."
"There is some great music on her album, including the song 'Songbird,' originally sung by Fleetwood Mac," Porter said. "Everyone ought to listen to it. I just love her voice. We brought some of Eva's family to the Cotillion to watch our filly run. A fun day, they really enjoyed it."
Bred in Kentucky, Songbird was put on Porter's longtime bloodstock agent Tom McGreevey's short list. He purchased her for $400,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton New York Saratoga yearling sale. When McGreevy evaluates a sales prospect he looks for a beautiful walk, a fluid movement which shows that all of the yearling's parts fit together. Then there are the intangibles, such as confidence and attitude and how a young horse deals with the pressure of a busy, noisy sales venue.
"At the sales you want them to come out of the stall and be able to adapt very quickly to this new environment," McGreevey explained. "You want the horse to appear confident in everything they do. Songbird has been like that from the get-go."
Porter sends his young horses in the fall to Bill Recio and his team in Ocala: Eugene Recio, Lila Aquirre, and Allyson Walker who rode Songbird from her earliest days. Together, they teach young horses step by step the ropes of the racing games. In the training business since 1970, Recio also tutors young horses from powerhouse stables such as Lane's End Farm and Roy and Gretchen Jackson's Lael Stables.
"Songbird arrived as a grand looking filly with a great mind, comfortable everywhere she went," recalled Reci, 68. "She had such a fluid way of moving and very high energy. She never made mistakes, never got tired. Both very rare and she's such a sweetheart. So confident. The babies go out across an expansive field to train in the morning and there's Songbird out ahead of the lead pony, not back with the rest of the babies. With a filly like Songbird, I was just patient and tried to stay out of the way."
After her summer races Recio sees a much stronger horse ready to face one of the deepest Distaff fields in history.
"Rick says 'to be the best, you have to beat the best,'" Recio said. "It will be the best race over the Breeders Cup's two days. Songbird has this amazing cruising speed and she keeps it going over a long distance. It's such a thrill for my family and everyone who works with me to be on the team. She is truly a gift."
The Breeders Cup Distaff goes off at 7:35 (ET) on NBCSN.