Where have you gone, Songbird? That was the tune the two-time champion's legion of fans were singing throughout her 4-year old campaign. The power and acceleration Songbird displayed the past two seasons where she dominated her competition just wasn't there.
After a pair of narrow one-length victories early this summer the dark bay filly was run down in the deep stretch by multiple Grade-1 winner Forever Unbridled in the $700,000 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 26. Afterwards owner Rick Porter had seen enough.
“Of course, it's frustrating, very disappointing, I knew we had a decent field to run against," said a clearly discouraged Porter. "Something's not right. She is just not right, and I will get her checked out. She doesn't let horses pass her, that was probably part of it. I am not comfortable that she is 100 percent healthy. Anyway, this is not the Songbird we have been seeing the last three races, just doesn't seem to be the same Songbird, it's only right to have her checked out.
“I thought we would see the real Songbird today, but we didn't see it. I just want to make sure it is not something physical which I would do with any good horse. I always do that.”
Songbird was scheduled to fly out of Saratoga, switch planes in Louisville, Ky. and then fly on to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer's barn in southern California. It never happened. Porter insisted Songbird be directly vanned to Lexington and undergo a full evaluation and testing by Dr. Larry Bramlage at Rood & Riddle Hospital.
“Jerry's very upset that I'm doing it, he said there's definitely nothing wrong,” said Porter. “I just want to make sure."
The results of Dr. Bramlage's examinations were shocking. Songbird was diagnosed with damage to her hind suspensories and a severe bone chip. Porter retired the filly from racing on August 31.
According to Dr. Bramlage's report, subsequent scans revealed "front distal cannon bone problems" with the shape and size of the loose chip presenting a possible catastrophic situation if Songbird had continued to race.
"Bramlage led her off the van and he noticed right away that she was off behind," Porter said in a phone interview from his home near Wilmington, Del. "And, it just got worse. When he found out she was lame after he blocked the back, and when he got to the front end—which he thinks was caused by the back end—that was major. He told me, 'You're looking at a major catastrophe if you had continued with her.'
"It's amazing she didn't break down, because that chip—it's an unusually shaped chip, which Bramlage said could break loose and go down and just explode the cannon bone. It's amazing the size of it and the shape of it, and the shape of it made it so dangerous. What was great is Larry started examining, then he took some X-rays and saw a problem there, and then he said 'I don't like what I'm seeing. We need to do an MRI.' That showed how bad it was and how fortunate we were to not have another Eight Belles on our hands.
"I thank God nobody got hurt. If she had broken down on the track I'm not sure I could have handled it. We were very fortunate and now she has the opportunity to become an outstanding broodmare."
Porter's filly Eight Belles suffered catastrophic injuries to both front ankles while galloping out following her runner-up finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Bramlage's report stated Songbird "can be let down and go to pasture exercise" adding that she would be re-checked in 60 days.
Dr. Bramlage's evaluation totally contradicted Hollandorfer's statements on the morning after the Personal Ensign when he told reporters at his barn that Songbird was completely sound and perfectly healthy. Hollendorfer's assistant Christina Jelm doubled down on the trainer's comments.
"The important thing is that she is absolutely fine," Jelm added. "Jerry went over her. There is nothing that is at all discernable. She's in good health and is relaxed, as she always is coming out of all her races."
Porter's assistant sent Hollendorfer Dr. Bramlage's report, the x-rays and scans. In the aftermath Porter has taken the high road by not publicly criticizing Hollendorfer, who has been a trainer for 39 years.
"Jerry was shocked," Porter stated."I had several racing people call me that noticed Songbird was off in her hind legs in the post parade for the Personal Ensign. Larry (Jones) saw it at the Delaware Handicap, but didn't want to comment negatively on another trainer. After the Songbird situation I lost confidence (in Hollendorfer) and moved my remaining three horses from his barn over to (Hall of Famer) Richard Mandella's barn at Santa Anita."
Porter released the following statement on his Facebook page on August 31:
“There is an ancient proverb that says all good things must come to an end. Today, Fox Hill Farm announces that something that was very good for us, and very good for racing, has come to an end — the racing career of Songbird.
Over the winter, Songbird had bone bruising and a specific area was very slow to heal. She was finally cleared to return, but the three races from Songbird this year weren't what we expected from the bigger, stronger, and smarter Songbird. There were so many variables with her long layoff, shipping, tiring tracks, going 1 1/4 miles, and more, we were never sure which of the variables may explain what wasn't quite Songbird.
After this past race (Personal Ensign), we thought something seemed off in her hind end, so we sent her to Rood & Riddle for an evaluation. Her lameness was readily apparent to Dr. Bramlage, and ultrasounds proved both hind suspensories were enlarged. Since suspensories are usually the result of something else amiss and he knew of her history, Dr. Bramlage shot a set of x-rays of the area of bone Songbird had issues with over the winter. A distinct line on the bone was present. We followed up with a bone scan, and then an MRI. Unfortunately, the results weren't what we wanted to see. We have a situation where it'd be dangerous for Songbird to continue training, and Dr. Bramlage isn't optimistic that the site will fully resolve even if given ample time.
So for this reason, we are retiring our lovely Songbird. She was an absolute joy to race, and we expect that she'll be as wonderful a broodmare as she was a racehorse. She took us on an incredible and unforgettable journey. While we're sad that we must retire her, we absolutely cannot risk having another Eight Belles kind of devastation and are ultimately happy that she is retiring in good health. May she soar to new heights in her future journey.
We'd like to publicly thank the incomparable Dr. Larry Bramlage, Dr. Katie Garrett, and the rest of the staff at Rood & Riddle.”
Songbird spent the winter at WinStar Farm recovering from bone bruising at the end of her championship 3-year-old campaign. She got a late start to the year after kicking a wall in her stall causing a minor injury to a front leg that delayed her training in March. Racing in the red-and-white colors of Porter’s Fox Hill Farms Songbird captured the Ogden Phipps Stakes (Grade-1) by a length in her 4-year old debut at Belmont Park on June 10. Then she had to work hard to defeat an overmatched field by a length in the Delaware Handicap on a very hot, humid afternoon at Delaware Park on July 15.
Those two races were a far cry from Songbird's first 11 races of her career where she won by an average of 5 1/2 lengths, most of them Grade-1 stakes. Last year Songbird dazzled with a 5 1/4-length, gate-to-wire victory in the 2016 Coaching Club American Oaks (Grade-1) prior to a seven-length romp in the Alabama Stakes (Grade-1) on the front end.
Her lone defeat prior to the Personal Ensign was in a knock-down drag-out battle with 3-time champion Beholder in the $2 million 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. "That was a race for the ages," Porter related. "It was a titanic battle the whole length of the stretch where she came up a head bob short, losing by maybe three inches. Gary Stevens said he never saw a more tenacious stretch duel during his nearly 40 years of racing."
The best horse Porter has owned, Songbird has been a huge shot in the arm for the 76-year-old owner, who has been battling cancer. Porter missed her spectacular victory in the 2016 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga because he was hospitalized. In early June Porter started an experimental cancer treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, seeking to reverse the growth of tumors that have plagued him the past two years. The treatment involved the removal, transformation, and re-insertion of cells. When he left the hospital after six weeks of treatments, Porter was declared in full remission.
"She really has meant so much to me, not just me but my whole family and she had such a large fan base," Porter acknowledged. "She's the most popular horse that has been around in years. More than 12,000 folks turned out at Delaware Park and after the Personal Ensign she got a standing ovation from all those people who lined the rail. She's got so many fans and I just feel so bad for them all now."
A native of Wilmington, Del., Porter will be honored by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association at their 58th annual awards dinner Nov. 2 at the Brigantine Seafood & Oyster Bar in Del Mar, Calif. Best known for campaigning such Thoroughbred standouts as 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pond, grade 1 winner Hard Spun, who finished runner-up in the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, and Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles under his Fox Hill Farms banner, Porter will be honored with the Mr. Fitz Award for typifying the spirit of racing.
The award honors legendary trainer Jim "Sunny" Fitzsimmons. His six-decade career stretched back to 1885, when, as an eleven year-old, he began working as a stable boy. He trained 13 Triple Crown race winners, more than 250 winners of stakes events, including two winners of the American Triple Crown champions in Gallant Fox (1930) and Gallant Fox’s colt Omaha (1935).
"I'm very honored to receive this award, so many great people in racing have been awarded it," Porter said. "It really does reflect the love and spirit I have for the sport. I was up against some top competition in Wayne Hughes and Frank Stronach. I'm humbled, blessed and truly grateful."
Through all the highs and lows, including the crushing aftermath of Eight Belles' fatal breakdown, Porter's passion and enthusiasm for the sport have been on public display through his racing charity endeavors and Facebook postings. On July 15 Songbird triumphed in the $750,000 Delaware Handicap, giving her owner his first win in his state's most prestigious race that was first run in 1955. Songbird was being pointed toward the year end goal of the $2 million Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (Grade-1 ) on November 4.
Bred in Kentucky by John Antonelli, she was purchased by Fox Hill Farm for $400,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga selected yearling sale. Porter named her in honor of the late singer Eva Cassidy. Songbird retires with 13 wins from 15 starts and $4,692,000 in earnings. She won the Eclipse Award for Top Two Year Old Filly in 2015 and Top Three-Year Old filly in 2016.
As Porter was saying farewell to Songbird's racing career, he mentioned a pair of talented 2-year olds who are under the tutelage of longtime trainer Larry Jones. Forever is a Medaglia d'Oro filly, while New Colossus is a Curlin colt. The latter is named for the Statue of Liberty poem by Emma Lazarus. New Colossus is famous for its last lines that have become part of American history:"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In the early 1900s a plaque with the poem’s text was mounted inside the pedestal of the statue.
Songbird will spend her early retirement at Taylor Made Farm in Lexington in the former stall of Porter's Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. Porter has never bred his top-tier mares, so Songbird will be offered at this year's Fasig-Tipton November sale November 6.
Photos courtesy of Fox Hill Farms, by Autry Graham of Taylor Made