Wrona called her home: “It’s all Songbird. She’s got them beaten to a frazzle. How’d you like to earn 60 grand as easily as this? Songbird wins by, well, whatever she felt like!”
Life (and horses) have a habit of hijacking you mid, well, just about anything really. Plan to go out for the day, and you can pretty much guarantee your horse will choose the exact moment you drive through the front gate to break out of its paddock, throw a shoe, injure itself, lie down and start looking a bit colicky or otherwise find any number of inventive ways to reroute your plans for the day.
And so it was that I was on a completely different tangent, when, as the current social media moniker goes, ‘this happened’. A bay filly with an irregular blaze named Songbird appeared on my screen. When I say appeared, I should say ‘appeared again’ because unbeaten champion 2yo fillies have a habit of making headlines.
In case you’re scratching your head a bit, I’m looking across the Atlantic again to North America. There are various racing festivals on the international racing calendar, but few as hotly anticipated as the annual running of the Kentucky Oaks and Derby. According to press reports, tickets are nearly sold out already. That’s crazy, considering the races aren’t till the first weekend in May, but it shows that if you build it (as in a good race day) and provide the champions, then the crowds will still come.
While I was on the California Chrome boat two years ago and American Pharoah was impossible to ignore last season, this year there’s a filly we should be keeping an eye on for the Kentucky Oaks. Her name is Songbird.
Songbird is by Medaglia d’Oro (perhaps most famous for being the sire of Rachel Alexandra) out of the 6-time winning West Acre mare, Ivanavinalot. Songbird was bred in Kentucky by John Antonelli who recently commented on a Bloodhorse chat that “she looked special one hour after she was birthed and grew more and more special everday I saw her. She has a very similar look to Rachel Alexandra and bred on a similar cross.” Antonelli offered Songbird as hip no 28 on the 4 August 2014 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale. She was consigned by John Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale as agent and selected by bloodstock agent Tom McGreevy for long-standing client, Rick Porter. McGreevy commented, “I’ll often say that I see horses that remind me of one of those drawings a 7-year-old does, where they’re just not put together right, and then at the other end are the horses that look like they’ve been painted by the best artist in the world. Songbird fits into that category.” The hammer fell at $400,000.
Rick Porter, who races Songbird in his distinctive red and white Fox Hill Farms colours, has been associated with horses such as Eight Belles and 2011 Horse of the Year, Havre de Grace. Porter named the filly in honour of the late singer Eva Cassidy, after her compilation album titled “Songbird,” with the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name.
Songbird is trained by Hall of Fame trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, who has been in the business of training racehorses since 1979. Interviews with Hollendorfer, who turns 70 on 18 June, depict a considered, gracious and humble human being. Racehorse training seems an odd choice for someone who studied marketing and asked how he got started in racing, he answered “That didn’t interest me enough, but the horses did. I was interested in finding out what was going on on the backstretch. After college, I visited a friend in San Francisco. I liked the climate right away. I went back, packed the car and drove out.”
Hollendorfer (known as ‘The Dorf’) first found prominence with Hollywood Futurity and Haskell Stakes winner, King Glorious, but has subsequently produced Gr1 Kentucky Oaks winners Lite Light (owned by rap star, MC Hammer), Pike Place Dancer and Blind Luck. Local readers will associate him with the ill-fated 2013 Eclipse Champion 2yo Colt, Shared Belief, who succumbed to colic in December last year. Although Hollendorfer doesn’t splash headlines the way some of his contemporaries do, he has been a dominant force on the Northern California racing circuit, topping the trainers log for 37 consecutive years at Bay Meadows and 32 years at Golden Gate Fields. Together with North America’s winningmost jockey, Russell Baze, he saddled 2,500 winners. Hollendorfer reached the incredible career milestone of saddling his 7000th career winner at Golden Gate Fields on 26 November 2015 with Kiss “N Scat. He currently occupies third spot on the all-time list of trainers by wins, behind the late Dale Baird (9,379 career wins) and Steve Asmussen. He was inducted into the US Racing Hall of Fame in May 2011.
Porter is a fairly new client in the Hollendorfer yard, explaining, “I like Jerry. He’s a Hall of Famer. He’s the real deal. His whole life is the horse.” A 2013 interview with Hollendorfer bears this out. Asked whether he has any hobbies, he answered, “I’m just a horse trainer. That’s all I do.” The trainer isn’t quite sure how Songbird ended up being sent his way, saying, “I looked at all the horses before they decided which ones were going where, and, not only did I think she was special, but about seven or eight other ones (too). I’m grateful they picked (me). I don’t know if they flipped any coins or anything. But I’m glad we got her.”
Songbird broke her maiden on debut over 6 furlongs at Del Mar on 27 July 2015. Right from the start, she’s stamped her personality on her runs. She likes to take the lead and stay there and won her first start by six and a half lengths under Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith.
She stepped up to Gr1 company second time out in the 5 September 2015 Debutante Stakes over 7 furlongs at Del Mar, starting 11/10 favourite in a ten-runner field. From an outside draw, Songbird went to the front, duelling with Bob Baffert’s Pretty N Cool for the first 5 furlongs, before coming under a ride from Mike Smith to win by 5 ¼ lengths in a time of 1:22:65.
Next she cantered down odds-on favourite in a 7 horse field for the Gr1 Chandelier over 1 1/16 mile at Santa Anita on 26 September. Regular jockey Smith sent Songbird into the lead from the start and the she never looked in any danger, coming home four and a half lengths clear of Land Over Sea.
The Chandelier Stakes was a Win and You’re In Challenge Race for the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, taking care of her pre-entry and entry fees, along with $10,000 in travel expenses, although Porter had to stretch to a $100,000 nomination fee, as Songbird was not nominated to the Breeders’ Cup as a foal by breeder John Antonelli.
With 3 from 3, the undefeated Songbird started one of the heaviest favourites of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup meeting on the 31 October in the Gr1 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies over Keeneland’s 1 1/16 mile trip. Speaking ahead of the race, Hollendorfer commented, “We’ve liked her from the very beginning. You know you don’t really expect to get horses that win easily, or that win by a lot, but in this case we did. And we’re just going with her, and she’s given us her best. And they’re all going to have to step it up a notch to win that filly race, so we have to step up too. We hope that we can.”
They did. While her outside draw posed mild concerns, she delivered an accomplished performance, drawing off to win by 5 ¾ lengths over fellow Gr1 winner, Rachel’s Valentina (Rachel Alexandra’s Bernardini filly). The win was a memorable one for jockey Mike Smith, who is Breeders’ Cup’s all-time winningmost rider with 22 wins. “Once we jumped out the gate, it was just a matter of me staying on,” said Smith. “She’s so talented and she gives you so much confidence. I almost felt like yawning as we went along. I don’t mean that in a bragging way. She just gives me that much confidence. I’m really blessed to be a part of this great team.”
With 4 wins from 4 starts, including three Gr1’s and winning margins of 6 ½, 5 ¼, 4 ½ and 5 ¾ lengths, Songbird was presented with the Champion 2 Year Old Filly title at the Eclipse Awards on 16 January 2016. The DRF stated, “we know she’s special, we still don’t have any clue as to just how special she really is.” While there has been considerable talk about the filly contesting the 2016 Kentucky Derby, owner Porter has been quick to quash the idea, saying the Derby has been ‘ruled out’, instead mapping a course of prep runs leading into the 2016 Kentucky Oaks.
After a brief rest at WinStar Farm in Kentucky, Songbird returned to training in December last year, posting bullet work-outs at Santa Anita. She cantered down to the start of the Gr2 La Virgenes over the Santa Anita mile and her three-year-old debut followed pretty much the same script as the rest of her starts – straight to the lead, setting a comfortable early pace and then drawing away from the field to win by 6 ½ lengths. “Same old, same old”, wrote Jeremy Balan for the Blood Horse, “and impressive nonetheless.”
Smith was full of praise, “She has gears. You always worry about horses that are brilliant at 2. Sometimes they don’t mature or grow any more at 3. You’re anxious to see what will happen… She seems to have improved. She seemed up to her game even more, especially mentally. She was very happy today and took it all in stride.”
It was Songbird’s fourth straight graded win and her fifth overall for Jerry Hollendorfer, who was characteristically cautious in his post race commentary. “I was so pleased to see her way out there and cruising along pretty easy. At least now we got a race in her and we can try to make some more plans. We want to run here at Santa Anita. What we do in between now and the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I), I don’t know.”
What they did was line her up for last weekend’s Gr3 Santa Ysabel Stakes over 1 1/16th mile. Without any asking at all, Songbird annihilated the field of 9, cruising to the wire in 1:43.02 to win by 3 ¾ lengths.
“It’s such a fantastic feeling when you get a horse like this,” said owner Rick Porter, owner of Fox Hill Farms. “I’ve had some good ones, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had one this good.”
“We just keep doing our job and hope she keeps doing her job and we might end up in some good places with her,” said Hollendorfer. “We’ve already been to good places with her but we could get to more.”
Hollendorfer’s assistant since 2007 is Dan Ward, who worked for the legendary Bobby Frankel and helped handle fillies like Wandesta, Possibly Perfect and Toussaud. Commenting after her Santa Ysabel win he said, “When good fillies get running good, like Blind Luck did for so long, they’re very, very reliable. They fire every time.”
At this stage, it looks likely that Songbird will step out in the $400,000 Gr1 Santa Anita Oaks on 9 April with the longer term goal being the 6 May Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. But with what she’s got going, in the words of Michael Wrona, it seems Songbird could do ‘whatever she likes, really!’