A few days after SONGBIRD won her career debut at Del Mar in the summer of 2015, owner Rick Porter called trainer Jerry Hollendorfer to discuss what to do next with the promising two-year-old filly.
Porter suggested looking for an allowance race. Hollendorfer, the Hall of Fame trainer with more than 7,000 career victories to his credit, had other ideas. Hollendorfer told Porter the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante should be next because Songbird “is the best horse on the grounds.”
“I remember telling him that,” Hollendorfer said recently in an exclusive interview with At The Races. “I believed it then and I believe it now.”
Hollendorfer recalled that conversation two days before Songbird would win the Grade 1, $1 million Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. That was her eleventh victory in as many starts.
Friday, at Santa Anita, Songbird will take on the most difficult challenge of her career when she takes on older fillies and mares - including champions Beholder and Stellar Wind - in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Hollendorfer’s confidence in Songbird hasn’t waned, but he does know the degree of difficulty for her will be the highest yet in the Distaff. Beholder, a three-time North American champion, is a nine-time Grade 1 stakes winner and an earner of $5 million. Stellar Wind, last year’s three-year-old filly champion, has beaten Beholder in their two most recent meetings.
“Beholder and Stellar Wind have made their own reputations so anybody that thinks that those two would be easy would be thinking the wrong way,” Hollendorfer said. “When we have to run against them we will and hopefully we get the chance to do that. I think for the racing fans, I don’t see what better scenario they could have.”
For Hollendorfer, having a horse like Songbird has been a fantastic scenario. He had never before trained for Porter, a retired car dealership owner based in Delaware, on the opposite end the United States from where Hollendorfer is based in California.
Porter was looking for a new trainer and remembered Hollendorfer beating his Havre de Grace with Blind Luck in major stakes races in 2010. He decided to send Hollendorfer a horse.
During the stage when Songbird - a daughter of Medaglia d’Oro - and Southern Girl - a half-sister to Mucho Macho Man, the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner - were being taught to be racehorses, Southern Girl was deemed to be better. Thus, Southern Girl was sent to Larry Jones, who trains Porter’s East Coast string, and Songbird went to Hollendorfer.
Songbird quickly proved herself something special by winning her debut by six and a half lengths at Del Mar on July 26, 2015. She had the rail that day, and Hollendorfer said he had to plead jockey Mike Smith to send her away from the gate.
“Mike doesn’t really like to send them out of there so I almost had to beg him to please, please Mike send her out of there and he did,” Hollendorfer said.
Songbird went on to dominate her two-year-old Southern California rivals in the Grade 2 Del Mar Debutante and Grade 1 Chandelier, winning both with breathtaking ease.
In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, at Keeneland, Songbird would be meeting the best two-year-old fillies form the East and Midwest. Breaking from the outside post in the ten-horse field, she quickly struck the front and with Smith basically statuesque until the eighth pole, she crushed the field by five and three quarter lengths. Moreover, her final time of 1:42.73 for 1 1-16 miles was a full second faster than the final time recorded by Nyquist (1:43.79) who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile later on the card.
“The surprising part of her races is she’s won them by so many lengths,” Hollendorfer said. “You can never count on that. You got to expect to get hooked up down the lane sometime and you’re only going to win by a head or a half-length but so far that hasn’t happened. But I think she’s ready for that kind of challenge.”
Those challenges didn’t come early in Songibird’s three-year-old campaign as she once again recorded dominant victories in the Grade 2 La Virgenes and Grade 3 Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita.
In the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, Songbird’s biggest new challenge was a sloppy racetrack. She still won by three and three quarter lengths.
“We thought she would handle the off track,” Hollendorfer said. “Mike said coming out of the gate and into the first turn he didn’t think she was handling it that well. Then, once she hit the backside he said he was real confident she would run well over that track and she did.”
The Santa Anita Oaks was supposed to be Songbird’s final prep for the prestigious Kentucky Oaks, the three-year-old filly equivalent to the Kentucky Derby held at Churchill Downs in May. But Songbird got sick in the weeks leading up to the Oaks and was forced to miss the race.
“You make plans and sometimes your plans work out and sometimes they don’t,” Hollendorfer said. “If you can’t take that you can’t be in this business for sure. We had a problem, we did everything we could to solve the problem.”
Hollendorfer knew the summer meant Songbird would be on the road with prestigious races like the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama at Saratoga, in New York.
To get ready for those assignments, Songbird ran in the Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita, a race she won in a gallop by six and a half lengths.
At Saratoga, Songbird met, and conquered two challenges. In the Coaching Club American Oaks, Carina Mia, winner of the Grade 1 Acorn at Belmont Park, stalked Songbird throughout and went up to her throatlatch at the five-sixteenths pole. Songbird shrugged her aside and went on to win by five and a quarter lengths.
In the Alabama, Go Maggie Go, a Grade 2 stakes winner went with Songbird early, applying pressure through strong early fractions for a 1 1-4 mile race. Once again Songbird laughed in the face of that challenge and drew off to win by seven lengths.
“I never like to say it’s easy but she’s just got a lot of talent and makes it look easy,” Hollendorfer said. “But it’s not easy.”
The Alabama victory was significant for Hollendorfer because Porter had been hospitalized just days before with a serious infection and missed the race.
Porter was healthy enough to attend the Cotillion at Parx where Songbird would be meeting Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia at her home track.
In the Cotillion, Songibrd sat off Carina Mia, who this time tried front-running tactics to beat Songbird. That didn’t work either as Songbird galloped home a five and three quarter length winner.
There have been many who have called for Porter and Hollendorfer to run Songbird against males. But they feel facing the likes of Beholder and Stellar Wind is certainly enough of a challenge for now.
“Jerry and I agree the Distaff is the race to run her in,” Porter said. “I know we’re hooking some big cheese in that race. That’s the fun of it, hook the big ones and hope to beat them.”
Porter has every intention of running Songbird in 2017 as a four-year-old where the hope - belief, if you will - is she can become even better.
“Everybody wants to move forward,” Hollendorfer said. “If you’re the greatest hitter in the world you want to be a better hitter. We want our horse to be a better horse as a four-year-old and if Mr Porter wants to run her he won’t get any argument from me.”