Songbird: ‘Everything You’d Want in a Racehorse’

Songbird, a two-time champion, won 13 of her 15 career starts, including nine Grade 1 wins.
Songbird, a two-time champion, won 13 of her 15 career starts, including nine Grade 1 wins. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Songbird captured the heart of bloodstock agent Tom McGreevy the instant they exchanged glances.

McGreevy had scrutinized so many horses through the years, long enough to know that the great ones separate themselves from the good, the good distance themselves from the mediocre.

Songbird’s look all but demanded that he purchase her in behalf of Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm.

“One of the things that stood out about her was her demeanor, her confidence,” McGreevy said. “The great ones, they have that confidence about them, even at sales. ‘Here I am. I’m good. Can you see it?’ ”

Songbird as a 2-year-old in 2015. (Eclipse Sportswire)

McGreevy saw it, all right. So did Porter. He made sure the dark bay or brown daughter of Medaglia d’Oro did not slip past when he dug deep to purchase her for $400,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings.

Although McGreevy also was involved in the selection of eventual 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace for Fox Hill Farm, he rates Songbird as the greatest horse he obtained in behalf of any owner.

“She’s at the top,” he said. “She showed up every single race.”

Porter gave her the same lofty ranking after assessing the many outstanding fillies and mares he owned.

“Number one,” said Porter, who died in June 2021. “She was just so exciting. She was a lot of fun to have. She had it all.”

Songbird’s extreme responsiveness to jockey Mike Smith was readily apparent when she debuted on July 26, 2015 at Del Mar for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Smith, determined to make sure nothing went awry, gunned her from the starting gate. Once she established a clear lead, Smith asked her to settle. She relaxed almost immediately.

Songbird went on to sweep all four of her starts as a 2-year-old by a combined 22 lengths, including a dominant 5 ¾-length score in the 2015 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

She opened an unforgettable 3-year-old campaign by winning four times on the West Coast before she journeyed East to rattle off three consecutive Grade 1 triumphs in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, and the Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa.

The Alabama was particularly meaningful for Porter because he was hospitalized at the time, gravely ill with cancer. He needed something to lift his spirits. Then he tuned in to the Alabama – and watched Songbird all but fly home.

“I think she helped me mentally,” he said.

From a physical standpoint, Porter benefitted from a life-extending experimental treatment. Songbird, meanwhile, took a career-opening 11-race winning streak into her highly anticipated showdown with Beholder, a magnificent 6-year-old mare trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, in the 2016 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita.

In a race for the ages, they battled down the stretch stride for stride. Gary Stevens was riding furiously aboard Beholder while fellow Hall of Famer Smith continually asked Songbird for more and she responded generously.

McGreevy stood beside Hollendorfer as the drama unfolded before a massive crowd that was sent into a frenzy.

“That long stretch, going at it and at it, it was just one of those classic races,” McGreevy said. “A fraction before the wire maybe we won. A fraction after the wire maybe we won. It was just a head bob.”

That Distaff offered a rare moment in which there was glory in defeat. Porter’s 3-year-old filly had pressed to the limit one of the great mares of all time. That she missed by the scantest of noses, there was no disappointment in that. In a sense, she had triumphed in absorbing her first defeat.

“That Breeders’ Cup was something else,” Porter said. “Both jockeys, both horses, both trainers.”

Songbird resumed her winning ways at 4. She took the June 10 Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont Park and the Delaware Handicap, a race Delaware native Porter had always yearned to win, a little more than one month later.

The victories were workmanlike more than brilliant, though, and that concerned Porter. After Songbird was upset by classy Forever Unbridled in the Aug. 26 Personal Ensign at Saratoga, he sent her to highly regarded veterinarian Larry Bramlage for a thorough evaluation.

The examination revealed significant issues. Porter quickly retired Songbird with 13 victories in 15 starts – nine of them Grade 1 successes – and $4,692,000 in earnings.

“She was everything you’d want in a racehorse. Everything,” Smith told BloodHorse after the announcement was made. “The balance, the speed, the stamina, the class, the heart, the try, she was just everything. She was a wonderful chapter for me.”

She was a wonderful chapter for McGreevy, too.

“She was probably the kindest horse I’ve been around,” he said. “Fillies, especially the good ones, can get pretty testy at times. She was always the kindest thing. All she wanted was somebody to pat her and give her a carrot.”

For Porter, Songbird provided one thrill after another, always flashing her dazzling speed, always giving her all. The filly turned out to be the last great racehorse owned by Porter. He died June 6, 2021. Accolades for Porter and his contributions to Thoroughbred racing poured in from many of the leading organizations and individuals in the sport. He was praised by the Breeders’ Cup as a “great sportsman and humanitarian.”

“It was the greatest thing in the world,” Porter said, “when I got to go watch her run.”

Songbird’s legion of fans would agree.

Note: This story was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.

Fast Facts

  • Songbird was bred in Kentucky by California resident John Antonelli.
  • No rival came closer than 4 ½ lengths in any of her four starts at 2.
  • She received all but one of a possible 261 votes for champion 2-year-old filly.
  • A lone dissenting voter opted for Catch a Glimpse over Songbird as top 2-year-old filly.
  • Songbird was unanimous choice for Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.

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