Songbird, tested, gives Porter first DelCap win
by Frank Vespe
They came for a ceremonial procession, and a horse race broke out.
More than seventy minutes before the first post Saturday at Delaware Park, a line had already formed to buy programs, and folks were busily staking out their spots around the paddock.
And why not? Songbird — last year’s champion three-year-old filly and a runner whose only defeat in 13 prior races had come by the narrowest of margins to the staunchest of rivals in the biggest of spots, those being a nose, the great Beholder, and last fall’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff — was in the house, set to star in the track’s biggest production, the $750,000, Grade 1 Delaware Handicap.
Bettors poured money through the windows, virtually all of it on Songbird’s nose. Of the enormous show pool — more than $1.6 million — nearly 97 percent backed Songbird. Eighty-nine percent of the win pool also was on the champ, and her off odds were 1-20.
Rich Glazier, the Delaware Park paddock host, summed it up. Glazier has witnessed 47 of the 80 runnings of the DelCap in person.
“I want to tell you this: in 1965 I saw Kelso win here in person,” he said. “In ’66 I saw Buckpasser win here in person. In ’72 I saw the Garden State Stakes with Secretariat, and in ’73 I went to the Preakness and saw Secretariat. If you ask me, did I bet those race or did I win or lose on those horses, I have no idea. But I’ll never forget seeing those horses run, and I’m sure after today I’ll never forget Songbird.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Nobody bothered to tell Songbird’s seemingly overmatched rivals they were hopeless longshots,
Astute observers figured that Songbird would pop the latches on top and, with Hall of Famer Mike Smith in the irons, control the tempo while doling out moderate fractions.
“I think she’ll go to the lead, and we’ll let her go like she’s not even in the race,” said Kieron Magee, the Laurel Park-based trainer who sent out Line of Best Fit. “If you try to chase her, you’ll get nothing.”
That’s pretty much how it happened, too.
Smith and Songbird held a clear lead through a half-mile in 48.36 seconds and three-quarters in 1:12.63. From there, you figured, she’d suddenly spurt clear to a five- or six-length lead and coast home under wraps.
But suddenly there was Martini Glass, the Keith Nations trainee ridden by Jose Ferrer, making a menacing move at the head of the lane. Line of Best Fit looked to be revving up a spirited run. The champ was on the ropes.
When Smith asked her, Songbird responded. Carrying 124 pounds — eight more than Martini Glass, 11 more than Line of Best Fit — she dug in. The margin of her lead, just a half-length at the quarter pole, grew to one length. That’s where it stayed. Martini Glass, 21-1 at post time, was second. Two lengths farther back, Line of Best Fit, 35-1, was third.
The winner paid all of $2.10 to win, and the $1 exacta returned a paltry $2.50. Running time for the 1 1/4 miles was a sluggish 2:03.96, the slowest since 2002.
“You know, having this kind of a horse, we have a lot of confidence in her,” said winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. “Keith’s horse (Martini Glass) was running so good, I thought she might have a chance to get us, but then our horse dug in, so, what more could you ask for from a champion filly?”
The win was a popular one at the track and not just because 1-20 winners make for a lot of winning bettors. Songbird’s owner, native Delawarean Rick Porter, whose horses race as Fox Hill Farms, flew down from Boston, where he is undergoing treatments to combat lymphoma, to guide Songbird into the winner’s circle.
“This is a good one,” said Porter, who won his first-ever DelCap and whose Havre de Grace was second a nose, to Blind Luck in 2011. “I didn’t want that to happen again. I got a little nervous at the eighth pole.”
Of course, not everyone was happy for Songbird. Magee, who said he was “absolutely thrilled” with Line of Best Fit’s show effort, joked before the race that he was “not really” excited that Songbird had made the trip to Delaware.
“I’m going to get beat,” he said. “In the race all we’ll see is her big ass.”
So why bother? In a race when the trainers of most of the top distaff runners — including Chad Brown, whose Paid Up Subscriber gave Songbird a stern test in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps in June — took a pass, why send horses like Martini Glass and Line of Best Fit?
“I knew it was going to be a small field. It’s worth a shot,” Magee, who earlier on the card won the Hockessin Stakes with Struth, said. “My filly’s not very well bred. She’s made $460,000; she’s worth more as a racehorse. But if she could get second or third, she’s worth something as a broodmare.”
Now, of course, both Martini Glass and Line of Best Fit have Grade 1 black type, an awfully valuable commodity for a broodmare. And both have fattened their bank accounts, the former by $150,000, the latter by $82,500.
But those achievements pale next to those of Songbird, the four-year-old Medaglia d’Oro filly who already has two Eclipse Awards on the shelf, to go along with more than $4.5 million in earnings.
“She won, and we’re happy that we won and happy that I could win this race for Rick Porter,” said Hollendorfer. “I love them all, from the littlest claimers to the biggest stake winners like Songbird. I’m in it over my head.”