SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — She was the undefeated champion who had scored eight easy knockouts, and for the first time, Songbird found herself in a real fight. When Carina Mia came at her nearing the quarter pole, Songbird had to give her best or become another epitaph at the “Graveyard of Champions.”
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer admitted his stress level rose a bit. “You’re always concerned,’’ he said, “but I know she has a lot of fortitude and that she would dig in.”
She did, and the challenge, though intense, was brief. Carina Mia and jockey Julien Leparoux got within a neck of Songbird, and for a few strides, it looked as if they might go by. No chance. Songbird immediately hit back hard and wobbled her game but overmatched rival.
“We got to her,” Leparoux said, “and at the quarter pole, I thought we might win, but Songbird rebroke and spurted away.’’
The 1-5 favorite surged clear in midstretch and cruised home by 5 1⁄4 lengths over Carina Mia at Saratoga on Sunday in the Grade I, Coaching Club American Oaks. The queen of the 3-year-old fillies is 9-for-9 by a combined 47 3⁄4 lengths, and the margin in the Oaks could have been eight or nine if Mike Smith hadn’t geared her down in deep stretch.
“I asked her for more than I’ve ever had to,” Smith said. “I take my hat off to Carina Mia, she made her run a little bit. She made Songbird do something she never did before. But Songbird’s got a big, beautiful stride. I didn’t panic.”
Trainer Bill Mott, like Hollendorfer and Smith a Hall of Famer, told Leparoux to pressure Songbird from the start. Songbird led Carina Mia through fractions of 47.52 seconds for a half-mile and 1:11.63 for 6 furlongs before the drama level spiked.
“We took it to her leaving the three-eighths pole,’’ Mott said. “It looked like when we turned for home, we were in with a shot, but the other filly had a little too much left.’’
Mott is a low-key guy, but he’ll never outdo that comment for understatement.
Songbird paid $2.60 and earned $300,000, raising her total above $2.4 million for Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms. She ran 1 1⁄8 miles in 1:49.56. After Carina Mia, the 2-1 second choice, came 63-1 shot Flora Dora, 21-1 Mo d’Amour and 11-1 Weep No More. The also-rans earned $100,000, $50,000, $25,000 and $15,000, respectively, for watching Songbird from a distance.
Smith has ridden two female Horses of the Year — Azeri (2002) and Zenyatta (2010) — so he’s familiar with greatness. His opinion of Songbird keeps getting higher.
“She’s just so special, and I really don’t want to think about it. I just want to keep my nose to the grindstone and when it’s all over, years from now, I can look back and think about it.
“I graded this performance a little above an ‘A’. If this race moves her up the way I think it will, there’s no telling how good she can be.”