SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Mike Smith has ridden some of the best female horses of all time – four, in fact, who are in the Hall of Fame, including Zenyatta, whose induction takes place in less than three weeks.
Smith, a Hall of Famer himself and still going strong at age 50, has found another fabulous filly in Songbird, who is undefeated in eight career starts. She will put that streak on the line Sunday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga, where she will meet four rivals, including Grade 1 winners Carina Mia and Weep No More.
Songbird has won her eight starts by a combined 42 1/2 lengths. She’s done it with breathtaking ease, eliciting comparisons to some of the best Smith has ridden. That list includes champions and Hall of Famers Azeri, an 11-time Grade 1 winner; Inside Information, a six-time Grade 1 winner; Sky Beauty, a nine-time Grade 1 winner; and Zenyatta, a 13-time Grade 1 winner.
The comparisons, however, are coming from other Hall of Fame riders. Smith said he’s heard from retired jockeys Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Jerry Bailey, and Jacinto Vasquez – the regular rider of the brilliant Ruffian – to talk Songbird.
“I had the best of the best riders call me after she’s run, a lot of them retired, saying she might be the best filly they’ve ever seen,” Smith said in a recent interview. “I had Pat Day call me out of the blue one day and say, ‘Is she really that good?’ Chris McCarron has come out and said, ‘She might be better than any of them you’ve ridden.’ ”
Since Songbird is just midway through her 3-year-old season, it’s understandable that Smith stops short of putting her in the elite category. For now.
“She still has a lot to prove to get to not just one of them but several of them,” Smith said. “I’ve been that blessed to have ridden that many good fillies. I’ve ridden some fillies that in their time, they were just unbeatable as far as fillies are concerned. I mean, no one was going to beat Sky Beauty in her time. No one was going to beat Inside Information in her time. No one was going to beat Jersey Girl when she was good – people forget about her. No one was going to beat Azeri, and no one was definitely going to beat Zenyatta. They were just all that good in their time.”
Smith himself brought up how difficult a decision it would be if, in their prime, that group met in a race.
“Just because I’ve been on them doesn’t mean I’m going to pick the right one,” Smith said. “You get a little sentimental about this or that, and the next thing you know, you’ve taken off the wrong horse. I mean, how many times have we done that? Over and over again.”
Smith doesn’t have a difficult time discussing what makes Songbird so good.
“She’s extremely intelligent – she’s really, really a smart filly,” Smith said. “Man, you show her one time, and she’s got it, and she just gets better at it, and that’s been from Day 1. Every work was better, every race was better, the way she handled it, and she’s just extremely talented. So well balanced, her mechanics, there’s no wasted action. What she does that’s the norm for her is very difficult, it seems like, for other fillies, which is mechanics, which is the way she does things. She just gets over the ground so effortless.”
Songbird, a daughter of Medaglia d’Oro trained by Jerry Hollendorfer for Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm, won her first seven races on the lead. In her most recent start, the Grade 2 Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita on June 18, she stalked the filly Bellamentary, ridden by Martin Garcia, for a few furlongs before taking control.
“Last time, they thought, ‘Well, we’re going to get in front of her; we’ll show her,’ ” Smith said. “That was the best thing that ever happened. I was telling Martin, ‘Go ahead, I don’t want to be here.’ I wanted to be farther back.”
Smith said he wouldn’t mind seeing Songbird rate again Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine any of her four rivals being able to outrun her early.
“I’d love for someone to get in front of her,” Smith said. “They’re just going to have to run a little quicker than 45 [seconds] to do it.”
Songbird arrived at Saratoga on Wednesday night following a flight from Southern California that made stops in Denver and Lexington, Ky. The flight was delayed from Ontario Airport near Los Angeles because another horse acted up and needed to be unloaded. Songbird arrived at Saratoga just before 8 p.m. Eastern.
On Thursday, Songbird was on the track at 5:40 a.m. for a 1 1/8-mile jog.
“She’s feeling good,” said Christina Jelm, who was overseeing Songbird here before Hollendorfer arrived Thursday afternoon. “Usually when we ship, we’ll jog the next day, but you want to make sure they eat their food and their temperature’s good, so it’s just better to say, ‘Let’s make our final decision in the morning.’ Everything went perfect. She ate up, she was happy, with her head out [of the stall] in the morning, so Jerry said, ‘Go to the track.’ ”
Smith, who was the leading rider at Saratoga from 1991-93, said he’s looking forward to Songbird performing before an East Coast crowd.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “Just to show her to different people. I think racing certainly deserves it; true fans certainly deserve it. It’s cool.”