01/05/2017 2:40PM

2016 Eclipse Awards: Songbird

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Debra A. Roma
Songbird won four Grade 1 races in 2016, including this summer's Alabama Stakes at Saratoga.

It’s difficult to find more superlatives to describe Songbird, the heavy favorite to earn her second career Eclipse Award. The filly has already run through most standard descriptors. She belted high note after high note in 2016, taking an unchallenged record into her showdown with two older champions in the 2016 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Songbird, bred in Kentucky by John Antonelli, races in the red-and-white colors of Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms. Porter named her in honor of the late singer Eva Cassidy. Songbird, who is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, ripped through all four starts in her juvenile campaign, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, to earn her first divisional Eclipse. This year, Songbird picked up right where she left off, winning the Grade 2 Las Virgenes, Grade 3 Santa Ysabel, and Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks to open 2016. She was then forced to miss the Longines Kentucky Oaks due to illness, and was freshened for a summer campaign.

Songbird returned to action with an easy score in the Grade 2 Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita, then took her act east for the summer, targeting a pair of historic Grade 1 events at Saratoga Race Course. Even the Graveyard of Favorites could not catch up to the fleet-footed dark bay. She dispatched Grade 1 winner Carina Mia to win the Coaching Club American Oaks by 5 1/4 lengths, then romped in the Alabama Stakes by seven lengths, despite trying the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles for the first time.

:: Eclipse Awards: 2016 finalists with profiles

The two victories were more good medicine for Porter, a popular owner who spent last year battling health issues. The owner was hospitalized in Delaware just prior to the Alabama, but watched the race from his room in the intensive care unit.

“Anytime you have a horse like Songbird, it makes for a more positive attitude,” Hollendorfer said.

Porter was back on hand at Parx Racing, as Songbird turned a key divisional showdown with Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia and Carina Mia into another runaway, taking the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes by 5 3/4 lengths. That pushed her career record to 11 for 11 entering the Distaff at Santa Anita, in which Songbird would face older rivals for the first time – including fellow Eclipse Award champions Beholder and Stellar Wind and multiple Grade 1 winners I’m a Chatterbox, Forever Unbridled, and Curalina.

Songbird, with her high cruising speed, took her customary position on the lead, and took the star-studded Distaff field into the stretch still leading by a length. She refused to concede as Beholder engaged her, and the two champions dueled down the stretch, with the older Beholder prevailing by the barest nose.

“My filly made her reach down as deep as she has,” said Mike Smith, who has been aboard Songbird in every start. “In losing, I feel like we won.”

Beholder, favored to earn her fourth Eclipse Award for her 2016 accomplishments, ran her final race that day, but may have passed the torch to Songbird, who will continue to shine brightly in 2017 as she moves into the older female division. Songbird passed an extensive physical examination at the end of her campaign and got time off at a farm in Kentucky before rejoining Hollendorfer.

“Beholder is retiring but my filly will get bigger and stronger next year, as they all do when they get older,” Smith said. “She’s a true champion.”