06/16/2016 12:46PM

Hovdey: Great ones make good on less than their best


Mike Smith was asked if he thought Songbird would be 100 percent cranked up and ready to fire for her return to competition in the $200,000 Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita on Saturday.

“She hasn’t run in a bit, so I honestly couldn’t tell you if she’ll be at 100 percent,” Smith replied. “But I’ve never really asked her to run 100 percent either, so I have no idea what that would feel like. I mean, I’ve let her run for a jump or two here and there, but then it’s always back into my hands again.”

Mankind’s eternal quest to quantify the unquantifiable finds a welcome market in Thoroughbred racing, where jockeys, trainers, breeders, and horseplayers search for patterns in the sand. It is therefore typical to wonder aloud if a filly like Songbird, who has yet to be remotely challenged in seven appearances, will bring the same game to her eighth start after a brief respite to deal with the effects of a mild virus.

If her driver is worried, he is hiding it well. Smith has been Songbird’s only jockey, and as such, he can describe her evolution from a precocious 2-year-old to a fulsome 3-year-old of almost embarrassing talents.

“You can tell the difference as they mature in how they carry themselves, their balance, how they get over the ground,” Smith said. “What may have been a little bit of a struggle at one point has become very easy now.”

Songbird’s mental game has matured as well.

“She would get the 2-year-old jitters,” Smith said. “Now, she’s laid-back but on her toes. Always ready to go but waits for you to say when.”

Smith is the right guy to ask when it comes to fabulous fillies. Throughout his career of 34 years, they have fallen regularly into his lap. Sky Beauty, Inside Information, and Azeri are in the Hall of Fame, while Zenyatta is on her way this summer. Aboard each of them at one time or another, Smith had to search the depths of their considerable abilities.

Smith rode Sky Beauty in 14 of her 21 races and won 11 of them, including the 1994 Ruffian Handicap, in which she carried 130 pounds. Sky Beauty was unbeaten in all eight of her New York starts for Allen Jerkens when she walked into the gate for the 1993 Alabama Stakes at 70 cents on the dollar.

“She wasn’t at her best that day at all,” Smith said. “It wasn’t a matter of soundness, but I needed to ride a real good race and not give her anything to overcome. I remember Allen being really happy we pulled that one off.”

Inside Information and Smith were a steady item through all but one of her 17 starts. More often than not, she won her races with arrogant ease, which is why Smith remembers the 1995 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland as one of her finest hours.

“She hit her head in the gate when the horse next to her acted up,” Smith said. “When the doors opened, she really wasn’t herself for the first sixteenth of a mile. She finally came to her senses and got up into the race, but by that time, she had lost position and had to run hard to win by a head.”

Smith was Azeri’s alter ego in the first 18 starts of her 24-race career, including all nine races of her 2002 Horse of the Year campaign. It was her first start of 2003 that sticks in Smith’s mind as the day he went to the bottom of the well in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park.

“She was coming off a layoff and giving away weight, and Take Charge Lady just exploded away from me turning for home,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Holy mackerel, how am I supposed to catch that?’ I asked her for it all, she gave it to me, and we got there to win by a short head.”

As for Zenyatta, who won 16 of 17 under Smith, it was hard to tell when the rider asked her for what and how much.

“Even though some of her wins were a nose or a head, they weren’t as tough as they looked,” Smith said. “Even giving away a lot of weight and coming from so far behind, she had it pretty well timed. But there was a time or two she had to lay it down to get the job done.”

Songbird’s brief illness required her to surrender center stage to some very talented understudies this spring. In the Kentucky Oaks, the part of Songbird was played to the hilt by Cathryn Sophia, who bolted home by nearly three lengths. In the Acorn last Saturday, Cathryn Sophia gave way to Carina Mia, whose 1 1/4-length win was easier than it looked.

Earlier last Saturday, Jerry Hollendorfer sent Songbird through a final prep for her return at Santa Anita. Smith was otherwise occupied at Belmont Park, where he rode Suddenbreakingnews in the Belmont Stakes.

“Jerry called me that afternoon, really excited about the way she worked,” Smith said. “When I got back to California, I went to the barn to see her for myself. She was right there waiting for a carrot, and I swear it looked like there was a spotlight on her, her coat glowed so bright in the dark stall.”

Once Songbird has dealt with the Summertime Oaks, Hollendorfer and owner Rick Porter are looking to races like the Delaware Oaks, the Alabama, and the Cotillion at Parx as stepping-stones to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita in November.

“Sometimes with a talented horse, you tend to dream big and reach for the sky,” Smith said. “Somehow, I’ve seemed to have contained myself with her because you can’t dream any bigger than what she’s already done. At some point with a good horse like her, you expect them to run the way they do. But she keeps impressing me over and over and over. I don’t know how many more times I can be impressed.”