07/27/2016 12:46PM

Hovdey: Smith and Songbird on cruise control


Mike Smith was sitting in racetrack traffic while leaving Saratoga last Sunday evening when he glanced over to notice a horse walking along the other side of the security fence on its way back to the stables from the test barn.

“I’m sure some people knew it was her,” Smith said. “At least the ones who really follow racing. Sitting there in the car, I got to see her walk all the way along the fence, and she looked great, man. Recovered quick. Her ears were up, really alert.”

“She” is Songbird – who else? – and because Smith was trying to make a flight back to the West Coast, he had to miss his usual post-race visit with his favorite filly, during which carrots and candies are offered in tribute. Still, it was enough that he got to see her in the flesh, even from a moving vehicle, since she had just experienced the toughest race of her perfect nine-race career. When that happens with most horses, you just never know.

As Songbird’s only rider in a journey that began a year ago, Smith is rarely surprised yet always amazed. Amazed by her old-soul demeanor, her professionalism beyond her years, her endless series of gears that were put to good use in the Coaching Club American Oaks to deal with the classy Carina Mia.

Heading to Albany International Airport, Smith had been at the center of the American racing universe all weekend long, even as that center shifted from Del Mar on Saturday to Saratoga on Sunday. On Saturday, Smith rode Win the Space in the San Diego Handicap and came away with the $24,000 worth of third-place crumbs that California Chrome and Dortmund left on the table after an epic bar brawl that set up a thriller in next month’s Pacific Classic.

“Both those two were coming off layoffs, so you hope they’ll do something to each other early to give me a chance to maybe get lucky and pick up the pieces,” Smith said. “But you don’t want to ruin your chances going after them. They started running away from us about the three-eighths pole, so right about then, I looked around to see that we’d be third for sure.”

He was, 7 1/4 lengths behind runner-up Dortmund and 9 1/2 lengths ahead of the fourth-place finisher, Follow Me Crev. In his previous start, Win the Space had thrown a scare into Melatonin in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

“He’s a talented horse,” Smith said of Win the Space. “They get him away from those first two, and he could win some nice races.”

Del Mar fans gave both the victorious California Chrome and Dortmund a rousing hand when they returned, while at Saratoga, it was all for Songbird.

“The fans in New York, when they’re cheering for you, they’re great,” he said. “When they’re not, they’re pretty brutal. But she got such a big ovation coming back after the race, you could tell they loved her. And she deserved it.”

Songbird is just starting her romance with Saratoga – the Alabama Stakes is next – but for Smith, it was a special homecoming. He led the meet three straight years in the early 1990s and won the Travers twice (with Holy Bull and Coronado’s Quest), along with just about every other major event on the summer calendar. More recently, he shipped to Saratoga to win the 2013 Personal Ensign with Royal Delta and the 2010 Diana on Proviso, both for Bill Mott.

Smith’s mounts have earned an average of more than $23,000 for each start this season, by far the best in the nation. But he has ridden only 184 races. That’s fewer than Jose Ortiz has won. In the days leading up to the weekend, Smith had just three mounts in three days at Del Mar.

Four rides on Saturday helped Smith sleep on the red-eye, but his only mount on Sunday was Songbird. The rider ramped up his regular exercise routine to accommodate the situation, aware that he would be going from warm, relatively dry Pacific breezes to the inside of a radiator in upstate New York.

“I knew it would be hot and very, very humid,” Smith said. “The heavier air makes it very hard to breathe for people and horses who aren’t used to it, so I trained myself hard. I knew I had to be ready for it because I knew Songbird would be.”

And yet when Carina Mia and Julien Leparoux came to them at the head of the stretch, a strange, intrusive thought interrupted Smith’s blissful enjoyment of another Songbird cruise.

“[Carina Mia] came at me pretty hard there for a little bit, and we took off,” Smith said. “I thought, ‘Wow, if that filly can keep it up, who’s gonna cave in first?’ She dug in really good, though. When we straightened out and she switched leads, she gave me another gear. I thought, ‘Man, I’m glad that’s there.’ ”

Smith hit Songbird twice left-handed, something he’d never done in the heat of battle.

“I didn’t hit her that hard, just a couple times to let her know to go ahead, it wasn’t over yet, and she dug in really good,” Smith said. “Then I looked over at the big screen and saw her all alone, drawing away.”

His final thought, as Songbird finished more than five lengths clear?

“Man,” Smith replied, “I can’t believe this.”

Believe it.