02/08/2016 2:30PM

Hovdey: Songbird has her own frame of reference

Barbara D. Livingston
Despite her otherworldly efforts against fillies, Songbird owner, Rick Porter, is not planning to run against males anytime soon.

Submitted for consideration – an open letter to a certain group of horse racing’s most ardent followers:

Dear Phans,

It’s okay to fall in love again. No one is keeping score. He’s gone, and he’s not coming back. Turn the page. Close the book. Linger over those selfies, sure. But don’t expect the pulse to rise at the sight of headlights in the driveway, or that knock upon the door. He is gone.

But now, while moping on a park bench, chewing on a dry crust of American Pharoah memories, a vision turns the corner and saunters past. Her name is Songbird, and she beckons. Come on along for the ride.

Songbird’s fifth win without a loss in the Las Virgenes Stakes last Saturday at Santa Anita has been described as nothing more than a paid workout. This is not precisely true. She went fast enough early to set a decent pace and then was geared down late, which is not the case in the morning. For Songbird, it was more a joyous reinforcement of a job she seems to adore.

“I think the announcer said it best,” said Rick Porter, Songbird’s owner, referring to Santa Anita’s Frank Mirahmadi. “He called it ‘a privilege to watch.’ ”

It was because they don’t come around like Songbird very often, even though her emergence in the wake of the American Pharoah experience feels like another helping of the world’s best cake.

And yet racing fans are not content to savor the present without rooting around in the past. American Pharoah threw fans deep into history, inspiring a fresh examination of Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, and Citation. Songbird, goes the thinking, must be like something we’ve seen before, or else how can she be fully appreciated?

A more recent generation need only reach back to 2009 and the reign of Rachel Alexandra. Songbird is a cooler customer, but she certainly shares that same dramatic Rachel flair.

Mike Smith, the only jockey she’s ever had, said Songbird reminds him of Inside Information, who won 14 of 17 starts under the Hall of Famer from late 1993 through the end of 1995, including the Acorn Stakes by 11 lengths, the Ruffian Handicap by 11, and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by 13 1/2. That’ll do.

Those who came of racing age in the 1980s likely would tap into either Personal Ensign or Lady’s Secret for their Songbird inspiration. Personal Ensign required patience – she ran only twice at 2 and four times at 3 – but the payoff of a perfect 13-race career was worth it. As for little Lady’s Secret, she was a Marvel superhero kind of character who needed 15 starts before anyone beyond her own barn gave her much notice, after which she won 18 of her next 25 starts as the Iron Lady.

No one since 1975 has compared another filly to Ruffian without ducking. You want to get hit by lightning, go ahead. Better for Songbird to summon the early career of Numbered Account, who won 13 of her first 18 races at ages 2 and 3 in 1971 and ’72, or Desert Vixen, who was modest at 2 but then won nine of 11 at age 3, including the Alabama by eight lengths and the Beldame by 8 1/2.

On Monday, back home in Jupiter Island, Fla., Porter was still floating over Songbird’s performance.

“I’ve never seen a race where the jockey stood up all the way around,” said Porter, whose collection of top fillies has included Jostle, Joyful Victory, Round Pond, and Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. “I thought it was a perfect race for her first start of the year. Just what she needed. And, boy, has she got the social media going crazy.”

Porter has had to deflect some of the crazy away from fans’ demands that Songbird take part in the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s not the right race for her,” Porter said. “You’ve got to remember, she won’t be 3 until April 30, which means she’s basically a May foal. There’s no point putting her in a 20-horse field going a mile and a quarter in that atmosphere.”

Then there is the specter of Porter’s filly Eight Belles, who finished second to Big Brown in the 2008 Derby only to suffer fatal injuries while pulling up after the race. Porter was asked if the memory weighs upon his Derby thinking.

“Absolutely not,” he replied. “Eight Belles does not play into my decision at all. I’ll never get over what happened to her, but I’m not going to let it determine where I’d race a filly. It was a fluke accident. And I was right. She did belong in the Derby.”

For better or worse, participation in the Kentucky Derby is the destiny of capable colts, and many are never heard from again. Not so with fillies, however. They have choices. Discretion is not only available but encouraged in their management.

“That doesn’t mean we might not run Songbird against colts later on,” Porter said. “But every time your horse goes out there, you think, ‘Please let them get back without a problem.’ You owe it to them to make the right decision.”

There will be a Kentucky Derby even without Songbird. And there will be a Songbird even without the Kentucky Derby. Then, after all that, there will be a Songbird and a Kentucky Derby winner to enjoy. And won’t that be pretty?