09/01/2017 2:10PM

Hovdey: Songbird's retirement leaves a void to match her brilliance

Barbara D. Livingston
Songbird walks up the track following her neck defeat in the Personal Ensign Stakes on Aug. 26, 2017.

On a table in the trailer Jerry Hollendorfer and assistant Dan Ward use for their Del Mar stable office, a set of familiar red and white silks rested among the sales catalogs and overnights. Just outside, halfway down the Hollendorfer shed row, stall No. 49 was deeply bedded in fresh straw, but sat empty with no occupant in sight.

As poignant reminders go, it was hard to choose between them.

The silks were last worn by Mike Smith last Saturday when he rode Songbird to a narrow loss in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga. They were returned to California; Songbird was not. Based on a post-race veterinary exam in Kentucky ordered by owner Rick Porter, the Personal Ensign was Songbird’s last race.

That’s the way it goes more often than not. Racing’s superstars rarely get to write their own glorious endings. Forego, Kelso, Damascus, Buckpasser, Skip Away, Winning Colors, Silver Charm, Best Pal, Bayakoa – they all said goodbye with a whimper far removed from the bang of their Hall of Fame careers. Thankfully, they are remembered for a body of work that renders their final bows meaningless.

At least Songbird went down swinging, like Cigar or Zenyatta, a road warrior to the last. Her narrow loss to Forever Unbridled in the Personal Ensign will never be held against her. It might not have been her best race, but then she never really had a worst race in 15 starts over a career that began on July 26, 2015, in a six-furlong maiden event at Del Mar.

Over the ensuing 25 months, Songbird ran in 11 Grade 1 events and won nine of them. In her two losses she was beaten a nose and a neck. Along the way she made seven cross-country trips, not counting a couple of side trips to Kentucky for off-season freshening.

The highlights are easy, and plentiful. Songbird used her intrinsic speed – a byproduct of her classic conformation and economic stride – to easily win races like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland, the Las Virgenes, and the Santa Anita Oaks. When allowed, she enjoyed sitting behind a fast horse before leaving the field, as she did in the Cotillion Stakes at Parx, or the Alabama at Saratoga. And when she was challenged – like she was by Carina Mia in the CCA Oaks, or Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff – Songbird displayed a passion for the fight that made hard hearts pound.

In the Personal Ensign, she did not get a chance to engage the cagily ridden Forever Unbridled, who was produced late and wide by Joel Rosario to get a tough job done well. Still, the loss was enough for Porter to put Songbird on a fast track to retirement, and within days she was tucked away at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky.

This is where the Thoroughbred business disconnects with its more casual fans, those who might appreciate the game through Songbird, California Chrome, or American Pharoah without diving deep into the economics of the sport. Porter’s profession of affection for Songbird as part of the family has been constant. Short of taking her home to Pennsylvania and putting her in his backyard, he certainly has the option of keeping her as a broodmare and raising, selling, or racing her offspring for years to come.

Instead, Porter will be selling Songbird at the November auction at Fasig-Tipton, where he sold his 2011 Horse of the Year, the mare Havre de Grace, for $10 million in November of 2012.

“The biggest challenge to try to make out financially the best way you can is to try to recoup the money you lay out in sales,” Porter said. “You can’t get it back with purse money. You can only try to get it back in the residual value of your horses, either a stallion or a mare. It’s just what you have to do to break even or make a few bucks.”

Songbird cost $400,000 as a yearling and earned just shy of $4.7 million.

“Obviously, we have a racing profit on her,” Porter said. “But in my business plan I’m considering what all the horses have cost.

“Also, at my age, I don’t have anybody to take this business over,” Porter, 76, went on. “There is no continuation of Fox Hill Farm when I’m gone. There’s really no point in starting a breeding business. What keeps me going is getting good horses to the races. That’s what I love.”

Certainly, Songbird filled the bill from her first race to her last. Thousands of fans thrilled to her every appearance, those few minutes under the bright lights of top-class competition where reputations are made.

Most of the time, though, far from the clamoring crowds and social media, Songbird was cherished by the people who cared for her every day at the track – by Hollendorfer and Ward, by her morning riders, the brothers Edgar and Raul Rodriguez, and by Liune Villarta, her young groom, who bonded with the filly as he would a younger sister, or a best friend.

On Friday morning, Villarta was doing his chores with the remaining horses in his care, trying hard not to think about the empty stall. What could a visitor say, except to congratulate him on a job beautifully done.

“It’s sad,” Villarta said. “But it’s okay.”

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