08/20/2016 6:58PM

Songbird survives swift fractions to stay unbeaten in Alabama

Barbara D. Livingston
Mike Smith guides Songbird to a seven-length victory in the Alabama, the filly's 10th straight victory.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Mike Smith knew he was going fast early aboard Songbird in Saturday’s Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama at Saratoga. Though he had the undefeated champion a few paths outside of pacesetter Go Maggie Go, they were in virtual lockstep through the first six furlongs of the 10-furlong race run in 1:11.13.

“I can’t honestly tell you I wasn’t concerned,” Smith said.

But every so often, Smith would look down at Songbird and could see - and feel - she had no concerns whatsoever despite the rapid early pace.

Around the far turn, Songbird left Go Maggie Go behind and the rest was rather easy as Songbird cruised home a seven-length winner of the 136th Alabama before an announced crowd of 40,329 on a perfect summer afternoon.

Songbird is perfection embodied as she ran her record to 10 for 10, this being her sixth Grade 1 victory.

“I never like to say it’s easy, but she’s just got a lot of talent and makes it look easy, but it’s not easy,” said Jerry Hollendorfer, the trainer of Songbird.

What wasn’t easy Saturday was the fact owner Rick Porter wasn’t at Saratoga for the race. Instead, he is hospitalized in Delaware, making the victory even more meaningful to Hollendorfer and Smith.

“Mr. Porter is having a little bit of a hard time of it right now, but he’s a real tough guy and we expect him to come through with flying colors,” Hollendorfer said. “It was our hope and wish that we could win for him today and we did.”

Smith said he had the chance to speak briefly to Porter on Friday.

“It was extremely important we win this and lift Mr. Porter’s spirits,” Smith said. “He’s fighting. We’re hoping. We’re praying.”

Songbird had a fight on her hands as Go Maggie Go, breaking from post 4 under Luis Saez, went to the front. Songbird, breaking from post 6, took Smith right with her through a quarter-mile in 23.76 seconds, a half in 47.77, and six furlongs in 1:11.13.

“I’m a rider I’m thinking a hundred different things,” Smith said. “Who is going to make the late charge? Have we done too much soon? But I look down at her about every five steps and she’s just doing what she does. Every now and then she’d throw an ear [up] so I knew she was comfortable. Me, in my head, I’m trying to figure out what’s going on behind me.”

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Smith’s biggest fear was that Weep No More would pull a reprise of what she did in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland in April when she came from out of the clouds to nail Rachel’s Valentina and Cathryn Sophia on the wire. But no one was coming.

“I was coaxing her with the whip just a little, I wasn’t really hitting her, just stay the same, you don’t have to go no faster,” Smith said. “Then I stood up and saw she was 10 in front.”

Going for Broke, making her stakes debut, rallied from sixth to get second by 1 3/4 lengths over Family Tree. Weep No More, Flora Dora, Go Maggie Go, and Dark Nile, who was eased, completed the order of finish.

Songbird covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.00, running the last quarter-mile in 26.99 seconds. She returned $2.40 as the favorite.

“She was tired, but they’re supposed to be going a mile and quarter with those early fractions,” Smith said. “I’m not going to lie to you and say she came back skipping. I mean she was blowing but the sign of a champion is how she’ll recover in a couple of days.”

Songbird return to a loud ovation from the Saratoga faithful, some holding Songbird posters that the New York Racing Association gave away.

Songbird is expected to ship back to Southern California on Tuesday. But, she is expected to return east for the Grade 1, $1 million Cotillion at Parx on Sept. 24.