09/21/2016 1:30PM

Songbird a tonic for ailing owner Porter

Barbara D. Livingston
Owner Rick Porter leads Songbird to the winner’s circle following the Coaching Club American Oaks.

It is debatable as to who was the first person to utter the phrase “There is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse,” but it is clear that the vision of Songbird has been very good for her owner, Rick Porter.

“It’s good medicine for me,” Porter said.

Porter, 76, has been battling health issues for most of the year. In the spring, he underwent treatment for cancer and was hospitalized for 18 days. In the summer, just days before Songbird was to compete in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, Porter was hospitalized due to an infection, forcing him to miss being at the race in person.

Porter, who spent 15 days in the hospital during August, said he was able to watch the Alabama from his room in the intensive-care unit of Christiana Hospital in Delaware.

“I wasn’t really with it; I knew enough what was going on,” Porter said. “I knew we won. I’ve watched it 10 times since.”

:: PENNSYLVANIA DERBY: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live

Porter, who was discharged from the hospital Aug. 31, is doing well enough that he will be at Parx Racing on Saturday to watch his undefeated champion Songbird try to win her 11th straight race in the Grade 1, $1 million Cotillion Stakes.

At Saratoga, Songbird passed two stiff tests. First, there was Carina Mia, the Grade 1 Acorn winner, whom Songbird dispatched like a gnat at the quarter pole en route to winning the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks by 5 1/4 lengths. Then, in the Alabama, there was an early pace challenge from Go Maggie Go, whom Songbird easily handled in winning that race by seven lengths, improving her record to 10 for 10.

Following the Alabama, both Jerry Hollendorfer and Mike Smith, Songbird’s trainer and jockey, talked about how important it was to win that race for Porter, whose condition at that time was critical. Hollendorfer suspects that having a horse like Songbird has been beneficial to Porter.

“I think that would help anybody have a more positive attitude,” Hollendorfer said.

In the Cotillion, the primary challenge figures to come from Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia, whose trainer, John Servis, trained for Porter for many years. In 2000, the two campaigned Jostle, who won the Grade 1 Alabama and the Cotillion, which back then was a Grade 2 race worth $200,000.

Though Servis no longer has horses for Porter, “John and I are still good friends,” Porter said. “On Saturday, we’ll be good competitors.”

“Rick and I did a lot of good together,” Servis said Wednesday at Parx. “He was great for my business; he was the first guy that put really good horses in my barn. We had a good relationship. We wore each other out a couple of times.”

Though Porter lives on the East Coast and has a large string of horses with Larry Jones at Delaware Park, Songbird has spent the bulk of her career based in Southern California with Hall of Famer Hollendorfer.

Porter had employed a bevy of East Coast-based trainers in the past – Nick Zito, Chad Brown, and Tony Dutrow, to name a few – but after splitting with those men, Porter said that aside from Jones, he couldn’t find an East Coast trainer who “could do right by the horses and still communicate with me.”

Porter hadn’t had any prior dealings with Hollendorfer and only knew him from the rivalry that Hollendorfer’s Blind Luck and Porter’s Havre de Grace developed in 2010. Havre de Grace beat Blind Luck in the Cotillion after Blind Luck had beaten Havre de Grace in the Delaware Oaks and Alabama.

Hollendorfer was sent Songbird because early in their development stages, she was deemed to be the second-best 2-year-old Porter had behind Southern Girl, a half-sister to Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man whom Porter purchased for $775,000 as a yearling. By the time the horses were dispersed, Songbird had surpassed Southern Girl, but Porter had already decided that she was going to Hollendorfer. Southern Girl, trained by Jones, is 4 for 5 after winning the Shine Again Stakes.

Throughout the year, as Songbird dominated her own gender and age group, there has been a call for her take on males. Porter said he has never seriously considered doing that this year but perhaps will consider it next year as he plans to race Songbird in 2017.

“I think I would like to if she’s showing me she can compete with them like Havre de Grace did,” said Porter, who successfully ran Havre de Grace against males in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga. “If I think I can win, I’ll run against them. I want to run her at the highest level I think she can win at – that’s what I like to do with racehorses. I want the chance of beating the best horses out there, but I’m not going to be stupid and run in races I can’t win.”

So far, Songbird has made Porter look like the smartest man in the room.