Songbird deserving of Horse of the Year consideration

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TwinSpires Staff

November 16th, 2016

by Ron Flatter

I promised myself I would not be that guy – the one who uses media surveys to cast a unique vote in an effort to simultaneously claim I am smarter than everyone in the room, that I know something no one else knows, all the while drumming up undo attention for my own oblique opinion.

Yet here I go, if only to flesh out a thought I had immediately after all those horses that were perfect in 2016 lost at the Breeders’ Cup. That among them, Songbird might be the 2016 Horse of the Year.

Say what?

When I first broached the subject with a couple colleagues in the gloaming of Santa Anita Park an hour after Arrogate beat California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I got the sort of quizzical looks that dogs give when they hear a confounding noise.

I have not convinced myself that this is how I shall vote when the Eclipse Award ballots show up late next month. Even if I do, I will be stunned if California Chrome is not announced as the winner come January, and it will not shock me if Arrogate has considerable backing to finish second. Then again, I was taken aback by another vote this month, and I would like to think for a change that there are more than two contenders for this particular election.

What got me to this point was the thought most of the summer that Songbird might be America’s best horse in training. That just because she had not faced the boys or decent competition was no reason to squeeze her out of consideration as the best thing going round the tracks.

Of Songbird’s seven wins in 2016, four were Grade 1 races in three different states with an average victory margin of nearly 5 1/2 lengths.  Watching those four races again, her hand-ridden, 3 3/4-length victory in the Santa Anita Oaks proved she could cruise in the slop, something California Chrome and Arrogate have never been asked to do. That was book-ended in September by a more characteristic, stalking victory by 5 3/4 lengths over rival Carina Mia at Parx in the Cotillion.

It was her time at Saratoga this summer that got me thinking Songbird may be as good as there is in the country.  Her seven-length score in the Alabama, when race caller Larry Collmus called her “a perfect 10,” was eye candy. But Songbird’s most impressive victory came the month before in the Coaching Club American Oaks, when she got her biggest challenge before the Breeders’ Cup.

That was when, for a change, she was the stalked and not the stalker. Julien Leparoux and Carina Mia pressed the issue by going nose to nose with Songbird into the stretch. Three rare taps of the whip from Mike Smith later, the race was over. The 5 1/4-length result proved Songbird could rise to a challenge, something she also showed when she did not give up in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff before losing by a nose to Beholder in the most exciting finish of the championships.

I know. The competition. Frankly, the three-year-old fillies division was weak this year. And the Beyers. Those pesky Beyers. Songbird’s only times over 100 were in that Saratoga duel with Carina Mia in July and in the Distaff. But those were also the only two times she was pushed hard to the finish. If not for the weak competition and the hand rides in the other races, she would have more than just a double-triple. Does that make her any less of a racehorse?

In a vote for Horse of the Year – the key word being “Year” – wins and not speed figures are a more stable form of currency that does not get outrageously inflated with the crack of a whip or the turn of some leaves. It is also the very reason why Arrogate should not be considered, unless the award is renamed Horse of the Half-Year. Frankly, if Beyers are to be the end-all, be-all for an Eclipse vote, then just hand the trophy to Frosted for his Met Mile win.

Yes, in her lone race against older horses – older female horses – Songbird lost. But ask this question. If the last jump of the race had gone her way and not Beholder’s, wouldn’t Songbird have had a more convincing case as the only undefeated contender? Should the bob of the head be the difference between serious consideration for Horse of the Year and a complete discarding of her candidacy? Seriously, this is not exactly like comparing Western Michigan with Ohio State.

Taking heed of the fever that knocked her out of the Kentucky Oaks, owner Rick Porter and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer were never going to push Songbird against older rivals or against males before they were good and ready. In other words, not before November. And not before 2017.

“She’s making her own name by what she’s done so far,” Hollendorfer said in September. “Hopefully she’ll continue to do more, and I’ll let the media decide how important she is.”

“The time will come next year when we talk about (racing against males),” Porter said after the Cotillion. “I hope if she stays healthy, it looks like she can beat Grade 1 boys.”

There is precedent for awarding the U.S. championship to a horse that stayed within the narrow confines of its division before losing in the Breeders’ Cup. Go back two years, when five-year-old Main Sequence went unbeaten in four races – all Grade 1s – only to lose the Eclipse to a three-year-old loser in the Breeders’ Cup Classic by the name of California Chrome.

There is not much precedent for three-year-old fillies being voted a U.S. championship. The only time it has happened in the 45-year history of the Eclipse Awards was seven years ago, when Rachel Alexandra won it. But that was on the heels of a win against older males in the Woodward. Even then, her 130-99 win over Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Zenyatta, then age five, remains a matter certain to spark debate for years to come.

Songbird’s claim is admittedly tougher to validate with statistical form. Her strongest case for Horse of the Year comes by way of the eye test – in this case the indelible images of her victories. In the end they may not be enough to get past the top earner in American racing history and the winner of the richest race in the world this side of 2017.

But to cast aside what Songbird did in 2016 without throwing her into the conversation would be an oversight – win or lose in the final vote.

Songbird photo courtesy of Jamie Newell/