There are those rare moments in horse racing when even the losing bettors stand up and applaud when they are witnessing greatness. That was the scene on a gorgeous, cloudless Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita, where the unbeaten 3-year-old filly Songbird, sent off at odds of 1-9, showed why she is drawing comparisons to the likes of Ruffian and Rachel Alexandra.
"That's what you call flying," Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said as Songbird glided through the stretch to an emphatic 6 1/2-length victory over Land Over Sea in the Grade II $300,345 Las Virgenes Stakes, her fifth consecutive victory.
Owner Rick Porter, wearing a bright red coat with red bow tie, couldn't stop smiling when trying to explain his feelings watching Songbird's domination.
"She just gives you goose bumps and you wonder, 'How did I get this horse?'" he said. "She's incredible."
Purchased for $400,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale, the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro recently won the Eclipse Award as the top 2-year-old filly, and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was a little nervous waiting to see what she would do in her first start of 2016. He didn't need to wait long. She burst out of the gate, took the lead and ran away from her six opponents, running the mile in 1:36.84. Hollendorfer enjoyed the reaction of fans offering cheers.
"They're starting to like her," he said.
It's the time of year when hopefuls for the Kentucky Derby start their preparation, and the best 3-year-old in the land this year might be a filly. But Songbird's name was missing from the 368 early nominees announced last month for the Triple Crown series, won by American Pharoah last year. Porter is focusing on winning the Kentucky Oaks with Songbird.
Smith, who rode Zenyatta, the 2010 horse of the year, said riding Songbird is similar to taking a ride in a fancy car.
"It's a totally different feeling," he said. "What comes easy for her seems a little difficult for others. She's got such a high cruising speed. I look over at the competition sometimes, man, it's like they're all out to keep up."
One race before Songbird's performance, trainer Bob Baffert's best hope for a return to the Kentucky Derby, Mor Spirit, won the $150,345 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths over Uncle Lino with I Will Score finishing third.
Ridden by Gary Stevens, Mor Spirit, a 3-year-old son of Eskendereya, was in third place for much of the 1 1/16-mile race before Stevens turned him loose on the outside in the stretch and was able to overhaul Uncle Lino.
"He's pretty special," said Stevens, who has been aboard three Kentucky Derby winners.
Said Baffert: "He has that long stride, but in the mornings, he's not a very good work horse. He's sort of lazy. He needs a target and when he gets a target, he shuts it down, but today was perfect."
Baffert also was the winning trainer in the $500,690 San Antonio Stakes when Hoppertunity, under jockey Flavien Prat, won in a photo finish over Imperative.
Flamboyant, under jockey Brice Blanc, won the $200,000 San Marcos Stakes over Gaga A and Quick Casablanca.