When track announcer Larry Collmus introduced Songbird during the post parade for the 100th edition of the Coaching Club American Oaks on Sunday at Saratoga Race Course, he paused a beat to allow the crowd to salute the undefeated 2-year-old champion.
There was not even a smattering of applause, only an awkward silence. Yes, the filly had swept her first eight starts by a combined 42½ lengths. But she had done virtually all of her damage on the West Coast; New Yorkers eyeballing her in person for the first time would need some convincing.
Their apparent skepticism vanished as Songbird, forced to dig deep for the first time, repulsed a challenge from Carina Mia nearing the quarter pole and roared home by 5¼ lengths.
Songbird was treated to a rousing ovation as she made her way to the winner's circle for jockey Mike Smith, having demonstrated her quality and class beyond a doubt in only her second start outside of Southern California. She ruled the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies by 5¾ lengths Oct. 31 at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.
The potentially lethal combination of the cross-country trek, a steamy July afternoon that made her hot before the race and feisty Carina Mia tested her as never before. Smith had always wondered what would happen when a high-caliber foe ranged up beside Songbird. He wonders no more.
"Songbird's got a big, beautiful stride. I didn't panic," Smith said. "The more [Carina Mia] got on top of her, the more it made her aggressive. I got after her a couple of times right then, and that was pretty much it."
Smith was motionless after Songbird switched leads and drew off from Carina Mia, who had patiently stalked her in second before boldly advancing around the final turn. Songbird completed the distance in 1:49.56 in earning her fifth Grade 1 victory. The purse was hiked from $300,000 to $500,000 to help persuade owner Rick Porter to send her here. She boosted her lifetime earnings to $2,402,000 with the victor's $300,000 share.
"This is where we needed to go," Porter said of his decision to conduct a summer campaign here. "I love Saratoga, number one, and, number two, we needed to face the best fillies in the country."
Bill Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer who conditions Carina Mia, took pride in placing second to Songbird in the five-horse field.
"She's one of the best we've seen in a long time," Mott said, adding, "I don't think it's any disgrace or embarrassment to run second to Songbird. We tried her and we had our chance and we have no excuse."
Songbird returned $2.60 for a $2 win wager. The New York Racing Assn. decided against offering show wagering. She is expected to remain at Saratoga to prepare for her next scheduled start here, in the prestigious Alabama on Aug. 20. Smith suggested that the first acid test of the filly's career will do her good.