Twenty-five odd years ago, on one of our pioneering trade missions to the world, I had perchance the equivalent of racing’s “lightbulb” moments. It came courtesy of the acclaimed racing writer, Ed Bowen, at the time Chief Editor of America’s Bloodhorse magazine. “If you’re looking for an ideas man, you can’t beat Barry Weisbord”. Ed Bowen got many things right in his life, but he never got them any “righter” than this one. A lawyer by profession and a hot-walker by choice, Barry Weisbord was the visionary that gave the world Matchmaker, the first auction of stallion nominations, a kind description for a purveyor of sperm.
Around about then his vision had given America the Champion Series of Racing, which on its viewing numbers in its infant years was in danger of outpointing the Triple Crown. While he has many other milestones chalked up in other realms, it takes a “mahatma” to come up with the gamut of possibilities enabled by the invention of his race tracking product, Trakus, and it took a man of his genius to overtake the racing publications world with the creation of the Thoroughbred Daily News (TDN), now by far the most “read” online newspaper in racing.
In a matter of a few words, a day with Barry Weisbord in the racing business is the equivalent of a degree at any other institution, and while we only managed a brief encounter at the Asian Racing Conference in India last week, it was comforting to see him looking like he’s good for at least another quarter century, and then I’m sure he’ll take guard again. One of the TDN’s regular contributors and a man close to its early establishment is Bill Finlay, who thinks the sensational American filly Songbird (Medaglio d’Oro) has been the subject of an injustice.
Rick Porter can do whatever he wants with his Songbird. It’s his horse. But, sorry, I just don’t get it. Why are Porter and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer so adamant that they will not run their sensational filly in the Kentucky Derby (Gr.1)? There’s only one Derby and Songbird is likely the most talented 3-year-old race horse of either sex on the planet. She belongs in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May and not the first Friday. Yet, Porter didn’t even pony up the $600 necessary to make her eligible for the Triple Crown.
The road to the Kentucky Derby has already included terrific performances from two colts, Mohaymen (Tapit) and Mor Spirit (Eskendereya). Mohaymen looked a superstar-in-the-making when winning the Holy Bull (Gr.2) at Gulfstream and Mor Spirit kicked off his 3-year-old campaign with a convincing win last Saturday in the Robert B. Lewis (Gr.3). There’s also Nyquist (Uncle Mo); last year’s champion is certainly no pushover. But are any of them as good as Songbird? That was a legitimate question last year and it became even more so Saturday.
Songbird picked up where she left off in 2015, winning the Las Virgenes (Gr.2) at Santa Anita, treating her opponents with disdain as she arrogantly cantered across the wire, slowed to a near walk by jockey Mike Smith. The winning margin was 6 1/2 lengths. It seemed like it could have been 60. In the previous race, the Lewis, Mor Spirit looked good. Songbird looked sensational.
After the Las Virgenes, Porter said what he’s been saying all along. No Derby. “It would be nice to win the Kentucky Derby, but I’d like to do it with a nice colt ,” the owner said. “I don’t like the [Kentucky Derby] point system. We’d have to run in the Santa Anita Derby (Gr.1) with her. I think it’d be great for your ego, but the smart move is to stay on the path we’re on to the Kentucky Oaks.”
Porter has a point about the Kentucky Derby point system. It’s now virtually impossible for a filly to get into the Derby without first running in a prep against males. But why not run in the Santa Anita Derby (Gr.1)? If she somehow didn’t win or run competitively, you can always take a step back and go for the Kentucky Oaks (Gr.1). But if Songbird were to win the Santa Anita Derby, she would have proven that she can beat males, that winning the Kentucky Derby is not be beyond her talents, and she would likely be the favourite in the most important horse race in America.
Some may wonder if Porter is still spooked by what happened in 2008 when he ran Eight Belles (Unbridled’s Song) in the Derby only to have her break down after finishing second. In perhaps the darkest moment in Derby history, Eight Belles had to be euthanised after pulling up past the finish line. But Porter has said repeatedly that he doesn’t believe that Eight Belles’ gender had anything to do with the tragedy and that he has nothing against running fillies against males. He proved as much when running his filly Havre de Grace (Saint Liam) against males in the 2011 Woodward Stakes (Gr.1), a victory that helped vault her to a Horse of the Year title. Havre de Grace again faced males in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic (Gr.1), where she finished fourth. Rather, it seems that Porter, and maybe Hollendorfer, as well, have lost sight of just what it means to win the Kentucky Derby.
It is supposed to be the dream of every owner, trainer, breeder, jockey, groom, hotwalker, exercise rider that has ever participated in the sport. It is not just an iconic horse race, it is an iconic sporting event. It is a race that creates legends. It is the race that everyone in America knows. With the lone exception of when a horse is going for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes (Gr.1), it is 100 times more important than any race in America. It is difficult for a filly to win, but not impossible. It has been done three times and Porter himself finished second with Eight Belles, a horse that didn’t breathe the same air as Songbird does.
Instead of the Derby, Songbird will be pointed toward the Kentucky Oaks. It’s an important race, but it pales in comparison to the Kentucky Derby in every way imaginable, starting with the purse. The Oaks goes for $1 million, the Derby for $2 million. But the real difference between the two is less tangible. No one can name the last 10 winners of the Kentucky Oaks. Everyone can name the last 10 winners of the Kentucky Derby. They make movies about Derby winners. The Oaks winner is a mere footnote by the time the field of 20 lines up in the gate for the Derby.
It’s not too late for Porter to change his mind. He can pay $6,000 to make his filly eligible as a supplemental nominee to the Triple Crown. That would, at least, keep his options open. Don’t do it for ego gratification or for the money. Do it because it’s what Songbird deserves. She could be one of the greatest fillies ever to race. Something that special deserves the biggest stage, something that special has earned the right to vie for immortality.
Thoroughbred Daily News
LA Times (p)