Anticipation

Songbird

Songbird

There are two fevers I am aware of that you actually want to catch. If there was a vaccine to prevent either one, I imagine the line to get it would be rather short.

Of course, Derby Fever season starts as early as February or March for many of us and you can’t cure it, no matter what you do or what the doctor gives you, until the first Sunday in May, when it miraculously goes away.

Breeders’ Cup Fever is just as bad, if not worse. It lasts longer, starts earlier and the cure is uncertain. I know some people who relapse shortly after the Classic is run and they just can’t shake it. Not even putting the lime in the coconut will help.

When US Racing Editor Derek Simon asked me to cover the Breeders’ Cup Distaff this year, my first reaction was elation. If there is one race I want to cover this year, the Distaff is it.  I almost immediately came down with Breeders’ Cup Fever, which I had managed to avoid until that point.

The next thing that came to mind was an old Heinz Ketchup commercial — the one with Carly Simon singing “Anticipation” while someone waits patiently for some ketchup to ooze out of a Heinz bottle. Heinz was known as the slowest Ketchup back then.

Ah, anticipation.

The Breeders’ Cup needs no hype, and all the races are anticipated with fervor by any fan or participant in this great game at any level. The Distaff, however… well, this year, in my humble opinion, it has the potential to be a match-up for the ages — a historic event that we may talk about for years. It may be a defining moment in one young star’s career or an exclamation point at the end of the racing career of one of the best mares we’ve seen in a long, long time.

These two outstanding ladies — one young and one old — are Songbird and Beholder. Neither really needs an introduction. I’ll be the first to say I rarely, if ever, form an opinion on a race before it is drawn and I actually handicap it, but it would be hard for anyone doing advance speculation to get past these two.

Yes, Stellar Wind is a fine racehorse and she did beat Beholder this year, but I am not ready to put her in the same league just yet. Beholder was prepping, not fully cranked up, and her trainer, Richard Mandela, is not only one of the best ever, he is super adept at having a horse peak for the big dance and not before.

Jerry Hollendorfer, the trainer of Songbird is also one of the best ever, but his style is a little different. His horses show up with their best efforts almost every time they go to post. If they don’t, you can rest assured it is not because of anything Hollendorfer did or didn’t do. Songbird is ridden by Mike Smith, who, like Gary Stevens, is a master. These two Hall of Fame riders are fierce competitors on the racetrack, but good friends off of it. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know both and their knowledge of every aspect of our game is on a par with their outstanding ability in the irons.

The stage is set for a race to remember.

Songbird has rattled off a string of wins impressive enough to get the attention of even the most skeptical of turf speculators. She’s beaten everyone they have put in the gate with her. Her toughest test came when she faced Bill Mott’s talented three-year old filly Carina Mia in The Coaching Club American Oaks in Saratoga. Songbird, who usually races in cruise control right on or near the pace, looked collared and possibly beaten by Carina Mia and Saratoga’s history as “The Graveyard of Champions,” but it was not to be. Songbird showed she had heart and fight to go with her prodigious talent and speed and she turned back Carina Mia like she was a fly that just happened to land on her; she drew off to yet another handy win.

Rick Porter bought Songbird (Medaglia d’Oro / Ivanavinalot) for his Fox Hill Farm for $400,000 out of the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling Sale. Since then, she’s gone 10 for 10, and earned just shy of $2.8 million in purses.

She’s already won a Breeders’ Cup, the 2015 Juvenile Fillies, and also the 2015 Eclipse Award for Champion Juvenile Filly. Mr. Porter and Mr. Hollendorfer took some unwarranted criticism for not running their star filly against boys.  I find that ridiculous on many levels.

First off, she is their horse. Second, neither owner nor trainer is known for ducking anyone — and both are great sportsmen of the game. Third, Mr. Porter had a tragic and horrible experience when he ran Eight Belles in The Kentucky Derby against the boys. The filly broke down after finishing second to Big Brown and had to be euthanized. Fourth — news flash! — campaigning your horse in a manner that is best for it and racking up millions of dollars, grade 1 wins, building an impressive undefeated resume and winning championships is a thing of beauty.

Old-school trainers are known for master campaigns. It’s a positive, not a negative. They know where to run; let them call the shots and sit back and enjoy it. I would not run Songbird in the Cotillion at Parx, but I won’t criticize Porter and Hollendorfer for doing it. Apparently, Songbird is kicking down the stall.

Beholder

Beholder

Beholder has an even more impressive resume (one for the ages, actually) with 24 starts, 17 wins and five second-place finishes! She’s earned just a tad under $5 million and has absolutely nothing left to prove. She was purchased by Spendthrift farm for $180,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale and it can be argued that she has outrun her pedigree (Henny Hughes / Leslie’s Lady), as her sire was a sprinter who sired sprinters, yet Beholder has shown no distance limitations.

In fact, she’s won three Eclipse Awards. In 2012, she was the Two-Year-Old Champion Filly. In 2013, she was the Champion Three-Year-Old Filly. In 2015, she was the Champion Older Filly or Mare.
She’s also won two Breeders’ Cup races: the Juvenile Fillies in 2012, and the Distaff in 2013. In two of her losses, she had legitimate excuses. When she ran second in the Kentucky Oaks, she did not ship well, which has been an issue for her, and she got all worked up in the paddock and was almost scratched. In the Ogden Phipps at Belmont, she came out of the race with a nasty gash on her leg that was bleeding pretty good. She humbled the boys in the 2015 Pacific Classic with an electrifying move to the front that looked more like a Turbo Porsche 911 passing a 1974 Dodge Dart than a horse passing other horses.

A lot can happen between now and the Breeders’ Cup. Who knows who can emerge, who can come from a faraway land we do not expect and if these two great horses can maintain their form a few more months. We play a game where things can change drastically in a second, and fortunes are decided by inches. And we wouldn’t have it any other way, would we?

Here’s to hoping the Distaff plays out to be the match-up we are hoping to see.

Jonathan Stettin
Jonathan has always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings, as he practically grew up at the racetrack. His mother, affectionately known as “Ginger,” was in the stands at Belmont Park the day before he was born as his father, Joe, worked behind the windows as a pari-mutuel clerk.

As a toddler, Jonathan cheered for and followed horses and jockeys, knowing many of the names and bloodlines by the time he was in first grade. Morning coffee in his household was always accompanied by the Daily Racing Form or Morning Telegraph.

At the age of 16, Jonathan dropped out of school and has pretty much been at the races full-time ever since. Of course, he had some of the usual childhood racetrack jobs growing up — mucking stalls, walking hots and rubbing horses. He even enjoyed brief stints as a jockey agent and a mutuel clerk (like his dad).

His best day at the track came on August 10, 1994 at Saratoga, when he hit the pick-6 paying $540,367.

Jonathan continues to be an active and successful player. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin or visit his Web site at www.pastthewire.com.