SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Bird is the word for Saturday's Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama at Saratoga Race Course, where Fox Hill Farm's stellar Songbird will continue her pursuit of perfection in the meet's marquee race for 3-year-old fillies.
First run in 1872 when Woodbine earned $2,650 for August Belmont, the Alabama has been won by 21 Eclipse Award winners. The stakes record of 2:00 4/5 is held by the immortal Go for Wand, who rests beneath the stars and stripes in the Saratoga infield.
After sweeping four starts in a breeze last year, Songbird came within one vote of a unanimous accolade as Champion Juvenile Filly. The daughter of 2002 Travers winner Medaglia d'Oro remained untested through four more facile victories at Santa Anita Park earlier this year, and was then shipped to the Spa by Hall Of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer for the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks.
Barely settled in, Songbird emerged from the Oaks unbeaten but she did not go untested. The multiple graded stakes winner Carina Mia, stabled locally since late spring, ran up to Songbird's throatlatch on the turn and a fierce struggle ensued. Songbird was up to the challenge, and, in the words of track announcer Larry Collmus, "whistled past the Graveyard of Favorites" under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
Smith has piloted legendary mares from Azeri to Zenyatta. Asked where Songbird fits in that company, he noted Carina Mia "made her do something she never had to do before. If that moves her up like I think it will, there's no telling how good this filly is."
Songbird's owner, Rick Porter, campaigned 2000 Alabama winner Jostle, as well as Havre de Grace, the 2011 Horse of the Year who was beaten a neck in the previous year's Alabama by Blind Luck.
"That's how I learned about [Hollendorfer]," Porter recalled. "I talked to some people and they said, 'he's all about the horses 24/7 and he's awake almost all of those.' I don't think we've ever had a horse early on that ever showed us what Songbird's doing. I think at this point of her career, I think she's better by far than anything I've had in the middle of their 3-year-old year - by far."
Going into the Alabama, Songbird is 9-for-9 by a combined 47 ¾ lengths. Hollendorfer feels the added distance is within her scope, as it was for Blind Luck. "Their styles of running are completely different, but they both had the God-given talent to be great racehorses," he said. "Songbird could have any style of running that she wants, and I think we're ready to go a mile and a quarter."
Songbird will break from post position 6 with Smith, a four-time Alabama winner.
WinStar Farm's Dark Nile was third with a troubled trip in her sprint debut, but the Pioneerof the Nile filly has since reeled off four consecutive victories since stretched to two turns by trainer Arnaud Delacour. Stepping up off a win in the Grade 3 Delaware Oaks, she breaks from the rail with Joe Bravo.
"It's a bit of an audacious spot, but she's come along nicely and I've always thought she would stay a mile and a quarter," said Delacour.
Going for Broke, a Waterford Stable homebred, makes her stakes debut for Chad Brown. The Blame filly was a maiden winner second time out, and has since captured two allowance races.
"She's a nice filly who has run through her conditions," said Brown. "We thought if we were going to get her to the Alabama we would avoid the Coaching Club, which looked difficult, and take one clean shot at a Grade 1. I think the filly will stay a mile and a quarter, but obviously for Songbird to lose something would have to really go wrong. Just to be in the race and have a chance for a piece of it is worth it for us."
Going for Broke drew post 3 with regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr.
Freshened since running fourth in the Acorn, Mike Tarp's dual Grade 2 winner Go Maggie Go returns for Dale Romans. "Obviously it's going to be a salty race," said Romans, whose Keen Ice upset American Pharoah in last year's Travers. "It's hard to run at the level we should and still stay away from Songbird."
Go Maggie Go drew post 4 with Luis Saez.
Beginning from post 5 is Gary and Mary West's Family Tree, who won the Iowa Oaks June 30 and the Indiana Oaks 16 days later.
"I stepped up to the plate and took a chance, everybody is like, 'Sometimes you've got to do it,'" said trainer Wayne Catalano.
Flora Dora and Weep No More, third and fifth in the Oaks, try Songbird again.
Flora Dora breaks from the outside with Manny Esquivel, with blinkers on.
"She's been a bit more focused," noted trainer Marialice Coffey. "We're excited about her coming into this race."
Weep No More, searching to recapture the form that won her the Grade 1 Ashland, breaks from post 2 and switches back to Corey Lanerie. Trainer Rusty Arnold feels the daughter of Mineshaft is a "true mile and a quarter horse."
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