Songbird a credit to noteworthy singer

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Songbird, who is among the horses competing in the Cotillion at Parx on Saturday, and (inset) the singer, Eva Cassidy, who inspired her name.

SONGBIRD IS as perfect as the voice that prompted her name. The unbeaten filly is as famous as her namesake was anonymous. Twenty years after Eva Cassidy died at 33, Songbird, 3, is a living testament to her memorable sound.

Songbird has raced 10 times and won them all, from California to New York with a stopover last fall in Kentucky.

Cassidy worked in small clubs around Washington and developed a cult following, but never reached a wide audience - until five years after her death in 1996.

Saturday at Parx Racing, Songbird, 55 combined lengths in front of her opponents so far, will run in the $1 million Cotillion against local star Cathryn Sophia, the Kentucky Oaks winner, and the rest of a strong, if compact, field.

Cassidy's family will be there to see Songbird run in person for the first time. It will be emotional, uplifting, cathartic and a reminder of the woman behind the voice behind the filly.

Victoria Keith, executive assistant for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm, became a fan of Cassidy's music after it got a wider audience once it was played on a BBC radio show that attracts 7 million listeners. She researched Cassidy's story, heard her version of Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird" and related what she learned to Porter, the Wilmington car dealer and very successful horse owner.

"I told him about her story," Keith said. "I felt like that would touch Rick in a way that they shared."

Cassidy felt a pain in her hip in the spring of 1996. She was dead of melanoma by November.

Porter, 76, was diagnosed with lymphoma 15 years ago. He has been successfully living with it ever since.

"I had never heard of Eva Cassidy, but Victoria knew about her" Porter said. "She told me the whole story about Eva. I started listening to her music. I put it in my Pandora. I think she's just got a gorgeous voice."

Victoria suggested the name for the filly Porter had purchased for $400,000 in August 2014, saying, 'Why don't we name the horse Songbird?' "

So they did.

The filly herself is a great story. The story behind the story is even better.

Cassidy was anything but a self-promoter. She sold CD's out of her trunk. She played Washington's Blues Alley Jazz club. She became "famous" after the BBC began to play her music.

Her "Over the Rainbow" is haunting. It was one of the cuts on her CD "Songbird" that rose to No. 1 on the British pop charts. Hundreds of thousands of her CD's have been sold. Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Elton John are fans. Her story first reached a wide American audience on the May 21, 2001 Nightline.

Eva's music is eclectic - pop, blues, jazz, gospel, folk. Get on YouTube and listen to how she sang "What A Wonderful World" while playing guitar in her final public performance, not long before she died.

"She was a very modest and humble person with an amazing voice," Eva's cousin Laura Bligh said. "She had two great talents, art and music. People were always telling her she should choose one and focus on it, but she didn't want to give up either of them. She performed with various bands just locally in the D.C. area. I always thought she was really going to be a star because I knew her voice was that good, but she didn't really expect it. She just loved to sing."

When one of her songs was played on the BBC, the switchboard lit up, the callers demanding to know who was behind that voice. If The Voice had been on 25 years ago and Cassidy made the stage, her voice would have been impossible to ignore.

"She died at 33 and everybody thought that was that," Bligh said. "Her voice was so extraordinary and her recordings were so good that she's become an international star after her death."

Gold and platinum records followed her "discovery."

"She would have been astonished," Bligh said of her cousin's potential reaction to all the commercial success. "She would not have been interested in doing the promotional work that seems to be expected of artists these days. She just wanted to sing."

Eva lived in Bowie, Md. which just happened to be the home of a racetrack that closed in 1985. So there was always a horse connection.

"I always thought it would be wonderful if something could be named for Eva," Bligh said. "I had in mind maybe a flower. To discover that such an exciting animal would be named for her was thrilling."

Bligh has only seen Songbird race via on-line videos. She, along with her 16-year-old daughter and Eva's sister will be at Parx Saturday to see Songbird run in person.

So will Porter, who just had such serious complications from his lymphoma that he spent two weeks in critical condition and had to miss Songbird's 7-length romp in the Aug. 20 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga.

"I haven't gotten back to 100 percent yet," Porter said. "I don't even remember most of (the hospital stay)."

Porter had a slow-growing lymphoma and never had any treatment. Last fall, it transformed into a more aggressive form. They are hoping, Porter said, to put it in remission.

"The prognosis is still not 100 percent known at this point," Porter said.

Porter's first big horse was Jostle trained by John Servis, the man who just happens to train Cathryn Sophia, certainly the biggest threat to end Songbird's unbeaten run. Porter owned the runners-up in the 2008 and 2009 Kentucky Derby. He owned Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. He has never owned a horse that is 10-for-10.

"It's been so much fun to get the great horses that I've had," Porter said. "It's the toughest game in the world. I've really been fortunate. Most of the horses you buy still can't run no matter what you do."

Songbird can run, really run.

"If you just get a good one, once in a while, that makes up for it all," Porter said.

Songbird has won six Grade I races and earned $2.762 million. She has only been tested during her races a few times and immediately repelled the challenge.

Hall of Famer Mike Smith has ridden Songbird in every race. She is trained in Southern California by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. The filly has probably already done enough to make the Hall of Fame herself someday.

"Mike loves this horse," Porter said.

Smith was thinking about retiring, but will not be retiring as long as Songbird is running.

"It's so easy," Smith told Porter. "All I got to do is hold on and make sure I don't fall off when she gets out the gate."

Songbird is like a rocket out of the gate, immediately to the front, her stride nearly as perfect as her record.

"It's just a thrill to watch her," Porter said.

Songbird is among the first horses Porter gave to Hollendorfer. And he did it because of the trainer's work with Blind Luck, a filly that developed a great rivalry with Porter's Havre de Grace.

"I'll never forget (Songbird) had broken her maiden at Del Mar pretty impressively, he called me and said, 'What do you think if we run in the Del Mar Debutante, a Grade I,' " Porter said.

The owner was thinking allowance race.

Hollendorfer said: "Rick, let me tell you something, you've got the best horse on the backside."

If that's the deal, Porter said, let's run her in the Grade I.

Songbird won the Debutante last September by 5 1/4 lengths. She was favored that day and has been an odds-on favorite every race since then.

Songbird got sick last spring so she had to miss the Kentucky Oaks, a race that Cathryn Sophia dominated. This will be the first meeting between the two great fillies.

So the race within the race will be a moment. The story behind the story is a connection.

"We are just thrilled and honored that Eva is the inspiration for the naming of this horse," Laura Bligh said.


jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi

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