Songbird coming to Delaware Handicap for local owner Rick Porter

247338_0aca4aa1e1d8d0b
Songbird, ridden by Edgar Rodriguez during training hours at Parx Racing in Bensalem in September.

Rick Porter first went to Delaware Park 70 years ago. He was about 8 years old. It was the late 1940s.

“I just remember it was packed, the parking lot was packed, the trains were running both ways, Philadelphia and Baltimore,” said Porter, who was born in what was then Delaware Hospital, now Wilmington Hospital, and lives not far from the track. “My parents went out in the paddock area and had a table with an umbrella … I was doing the $2 show bets. That’s how I got involved.”

Porter left Massachusetts General Hospital on Thursday, six weeks into a clinical trial designed to combat an aggressive form of lymphoma that manifested itself two years ago after he was originally diagnosed around 2001.

Saturday, he will be at Delaware Park to see “the best horse I’ve ever had.”

That would be the great filly Songbird, inches from being unbeaten in 13 starts. The $750,000 Grade I Delaware Handicap has a great tradition going back decades, but you can make a strong case that Porter’s 4-year-old — trained in Southern California by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer and ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith — will be the most accomplished horse ever to come out of a DelCap starting gate.

Songbird has won at Del Mar, Santa Anita, Keeneland, Saratoga, Parx and Belmont Park. She has won eight Grade I stakes. And her best race was her only loss, beaten a nose by the great Beholder in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita.

Here is the 2016 Distaff.

When she came to the Delaware Valley last September, Songbird was brilliant winning the Cotillion at Parx.

There were five other fillies and mares entered in the mile-and-a-quarter DelCap. Each appears completely overmatched. Only Weep No More has even won a stakes race. And her win in the Grade I Ashland in April 2016 was a pace-meltdown fluke when it happened and has been confirmed as such by her not hitting the board in five subsequent races.

The other five horses have won a combined $1,347,626. Songbird has won $4,112,000. Songbird is not only the best horse by furlongs, she is also the fastest horse from the gate and really should control the mile-and-a-quarter race all the way.

“She’s just a brilliant athlete,” Smith said.

At an age, 51, when he should be slowing down, Smith is not only having the best year of his career, he is having the most productive year for a jockey in horse-racing history.

Just past the midway point of the racing season, Smith’s mounts have already earned $20 million. He is averaging an impossible $135,157 per start. He has taken only 148 mounts in 2017, but “Big Money” Mike does not miss much. He rides Arrogate, the best horse in the world, who has won the $12 million Pegasus and $10 million Dubai World Cup. And he has ridden Songbird in each of her 13 starts.

Porter was hopeful when he started buying horses around 25 years ago, but never expected to have so much success.

“Somebody working for me had a horse with John Servis, so I went over to Atlantic City and I met John,” he said. “I wanted to get involved, but I was nervous. I didn’t know a trainer and didn’t know what to do. I felt comfortable with (Servis) after a while and the rest is history.”

Servis got two horses for Porter, so he and his wife went to Garden State Park to see one of the horses run. Porter will never forget it because his filly won the race.

“We were down in the winner’s circle and, boy, that did it,” Porter said.

Slowly, he built the stable, buying young horses and developing them while coming to the understanding that “33 percent” of it was luck. Porter has been lucky and smart and incredibly successful.

His terrific filly Jostle won the 2000 Alabama Stakes for Servis. Hard Spun, a very good 3-year-old in 2007, an exceptional year for 3-year-olds led by Horse of the Year Curlin, was second in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Larry Jones. Porter’s filly Eight Belles was second in the Derby to Big Brown the next year. Havre de Grace was Horse of the Year in 2011, but one race she did not win was that year’s Del Cap. She finished inches behind Blind Luck, a loss about as painful as Songbird’s Distaff. Jostle finished fourth in the 2001 DelCap.

Here is the 2011 DelCap.

So this will be Porter’s third try at his hometown track’s signature race. When Hollendorfer suggested that Songbird should stay in California and run in a $300,000 race two weeks from now instead of coming to Delaware, Porter said: “I don’t think so.”

When DelPark Racing Information Coordinator Chris Sobocinski took Porter through the DelCap room before the 2011 Delaware Handicap, Porter was understandably awed by the history dating from 1937 that includes four winners owned by Jane Lunger’s famed Christian Stables and names from racing’s past such as Our Mims and Susan’s Girl.

What did Porter remember about that visit?

“Just that he showed me the plaque and how great it would be to win that race and the history of it, Mrs. Lunger,” he said. “It would be a great thing to win it. I’ll never forget Chris taking me into the DelCap room.”

Songbird has won her 12 races by combined 61 3/4 lengths. Her races required no finish-line cameras until last November when she hooked up with Beholder for the last several hundred yards in the most exciting race of 2016.

“You don’t believe you lost,” Smith said. “She ran a winning race. She won other than not finishing first. It was incredible. They just kind of locked onto each other. I think they’d have gone around there again just like that.”

Smith has ridden in 32,859 races. He has 5,409 winners. He is about to become the second jockey in history with mounts that have won $300 million in purses. He rode the great mare Zenyatta, who did not lose until the 20th and last race of her career. He totally dominated this year’s Belmont Stakes Day card where Songbird made her 2017 debut. He is the rare athlete who is getting better with age, but he will the first to tell you it is called horse racing for a reason. He is riding the fastest horses in the biggest races and making no mistakes.

And Porter is thrilled to have Smith riding his filly.

“Nobody deserves it more than Mike,” he said. “He and I go back to Jostle …We became good friends. He called me after every (Songbird) work. It’s nice to be friends with a guy like Mike.”

And nice to have a filly like Songbird running at Delaware Park in the Delaware Handicap.

“It’s my third try,” Porter said. “This would be the one because I don’t think there is any question Songbird’s the best horse I’ve ever had.”