Mike Smith does not often find himself making excuses for a victory.
But there the Hall of Fame jockey was July 15 after collecting his third Delaware Handicap (G1) trophy at Delaware Park, trying to explain why champion Songbird did not carry him to the wire by open lengths in the $750,000 Delaware Handicap (G1).
Rick Porter's Medaglia d'Oro filly failed to sparkle Saturday with the sheer brilliance she's displayed multiple times through 13 wins in her 14-race career. Nevertheless, in her second start of the season, when her closest rival tried to make a race of it in the 1 1/4-mile test, the 124-pound highweight refused to surrender.
"I had to get into her, but once I did, she let me know it was OK," Smith said. "She definitely was getting a little tired, but she's supposed to. She's only run one time this year. She got it done. She's classy. She held on good.
"I think the mile and a quarter might not be her best distance. She still runs well, though. No one's beat her at it. But it was only her second race back, and she handled the first race pretty handy. ... And Delaware is a (really) deep, deep track, and it was very, very humid today. I was more worried about getting beat in this race than in most of them."
When Smith won the 2012 Delaware Handicap with Royal Delta (who came back to romp by 10 3/4 lengths in 2013), the three-time champion only managed a narrow victory.
"When I won the first time with Royal Delta, it looked like it was going to be a walkover and she only won by a neck," Smith recalled. "This is a tough place to come into. You need to come in really fit and at the top of your game, and Songbird is just getting back to that."
Entered off her 4-year-old debut for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer—a victory in the June 10 Ogden Phipps Handicap (G1), after the start to her 2017 campaign was delayed when she sustained a minor injury in her stall—Songbird broke alertly from the outside post in the field of five.
The dark bay filly easily led through fractions of :24.26 and :48.36, and held a 2 1/2-length advantage as she headed to the six-furlong point. That was when 21-1 second choice Martini Glass began to cut into that lead from her second-place tracking spot, and she loomed an imminent threat as three-quarters went in 1:12.63. Songbird had only a half-length advantage through a 1:37.50 mile, and Martini Glass, carrying 116 pounds under Jose Ferrer, ranged up on almost even terms headed for home.
"(Martini Glass) was all-out trying to keep up, and I needed to get after mine trying to get her to go forward," Smith said. "Once I got into mine, she dug in."
Smith went to the whip and strongly asked Songbird for more down the lane, and the brilliant bay worked hard to hold off her rival by a length.
It was a tremendous victory for Porter, who campaigns Songbird under the banner of his Fox Hill Farms. The native of Wilmington, Del., has been ill with cancer for some time, and chased his state's biggest race previously with Havre de Grace (second by a nose in her 2011 Horse of the Year season to Hollendorfer-trained champion Blind Luck) and Jostle (fourth in 2001). Hollendorfer also won the Delaware Handicap in 2008 with Hystericalady.
"We were a little nervous at the eighth pole, but we won and that is all that matters," Porter said.
The final time was 2:03.96. Songbird, the shortest-priced favorite in Delaware Handicap history at odds of 1-9, paid $2.10, $2.10, and $2.10 across the board. Martini Glass, the second choice, brought $2.60 and $2.40. Line of Best Fit was two lengths back in third ($3), and was followed home by Miss Mo Kelly and Weep No More. Hone In was scratched.
It was the ninth grade 1 victory for Songbird, whose earnings now stand at $4,562,000. She was bred in Kentucky by John Antonelli out of the West Acre mare Ivanavinalot, who also has an unraced 2-year-old Ghostzapper filly, a yearling filly by Tapizar , and an American Pharoah weanling filly.
Songbird is a graduate of the 2014 Fasig-Tipton New York Saratoga select yearling sale, where she was purchased by Fox Hill for $400,000 from the Hill 'n' Dale Sales Agency consignment.
"We are happy that we won and we are happy we could win this race for Rick Porter," said Hollendorfer, who will return Songbird to his Southern California base. "I'm not sure where she will go next. There are races all over the country for this filly. Saratoga is definitely a target. We will see how she comes out of this race. It is a tough race going a mile and quarter."