Forever Unbridled was waiting in the wings.
Tucked at the back of the field after stumbling at the start while champion Songbird went skimming out over Saratoga Race Course, Charles Fipke's homebred daughter of Unbridled's Song bided her time Aug. 26 in the $700,000 Personal Ensign Stakes (G1).
Songbird showed the way through much of the 1 1/8-mile test, setting reasonable fractions of :24.14 and :47.91 under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. Fox Hill Farm's Medaglia d'Oro filly still had a clear advantage through three-quarters in 1:12.29, but Forever Unbridled was full of run under Joel Rosario as she moved around the turn three wide.
"I decided to stay away from Songbird (in the stretch) because I was moving very well today, so I stayed away a little bit and let her run," Rosario said. "She's a galloper. You just got to figure out the way she likes to run. She went out there and I just let her be happy and whenever she wants to run, I let her run. She was impressive today."
Closing powerfully through a 1:36.96 mile to pass the two-time Eclipse Award winner in the final strides, Dallas Stewart-trained Forever Unbridled earned the victory by a neck.
"He was doing a great job of staying away away from me, which is a great deal on his part," Smith said of Rosario's tactics. "I wish they would've come right next to me because I think she would've picked it up and maybe held them off. When I asked her heading for home she accelerated, (but) she's not supposed to get run down, and he ran me down.
"I was going to reach back and get into it, but she was giving me what she had, and sometimes when you do that you're taking away their run instead of encouraging them to run."
The winner returned $6.20 and $2.10 at 2-1 odds, while 2-5 favorite Songbird brought $2.10. There was no show wagering. Eskenformoney was third, while Going for Broke completed the order of finish. Flora Dora was scratched.
Forever Unbridled handed Songbird just the second defeat of her career as she finished the distance in 1:49.16 on a fast track. It was her second straight victory in a "Win and You're In" Breeders' Cup Challenge event, providing an automatic berth to the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) Nov. 3 at Del Mar. Last year Forever Unbridled finished third by 1 1/4 lengths in that event, where Beholder beat Songbird by the slimmest nostril.
A full sister to grade 1 winner Unbridled Forever, Forever Unbridled is out of Lemons Forever, the 2006 Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner. Both were also trained by Stewart.
"I don't think there's a stronger family in the world," the trainer said. "Her full sister (Unbridled Forever) won a grade 1 here, the Ballerina (in 2015). It's very special. How about that? Mr. Fipke has put it together and deserves the credit."
The Personal Ensign was just the second start of the season for Forever Unbridled, following a June 17 Fleur de Lis Handicap (G2) win at Churchill Downs.
"We really prepared her for this at Churchill," Stewart said. "We gave her a long break into this race and got some good breezes into her. Like D. Wayne Lukas said, 'You have to get them ready and train them. If they're good, they'll take it,' and she's good. The way she's training and the way she's always trained, she's a great mare. She's powerful and strong like (Hall of Famer) Winning Colors was; she's that type of mare."
The Personal Ensign is Forever Unbridled's third grade 1 victory; she won the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) at Oaklawn Park and the Beldame Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park last year. She improved her record to 7-3-4 from 16 starts, for earnings of $2,086,880. According to Stewart, the title defense in the Sept. 30 Beldame will be up next for the bay mare.
"It's the most logical choice for her next race, especially since she won it last year," the trainer said.
Meanwhile, Songbird's status has been called into question by owner Rick Porter after this loss and the 4-year-old Jerry Hollendorfer trainee's prior start, where she had to work to best an overmatched field by a length in the July 15 Delaware Handicap. Songbird spent the winter at WinStar Farm recovering from bone bruising at the end of her championship 3-year-old campaign, then got a late start to the year after a minor stall injury delayed her training in March.
In her seasonal bow, she won the June 10 Ogden Phipps Stakes (G1) by a length at Belmont.
"Something's not right," Porter said. "She is just not right, and I will get her checked out. She doesn't let horses pass her, that was probably part of it. I am not comfortable that she is 100% healthy. Anyway, this just don't seem to be the same Songbird, (it's) only right to have her checked out.
"I thought we would see the real Songbird today, but we didn't see it. I just want to make sure it is not something physical, which I would do with any good horse. I always do that."