Two-time Eclipse Award champion Songbird has been retired from racing after she was recently diagnosed with damage to her hind suspensories and a severe bone chip, owner Rick Porter announced Aug. 31.
Porter sent the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital for a full evaluation and testing following her runner-up finish to Forever Unbridled in the Aug. 26 Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) at Saratoga Race Course. During her examination by Dr. Larry Bramlage, Porter said it was immediately apparent the 4-year-old filly was off behind. According to Bramlage's report posted on Porter's Fox Hill Farm Facebook page, subsequent scans revealed "front distal cannon bone problems" with the shape and size of the loose chip presenting a possible catastrophic situation if she continued to race.
"We flew her to Louisville, they vanned her (to Rood & Riddle), and as soon as she came off ... Bramlage said he noticed right away that she was off behind," Porter said. "It just got worse. When he found out she was lame after he blocked the back, and when he got to the front end—which he thinks was caused by the back end—that was major. He told me, 'You're looking at a major catastrophe if you had continued with her.'
"It's amazing she didn't break down, because that chip—it's an unusually shaped chip, which Bramlage said could break loose and go down and just explode the cannon bone. It's amazing the size of it and the shape of it, and the shape of it made it so dangerous. What was great is Larry started examining, then he took some X-rays and saw a problem there, and then he said 'I don't like what I'm seeing. We need to do an MRI.' That showed how bad it was and how fortunate we were to not have another Eight Belles on our hands."
Porter referenced his previous professional worse-case scenario in 2008, when his filly Eight Belles suffered catastrophic injuries to both front ankles while galloping out following her runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
Credit Songbird's brilliance for helping spare her from a potential on-track crisis. Though she captured the June 10 Ogden Phipps Stakes (G1) in her seasonal bow and followed that with a one-length win in the July 15 Delaware Handicap (G1), she wasn't winning in the convincing fashion of her previous 11 triumphs.
Porter's gut told him something was amiss, a feeling that was affirmed when Songbird was caught in late stretch by Forever Unbridled and suffered just her second defeat from 15 starts.
"I knew right away she was going to Bramlage for a complete check-up, and Larry knew I wanted to go as far as we needed to go to get to the bottom of it," Porter said. "She wasn't racing right and... I'm just so happy that I knew we had to go to Bramlage no matter what and have her checked from head to toe. I'm just glad I did what I did. I had a gut feeling."
Bramlage's report stated Songbird "can be let down and go to pasture exercise" adding that she would be re-checked in 60 days.
Porter's dismay over the sudden end of Songbird's on-track career is juxtaposed by the enormity of gratitude for what the dark bay distaffer has provided himself, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, and her Hall of Fame pilot Mike Smith the past two years.
She showed her rivals a blueprint of what was to come from the start when she broke her maiden by 6 1/2 lengths in front-running style July 26, 2015 at Del Mar. There was no toying around from then on, as she jumped into grade 1 company next time out, annexing the Del Mar Debutante Stakes (G1) that year for her first of nine top-level victories.
Her 5 3/4-length romp in that year's 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) cemented Songbird as divisional champion and the winterbook favorite to win the 2016 Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1). A fever ended up keeping her from that test, but she nonetheless proved to be a dominant sophomore with triumphs in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1), Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), Alabama Stakes (G1), and Cotillion Stakes (G1).
"She was everything you'd want in a racehorse, everything," said Smith, who piloted the filly in each of her starts. "The balance, the speed, the stamina, the class, the heart, the try: she was just everything. She was a wonderful chapter for me.
"We were just so blessed to have her for all the wonderful moments. They're indescribable, and now she'll go on to start a new chapter in her life," he said. "I'm so blessed to be able to ride a mare like that and be her only man."
The sublime nature of Songbird's triumphs served another, more crucial purpose. Porter battled cancer during the peak of her career, and was hospitalized just days before his filly's triumph in the Alabama. He recently announced he was in full remission after undergoing an experimental treatment, but the joy Songbird dutifully provided was a tonic he never once downplayed.
"She really has meant so much to me, not just me but my whole family and the whole racing world," Porter said. "She's the most popular horse that has been around in years. She's got so many fans and I just feel so bad for them all now."
Even when she tasted defeat for the first time, Songbird's stature was not the least bit tarnished. In one of the most memorable editions of a race that has produced some all-time results, the 3-year-old Songbird went eyeball-to-eyeball with 6-year-old champion Beholder the length of the Santa Anita Park stretch before falling a nose short of the future Hall of Famer in the 2016 Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1).
Her body of work in 2016 was still enough to make Songbird a finalist for Horse of the Year honors. And when the hardware for champion 3-year-old filly was brought on stage during the Eclipse Award ceremony, there was no question it would be Porter's hands clutching the honors.
Bred in Kentucky by John Antonelli, Songbird retires with 13 wins from 15 starts and $4,692,000 in earnings. She was purchased by Fox Hill Farm for $400,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga selected yearling sale out of a Hill 'n' Dale Sales Agency consignment. Porter said Thursday the filly would be offered at this year's Fasig-Tipton November sale Nov. 6.
"It's sad but it's a good thing because she retires a happy mare," Smith said. "I'd love to have her, but I don't think I have that amount in my account. But I'd certainly give all I had for her."