Songbird, Baffert steal Belmont show
Tapwrit wins third leg of Triple Crown, but West Coast mare and trainer are brilliant.
ELMONT, N.Y. — Some of the West Coast’s finest thoroughbreds ventured East for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival on Saturday, and they made themselves very much at home at Belmont Park.
Songbird enjoyed a triumphant 4-year-old debut under a hand ride from Mike Smith in the $750,000 Ogden Phipps Stakes, and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert delivered with favorites in all four stakes races he entered, with Smith aboard each time.
If there was a bittersweet element to the afternoon for West Coast fans, it involved Gormley’s fourth-place finish behind victorious Tapwrit in the Belmont Stakes. Gormley, the Santa Anita Derby winner, was well positioned throughout for jockey Victor Espinoza before his mind apparently wandered and he failed to deliver a knockout punch.
“Victor said he was still looking around a little,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “He wasn’t 100% focused.”
Although Shirreffs had used a workout to experiment with blinkers, equipment that sometimes helps young horses bear down, he elected not to use them either when Gormley faltered in ninth in the Kentucky Derby or here. He was forwardly placed in the Belmont but never threatened to make the lead.
“We still haven’t quite figured him out 100%,” Shirreffs said.
There is nothing to sort out with Songbird. She is as special as they come.
“I don’t like to compare them,” said Jerry Hollendorfer, her trainer, “but she’d have to be up there on anybody’s list.”
The daughter of Medaglia d’Oro was competing for the first time since she suffered her lone defeat. After rattling off victories in the first 11 races of her career, she missed by a nose against the splendid Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Nov. 4 at Santa Anita Park.
Songbird broke alertly and surged to the front, with Smith keeping her well off the rail and riding with supreme confidence. It appeared she might be in trouble when Paid Up Subscriber crept up along the rail and carved out a narrow lead turning for home.
With Smith remaining motionless, Songbird handled the situation with equal aplomb. She reasserted herself to dispatch her game rival rather easily.
“She is so much smarter as a 4-year-old,” Smith said. “She is one of the most intelligent horses you’ll ever be on. You can ride her with your fingers.”
The only hint that Songbird was vulnerable occurred when she experienced some fatigue in the final strides of the mile-and-a-sixteenth contest. “She was getting a little tired late,” Smith said “But she’s supposed to.”
Songbird covered the distance in 1:42.24. She returned $2.70 as an overwhelming favorite.
Hollendorfer said the Delaware Handicap, on July 15 at Delaware Park, is among the possibilities for her next start. He noted that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Del Mar and said of plotting a campaign with owner Rick Porter, “That’s an important consideration.”
As for Baffert, he experienced the day of a lifetime two years ago when American Pharoah took command from the start of the Belmont Stakes and poured it on in emerging as the 12th Triple Crown champion and the first in 37 years. Baffert’s latest performance here was not that far behind.
West Coast jump-started it all by rallying for a 3¾length victory in the $150,000 Easy Goer. Kentucky Oaks victor Abel Tasman held off Salty by one length in the $700,000 Grade 1 Acorn. American Anthem closed powerfully to take the Grade 2, $500,000 Woody Stephens by 3¼ lengths over Giuseppe The Great. And then Mor Spirit made the $1.2-million Metropolitan Handicap look easy with an explosive move that dusted Sharp Azteca by 6¼ lengths. He completed the mile in a torrid 1:33.71.
Four for four at racing’s highest level?
“It’s a rare feat, what we did today,” Baffert said, adding, “I’m so proud of these horses. You work hard, and for them to have a day like this is pretty incredible.”
Mor Spirit registered his third consecutive victory, reminding everyone what an astute judge of horses Baffert is. When there were offers for Mor Spirit earlier this year, the trainer urged owner Michael Lund Petersen not to sell.
“When they are trying to buy your horse, that’s a good thing,” Baffert said. “It means the word is out.”
If there was anyone on the grounds with a hotter hand than Baffert, it belonged to Smith, who continued to burnish his reputation as a bigrace rider at age 51.
“I feel so blessed,” Smith said. “I’m floating.”
JOCKEY JOSE ORTIZ brings Tapwrit to the finish line in the Belmont Stakes, ahead of Irish War Cry.