Song­bird, Baf­fert steal Belmont show

Tap­writ wins third leg of Triple Crown, but West Coast mare and trainer are bril­liant.

Los Angeles Times - - INSIDE BASEBALL - By Tom Pedulla sports@la­

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.”

Peter Morgan As­so­ci­ated Press

JOCKEY JOSE OR­TIZ brings Tap­writ to the fin­ish line in the Belmont Stakes, ahead of Ir­ish War Cry.

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