Blind Luck, Rachel Alexandra and Untapable all lost more races than they won at age 4. Their form didn’t completely collapse, but inconsistent performances became more of a staple as they failed to reach expected heights after being named champion 3-year-old filly.
After watching last Saturday’s Delaware H. (G1), I’m concerned about Songbird. Ed DeRosa is taking a more optimistic approach, speculating upon how a pair of wins have her poised for big things in 2017, but I’m not so sure. The dual champion has looked vulnerable delivering workmanlike efforts that bear little resemblance to the brilliance we’ve observed the past two seasons.
Her Brisnet.com lifetime PPs serve as a perfect illustration. The front-running dynamo didn’t provide a glimmer of hope to inferior challengers, crushing the competition every time in her first 11 starts. Most wins came by more than a second (5+ lengths), with 3 ¾-lengths the smallest margin of victory, and Songbird arrived at the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff without ever being seriously tested.
In defeat, Songbird’s greatness shone against one of the top mares of modern times. Beholder was easily 10 lengths better than any opponent Songbird had ever faced and after finishing second to California Chrome in the Pacific Classic (G1), she was toughened up for her swan song by champion Stellar Wind in the Zenyatta (G1). As it turned out, Beholder needed her absolute best to get past Songbird by the slimmest of margins.
Songbird registered a career-best 107 BRIS Speed Rating after gallantly battling through the Santa Anita stretch in the Distaff. And despite the heart-breaking nose setback, Songbird’s fans could look forward to a glorious 4-year-old campaign in which the dark bay continued to run the opposition into the ground.
The landscape has been different than expected. Songbird returned against six challengers in the Ogden Phipps (G1) at Belmont Park on June 10 and was put to a late drive by Mike Smith to repel runner-up Paid Up Subscriber, who has now lost six straight starts over the past 12 months after coming up a length short.
It was easy to give Songbird a pass and expect more in the second start back. And while the 1 ¼-mile distance may have not been optimal for the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, Songbird was facing arguably the weakest competition of her career in the Delaware Handicap. She had won over six different ovals beforehand, adapting to any surface as she swamped overmatched rivals, but Saturday proved much different as reformed claimer Martini Glass dogged the 1-9 favorite most of the way, forcing Smith to go all-out in deep stretch to deny a stubborn foe.
Something certainly seems amiss and recent predecessors have struggled following magnificent 3-year-old campaigns.
Rachel Alexandra won 8-of-8 starts as a 3-year-old in 2009, knocking off male counterparts in the Preakness first. She defeated eventual 3-year-old male champion Summer Bird by a six-length margin in the Haskell Invitational (G1) and concluded a Horse of the Year season with a memorable Woodward (G1) effort, narrowly prevailing over a multiple Grade 1-winning older male.
However, Rachel Alexandra was never the same monstrous performer again. After dropping her first two attempts the following year, she posted a 2-3-0 record from five starts before leaving the track for good in late August.
Blind Luck didn’t regress as drastically after a nine-race championship campaign in 2010 that included wins in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Alabama (G1), but she opened her 4-year-old season with a couple of surprising setbacks and was done by the fall, checking in last as the favorite in the Lady’s Secret (now the Zenyatta) in her career finale.
Untapable won 6-of-7 starts in 2014, the only loss coming against males in the Haskell, and appeared poised to keep rolling as an older horse after a 1 ¼-length tally in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She returned to finish second at 1-9 odds the following spring and dropped eight of her final nine starts.
Songbird, who raced eight times as a sophomore, is displaying the same troubling pattern. Her dominance has gone missing at age 4, with narrow wins raising red flags, and the competition promises to get deeper going forward. Let’s hope the classy filly can rediscover her groove in the second half of the year.