A Song Unfinished

Eva Cassidy had the voice of an angel. Her jazz/blues rendition of “Over the Rainbow” brought people to tears. She never sought fame, and in fact was painfully shy about singing in public. To her, it was all about the music and expressing herself the only way she knew how…with passion. She would sing in small clubs and sold tapes of her music from the trunk of her car.

She had a small local following around the Washington D.C. area and put out two locally produced CD’s. Although recording companies were interested in her, she refused to retain a single style of music for marketing purposes and insisted on singing jazz, blues, folk, rock, and gospel…whatever moved her. And no melody was sacred enough to prevent her from giving it her own interpretation, often with a jazz influence.

At age 33, Cassidy was diagnosed with cancer and given just months to live. At the final performance she would give, at Blues Alley in Washington D.C., she needed help to get up on a stool and had to be given a high dose of morphine in order to sing. As she sang with that same angelic, melodic voice, “What a Wonderful World,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Cassidy died in November of 1996, a brilliant, but unknown talent. Two years after her death, her rendition of Over the Rainbow made its way on BBC Radio in England and it stopped everyone in their tracks. Also released on YouTube was a homemade video of her singing the iconic song at Blues Alley. It immediately caught on, and before long her CD and video were No. 1 in the United Kingdom. Her talent and posthumous fame spread to the United States, where her CD’s reached 500,000 in sales.

The most popular of her CD’s was named after its title song that was originally sung by Fleetwood Mac called “Songbird, which she sang slowly with so much passion and such melodic beauty that Mick Fleetwood described her voice as “pure as snow.”

It was the name of that title song on Cassidy’s CD that eventually became the inspiration for one of the most brilliant young fillies seen in America in many years.

Songbird, owned by Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm, is now undefeated and untested in eight career starts, and is as mellifluous in action as the song and CD for which she is named.

The song itself, written by Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, appeared on the 1977 album “Rumours,” and was released as the B-side of the single “Dreams.”

Songbird and Dreams seem to go together, as the future appears limitless for the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro – Ivanavinalot, by West Acre, who has amazed racing fans with the ease of her victories and the fluidity of her stride. Despite winning all her races under wraps, many just cantering, her average margin of victory still is 5 1/2 lengths.

Porter picked out Songbird at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale with the help of his main bloodstock agent Tom McGreevy, who put the filly on his short list. Porter said they both loved her and “were lucky” to get her for $400,000.

“We basically look for the same things in a horse that everyone else does; their conformation and how they’re put together,” McGreevy said. “I put a lot of emphasis on their walk. They can have a correct walk, but not necessarily an athletic walk. There’s such a fine line between the good horses and the really good horses, and an even finer line between the really good horses and the great horses, which I believe she is.

“I feel a lot of it has to do with intangibles, such as attitude and confidence. All the best horses I’ve bought come out there and they stand there and are very confident about where they are and what they’re supposed to do. They figure things out very quickly and immediately get used to their surroundings. She was one of those who had all those attributes. She just looked so happy and confident in her environment. Physically, she had a beautiful conformation. I don’t know where you would fault her. She was just extremely well balanced and had a real athletic walk; that fluid effortless movement where all the parts are moving together.”

Songbird was then sent to Bill Recio, who operates under the name Lynwood Stable and trains out of Classic Mile Park traiin Ocala. Recio has been around the best, having worked for a number of major outfits, including Darby Dan, Calumet Farm, and Harbor View Farm.

“I’m blessed to be able to break horses for Lane’s End, Fox Hill, Lael Stables, and other great stables, so all the horses are well-bred and real good looking,” Recio said. “I get them up to half-mile and three-eighths out of the gate, so I get a pretty good gauge by that time just what we’ve got. She came in beautifully balanced with a great mind and she was one of those who never had an issue physically. She never had pharyngitis, mucus, no fillings, never off anywhere, and had above average intelligence. And she had the best way of going. Tom McGreevy is a wonderful judge of horseflesh. He bought Hard Spun and Havre de Grace (for Porter). He’s got a great eye.

“I try to match the horses when I work them head to head. The last thing I want to do is take the confidence from a baby, so you try to match them together the best you can. The only thing I worried about with her is that she really didn’t grow until April. Mr. Porter and the people who work for him are very good horsemen and they’re patient, so they let me keep her a little bit longer. Then in April she just shot up. The girl who was getting on her had worked for Wayne Lukas they year before and rode Will Take Charge and Take Charge Brandi. She’s an excellent horseman.

“I was breezing Songbird with a good filly by Tapit, who was a half-sister to Mucho Macho Man (and is also owned by Porter). I’m fortunate that I’m able to match them with good horses, so you get a better idea what you have. So I worked these two fillies together, and all of a sudden Songbird starts running away from the other filly. I talked to the girl and told her to take hold of her, and she says, ‘Bill, I can’t hold her anymore.’ She not only was running off from the Tapit filly, she was doing it all on her own. She just blossomed overnight and that was it.”

Recio has been around enough quality horses to know that the best way of breaking and training a good horse is to “stay out of their way.”

“You’re just blessed to have these kinds of horses come through your hands, especially at my age,” he said. “It’s just a pleasure. I’m like a high school teacher. I can’t wait until October when I get in a new crop, hoping you’ve got the next Songbird. It keeps you rolling. With a filly like Songbird, I’m just there to make sure she doesn’t get in trouble and does things the right way. I have the best blacksmith and great help. The first person I worked for was Tommie Heard, and when I said to him, ‘You know what I think?’ he stopped me and said, ‘Bill, this isn’t rocket science. We’re not taking the heart from a baboon and putting it in a child. If you don’t think and use common sense you’re gonna do great.’”

Porter sent Songbird to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, and it didn’t take him long to realize he may have something special.

“Jerry was high on her relatively soon after she started to breeze,” Porter said. “After her maiden victory I was expecting him to run her in a one other than allowance race, but he said he wanted to run in a grade I. I thought he was nuts until I questioned his decision and he said she was the best 2-year-old on the backside. After hearing someone like Jerry say that, I told him ‘OK.’ And he was right.”

McGreevy added, “It’s hard to come up with the words to describe how good she is. She’s pretty amazing and she moves so easy. Her motion is just so efficient and so beautiful. I was talking to Mike (Smith) after the (Summertime Oaks) and he said, ‘I got to that horse (second choice Bellamentary) at the three-eighths pole and (Martin Garcia) looks like he’s really working on her and I feel like I’m galloping.’ It wasn’t like they were going slow. They went in :22 4/5, :45 4/5, and 1:10 1/5. I was at the barn the morning after and Martin Garcia came up to me, and said, ‘I just want to tell you, when I got to the three-eighths pole, I was going fast, but I felt I had some horse left, and I look over at Songbird and she’s just galloping. She went by me so easily I didn’t even think about trying to go with her.’

“I can’t wait to see her in the Alabama at a mile and a quarter,” McGreevy continued. “She gets in that cruising speed and just keep cruising. Another thing I love about her is that she’s as kind as she is talented. We went back to see her the morning after the race and she has her head out the stall looking for someone to pet her or give her a carrot. She’s just so kind. She’s a gift…from somewhere.”

Songbird will reappear next at Saratoga in the Coaching Club American Oaks, which should bring a huge, enthusiastic crowd to the Spa. And then it’s likely on to the Alabama. Along the way she’ll be facing the best of the East, the brilliant and classy Cathryn Sophia and Carina Mia. Who knows what unforgettable moments await racing fans.

Eva Cassidy never became a star and was relatively unknown when she died. But she has since developed a following of admirers, whether they are just music lovers who have discovered her through her “Songbird” CD, her renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” “What a Wonderful World,” and “Songbird” on YouTube or artists and producers within the industry.

Now, the beauty of her voice may live on in through the beauty of a magnificent filly.

Changing the gender in a Suzanne Collins’ quote from “The Hunger Games,” the words could easily apply to listening to Eva Cassidy sing and watching Songbird in action:

“When she sings...even the birds stop to listen.” 

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