With dominant champions such as American Pharoah, Beholder, and Runhappy commanding most of the racing world's attention last fall, it is entirely possible that insufficient attention has been paid to the 2-year-old champions of 2015. That is about to change quickly, with Songbird making her season debut Saturday in the Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita and Nyquist scheduled to make his nine days later in the San Vicente.
The two of them combined to go 9 for 9 last year and have almost eerily similar past performances. Both finished their championship seasons with three Grade 1 triumphs, a rare achievement in the game today, and they did it by winning parallel stakes at identical tracks and distances three straight times.
Songbird won the Del Mar Debutante on Sept. 5, and Nyquist took the Del Mar Futurity two days later. On Sept. 26 at Santa Anita, Songbird won the Chandelier, and Nyquist took the FrontRunner. Then on Halloween at Keeneland, Songbird won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, and Nyquist won the Juvenile. This made them virtually unanimous Eclipse Award winners, with Songbird getting 260 of 261 votes and Nyquist garnering 255 of 258.
Despite their nearly indistinguishable records, the two champions are regarded quite differently. Nyquist is generally perceived as no better than average for a top 2-year-old colt and a tepid winter-book favorite for the spring classics. Songbird is widely seen as having been a historically great 2-year-old filly with the division at her mercy.
Why the difference? Blame it on the clock. In all three of their paired efforts, Songbird ran faster in winning her races than Nyquist did in winning his.
At Del Mar, where their efforts came two days apart, Songbird won the Debutante in 1:22.65, which was 0.63 seconds faster than Nyquist's 1:23.28 in the Futurity. The track surface was judged to be a smidge faster on Debutante Day, but Songbird still got the better Beyer Speed Figure, receiving an 85 to Nyquist's 82.
When they both stretched out to two turns the same day at Santa Anita, Songbird appeared to move forward, while Nyquist did not. He won the FrontRunner in 1:44.89 for 1-1/16 miles, and three races later, Songbird took the Chandelier in 1:43.79, a difference of 1.10 seconds that translated to Beyers of 90 for Songbird and 79 for Nyquist.
In the Breeders' Cup, the time difference was virtually identical: Songbird won the Juvenile Fillies in 1:42.73, which was 1.06 seconds faster than Nyquist's 1:43.79 in the Juvenile. The Beyers were 99 for Songbird and 89 for Nyquist.
These are monumental differences, not tiny ones. Under the standard that a length is worth right around 0.17 seconds, discrepancies of 1.10 and 1.06 seconds are the equivalent of more than six lengths. Nyquist's fans have argued that, at least in the Breeders' Cup, he covered more ground with a wider trip, but the preponderance of evidence says that Songbird was simply faster.
The authors of the Experimental Handicap, issued last week by The Jockey Club, seemed to agree. They weighted Nyquist at 126 pounds, the standard top weight and the assignment for the champion 2-year-old male in 20 of the last 25 years. Songbird was pegged at 125, which appears to be a pound less but in theory is actually two pounds more than Nyquist because the standard for fillies is 123.
Her assignment of 125 is the highest for a filly in the 19 years since Countess Diana received the same impost in 1997, and those two ratings are the highest for any 2-year-old filly since a common scale was adopted in 1984. Songbird was rated a pound better than the champions Flanders, Storm Song, Halfbridled, Sweet Catomine, Stardom Bound, and My Miss Aurelia, all of whom were recognized as special and given ratings of 124, one pound above the standard.
When you have a filly who routinely runs faster than the colts, there of course is an impulse to run her against them, but Songbird's handlers are ducking temptation by not even nominating her to the Triple Crown, instead pointing for the top filly prizes, including the Santa Anita Oaks, Kentucky Oaks, Mother Goose, and Alabama. If she does take on colts, it won't be until the fall.
Among the chief fascinations of the 2016 racing season will be seeing how long Songbird and Nyquist stay undefeated and, more important, how much they will improve from 2 to 3. Colts frequently catch up to precocious fillies by the spring of their 3-year-old seasons, but Songbird appears to have a formidable head start.