by Keith McCalmont
An international field led by the Aidan O’Brien-trained Santa Barbara will assemble for Saturday’s $700,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational, first leg of the Turf Triple series for sophomore fillies at Belmont Park.
The Belmont Oaks is one of three stakes on the final Saturday of the Belmont spring/summer meet, including the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational, first leg of the Turf Triple series for 3-year-olds; and the Grade 3, $150,000 Victory Ride, a 6 1/2-furlong sprint for older fillies and mares.
Inaugurated in 2019, the Turf Triple series for fillies begins with Saturday’s 1 1/4-mile (2,000 meters) test on the Belmont inner turf. The series continues at Saratoga Race Course on August 8 with the $700,000 Saratoga Oaks, held at 1 3/16-miles (1,900 meters) on the Saratoga lawn; and concludes with the $700,000 Jockey Club Oaks at 1 3/8-miles (2,200 meters) on the Belmont turf on September 18.
A winner at first asking in September at the Curragh, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith and Westerberg’s Santa Barbara entered the Group 1 Thousand Guineas as the mutuel favorite, finishing fourth over one-mile of good going at Newmarket in May.
Santa Barbara was a distant fifth traveling 12 furlongs in the Group 1 Epsom Oaks over good-to-soft going on June 4, but showed grit and determination last out when a willing second in the Group 1 Pretty Polly defeated a head to 4-year-old Thundering Nights, who missed by a nose when second to multiple graded-stakes winner Mean Mary on June 4 in the Grade 2 New York at Belmont.
“Every race she’s had this year has been a Group 1 and she’s been running very well in them,” said O’Brien’s traveling assistant T.J. Comerford. “I suppose the ground was bad at Epsom when she ran in the Oaks.
“Quicker ground suited her better taking on the older fillies [in the Pretty Polly] and she ran well,” Comerford added. “She came here on the back of that. It doesn’t seem to have fazed her at all. She looks magnificent. She looks like a colt, actually.”
The regally-bred Santa Barbara, by Camelot and out of the Danehill mare Senta’s Dream, is a half-sister to 2019 Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf-winner Iridessa and 2020 Breeders’ Cup Mile victor Order of Australia.
Comerford said Santa Barbara has the potential to match the ability of her accomplished siblings.
“They’re Breeders’ Cup winners and I suppose there’s no reason why this one can’t be of the same mold as those two,” Comerford said. “She obviously has a lot to live up to, but at the same time she’s doing all the right things. Aidan thinks a lot of her. Her work at home has been all good. She probably is just running in tough races and getting all the experience from running in them.”
Santa Barbara, who will exit post 5 under Ryan Moore, is following a similar path to the O’Brien-trained Athena, also by Camelot, who finished third in the 2018 Pretty Polly and wheeled back on six-days rest to post a 2 1/2-length score in the Belmont Oaks under Moore.
“Aidan is very keen on her, so hopefully she doesn’t disappoint,” said Comerford. “We did it before with Athena where it was only a week from when we ran her at the Curragh in the Pretty Polly. Athena came back and ran super at Belmont, so we’re hoping to see the same from this one. She’s coming here in good shape.”
Bradley Thoroughbreds, Tim Cambron, Anna Cambron, Kent Starr, Sara Starr and Gary Finder’s Cirona, trained by Christophe Ferland, captured the Group 3 Prix de la Grotte in April at Longchamp traveling a prominent trip over one-mile of firm footing.
The British-bred daughter of Maxios followed with a narrow head defeat to Incarville after carving out the fractions in the 10-furlong Group 1 Prix Saint-Alary on soft turf in May at Longchamp.
Last out, Cirona failed to make the lead and never saw daylight when 10th, defeated just 3 1/4-lengths, in a 17-horse field in the 1 5/16-mile Group 1 Prix de Diane on June 20 at Chantilly.
Cirona will emerge from post 2 under Jose Lezcano.
Local hopes will be carried by the one-two finishers of last month’s nine-furlong Grade 3 Wonder Again in Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Joseph Graffeo, Del Toro, Eric Nikolaus and Troy Johnson’s Con Lima and Michael Dubb, Madaket Stables and Michael Caruso’s Plum Ali.
Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, Con Lima sat a stalking trip in the Wonder Again under Flavien Prat, prevailing by a half-length over the Christophe Clement-conditioned Plum Ali, who rallied wide from last-of-9 under Joel Rosario.
Con Lima, a Texas-bred daughter of Commissioner, was elevated to victory in the Grade 3 Herecomesthebride in February at Gulfstream Park after Belmont Oaks-rival Spanish Loveaffair, who crossed the wire first, was disqualified and placed fourth.
“She shows up and runs well every time,” said Pletcher. “She finished up the mile and an eighth really well last time and being a daughter of Commissioner, you’d think the mile and a quarter would be within her scope. We’re happy with the way she’s doing and looking forward to giving her a shot.”
Boasting a consistent record of six wins and four seconds from 11 starts, Con Lima will exit the inside post under Prat.
“I’d like to see her prominent early, possibly on the lead. She seems to run effectively that way,” said Pletcher.
Plum Ali, a Kentucky-bred daughter of First Samurai, won her first three starts, culminating in a 2 1/4-length score in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Miss Grillo in October at Belmont. She completed her campaign with an even fifth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf won by Aunt Pearl in November at Keeneland.
The talented chestnut entered the Wonder Again from a close third in the Grade 2 Appalachian in April at Keeneland in her seasonal debut.
Clement said the wide, late-running trip last out was due to exiting the outermost post 9 and he expects a different trip this time when Plum Ali leaves post 7 with Rosario in the irons.
“She can be wherever she wants,” said Clement. “The other day she was drawn on the outside, which is why she was so far back in the race. With a good draw, there’s no reason for her to be so far back.”
Clement said the added furlong shouldn’t be an issue.
“She finished well going a mile and a furlong, so we’ll give her another eighth of a mile and see what happens,” said Clement. “She’s been a little bit unlucky, but hopefully she can put it all together.”
The French-born conditioner said he relishes the opportunity to take on a field laden with European talent.
“This is what happens in these kind of races with big purses,” said Clement. “The competition doesn’t get easier, it gets tougher. Welcome to New York. My filly is nice too, we’ll take them on.”
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Michael Hernon and Gary Barber’s multiple graded-stakes placed Spanish Loveaffair enters from a narrow runner-up effort as the mutuel favorite to Belmont Oaks-rival Gam’s Mission in the nine-furlong Grade 3 Regret, contested over good going on May 29 at Churchill Downs.
Trained by Hall of Famer Mark Casse, the Karakontie bay captured the Sharp Susan in August at Gulfstream ahead of a good second to Aunt Pearl in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Jessamine in October at Keenland.
“There was some give in the ground last time and I think she’d prefer it a little firmer,” Casse said of the Regret effort. “She had a minor throat issue, so she missed some time. I thought, given the layoff, it was a really good effort. I was very pleased with her last start.”
Casse said Spanish Loveaffair required treatment following her sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 Appalachian at Keeneland in her start prior to the Regret.
“In her start at Keeneland, we discovered a kind of fungus afterwards that she had,” said Casse. “It was a weird deal; our vet said he hadn’t seen it in 15 years. So, she had to go through some therapy and treatment but she recovered from it and ran well in the Regret.”
Casse said he is hopeful Spanish Loveaffair can take another step forward on Saturday.
“She’ll have to be good, it’s a tough field. She should build off her last race,” said Casse.
Tyler Gaffalione retains the mount from post 4.
Gam’s Mission, a Lazy F Ranch homebred trained by Cherie DeVaux, has won 3-of-4 career starts. The Noble Mission bay graduated at second asking in a key 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight on firm Fair Grounds turf in March and followed with a neck score in a 1 1/16-mile Churchill Downs allowance in May.
Last out, she closed from fifth to win her stakes debut in dramatic fashion by three-quarters of a length.
Adam Beschizza retains the mount from post 8.
Four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown will saddle allowance-winner Higher Truth in search of extending his Belmont Oaks record to six wins after previous scores with Samitar , Alterite , Minorette , Lady Eli  and New Money Honey .
Michael Ryan, Jeff Drown and Team Hanley’s Higher Truth, an Irish-bred daughter of Galileo, has won her last two starts going 10-furlongs on firm Belmont turf. The lightly-raced bay graduated on April 22 and followed with an allowance score over older fillies and mares on June 10.
Jose Ortiz will guide Higher Truth from post 3.
Nazuna, an Irish-bred daughter of Kodiac, is trained by Roger Varian for his wife, Hanako.
Following a runner-up effort in the seven-furlong Group 2 Rockfel in September at Newmarket, Nazuna made her North American debut with a 10th in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf to close out her 2-year-old campaign in November.
Nazuna made her seasonal debut with a runner-up effort in the 1 1/16-mile Group 3 Princess Elizabeth on June 5 at Epsom.
Hall of Famer John Velazquez will ride Nazuna from post 6.
The Belmont Oaks is slated as Race 7 on Saturday’s 11-race card. First post is 1 p.m. Eastern.