Santa Barbara takes on seven rivals in the Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1T) July 10.
Ireland’s preeminent trainer, Aidan O’Brien, has been sky high on the prospects of Santa Barbara dating back to 2020 and if she’s ever going to justify those expectations, the Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1T) on July 10 would be a great place to start.
The $700,000 Oaks purse, paired with the $1 million on offer for the Belmont Derby Invitational (G1T) on the same program, drew plenty of interest from across the Atlantic, where pandemic restrictions have cut deeply into prize money.
The big noise, though, is about Santa Barbara, who won her only start as a 2-year-old, touching off high praise from her trainer. The filly has yet to make good on that promise—at least in terms of victories.
She was fourth in the Qipco One Thousand Guineas (G1) at Newmarket and then fifth in the Cazoo Oaks (G1) at Epsom before suffering a narrow defeat when taking on elders in the Al Wasmiyah Stud Pretty Polly Stakes (G1) at The Curragh in Ireland just 13 days before her scheduled start in the Oaks.
That close scheduling for a trans-Atlantic trip is not a new thing for the O’Brien camp.
“We did it before with Athena where it was only a week from when we ran her at The Curragh in the Pretty Polly,” said assistant T.J. Comerford, neglecting to mention Athena finished third in that 2018 edition of the Irish race. “Athena came back and ran super at Belmont (winning by 2 1/2 lengths), so we’re hoping to see the same from this one. She’s coming here in good shape.”
Ryan Moore, who won the race with Athena, is booked to partner Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara’s pedigree also seems tailor made for her U.S. visit. She is by Camelot , out of the Danehill mare Senta’s Dream , thus a half sister to 2019 Maker’s Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T) winner Iridessa and 2020 FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF (G1T) winner Order of Australia .
“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.
The potential sticky wicket is the condition of the Belmont Park turf. Comerford noted Santa Barbara’s worst effort could be written off to the fact “the ground was bad at Epsom when she ran in the Oaks. Quicker ground (at The Curragh) suited her better taking on the older fillies and she ran well.”
Quicker ground at Belmont is threatened by Tropical Storm Elsa, pointed at eastern Long Island, just east of the track, and due to deliver potentially heavy rain Thursday into Friday.
Adverse conditions might be less of an issue for the other two invaders—Nazuna and Cirona. Nazuna, a Kodiac filly trained by Roger Varian, finished second in the Princess Elizabeth Stakes Sponsored by Cazoo (G3) at Epsom on good to soft going June 5 in her first start since reporting 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1T) at Keeneland last November. Cirona, a daughter of Maxios , was second in the Saxon Warrior Coolmore Prix Saint-Alary (G1) over turf rated soft to very soft at Longchamp two races back.
None of the locals has been able to distinguish herself during the first half of the year although most have been consistent performers in graded stakes. Among them, Plum Ali and Spanish Loveaffair finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Those two both have something to prove against Texas-bred Commissioner filly Con Lima. She defeated Plum Ali by a half-length in the Wonder Again (G3T) June 3 at Belmont Park and was awarded the win in the Herecomesthebride Stakes (G3T) Feb. 27 at Gulfstream Park when Spanish Loveaffair was disqualified after finishing 2 3/4 lengths in front.
Gam’s Mission , a Noble Mission filly from the barn of Cherie DeVaux, exits a victory in the Regret Stakes (G3T) May 29 at Churchill Downs. In that nine-furlong affair, she caught Spanish Loveaffair with a late move, winning by three-quarters of a length.
Con Lima’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, said the 1 1/4 miles of the Belmont Oaks should be right in his filly’s wheelhouse.
“She shows up and runs well every time,” Pletcher said. “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.”
Trainer Mark Casse said he hopes Spanish Loveaffair can shake off her misfortunes, adding, “She’ll have to be good; it’s a tough field.”
While the Irish theme of the race centers on Santa Barbara, a daughter of the mighty Galileo , Higher Truth , out of a Duke of Marmalade mare Wannabe Better , enters the race on the back of two straight wins at Belmont.