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Deja Vu for Simon Callaghan in Bid for First Breeders’ Cup Win


Bellafina | Benoit

By Dan Ross

If Simon Callaghan believes in deja vu, he’s sure experiencing a heady dose of it right now.

This time last year, Callaghan had in his barn the favorite for the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies–Moonshine Memories. After breaking her maiden, the daughter of Malibu Moon harvested all available scalps in a couple of top flight 2-year-old contests, the GI Del Mar Debutante S. and the GI Chandelier S.

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies was the next assignment, and for some who were looking to nail down a sure bet for the two-day spectacle, Moonshine Memories was their gal.

Cut to 12 months later, and Callaghan has in his barn the favorite for this year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies–Bellafina. After breaking her maiden in the GII Sorrento S. in August, this daughter of Quality Road harvested all available scalps in a couple of top flight 2-year-old contests, the GI Del Mar Debutante S. and the GI Chandelier S.

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies is her next assignment, and for some who are looking to nail down a sure bet for this year’s two-day spectacle, Bellafina is their gal.

“This is a better filly,” admitted Callaghan, an ex-Brit, one morning at Santa Anita recently, about the younger of his two stablemates. “[The Juvenile Fillies] is just the perfect kind of race. She’s coming into it in great form, and I feel that she’s the deserving favorite.”

Rewind once again to last year, and Callaghan’s contender deviated from script, breaking sharp to lead the field for the first half of the race before dropping back through the pack. Her trainer, however, notes some important distinctions between the two that leaves him hopeful for recompense.

“They’re two very different types of fillies,” he said. “In hindsight, that distance was probably a little bit too far for Moonshine Memories.”

While Moonshine Memories is cut more from the pocket-rocket mold of racehorse, precocious and speedy, Kaleem Shah’s Bellafina is rangier, scopier–a horse to pin hopes for the future on.

“I mean, I think with all the Quality Roads, they just get better with age,” said Callaghan. “She’s actually really grown, muscled up, and she’s developed physically from race to race. She looks like a 3-year-old colt almost already. She’s a big, strong, tough, masculine type of filly. I believe she’s just going to keep getting better and better. I think we will probably see the very best of her when she’s a 3-year-old.”

Take nothing away from her 2-year-old career, mind you.

A decent second on her debut at Los Alamitos in July, she returned a reformed pupil next time out in the Sorrento S. at Del Mar, disposing of a large field by 4 1/4 lengths, leading virtually gate-to-wire. Next up came the Del Mar Debutante S., when she put a five-strong field to bed in similar fashion. After that, she came back to produce an even more visually impressive performance in the Chandelier S.

“Everyone said that the final quarter [of the Chandelier] wasn’t very fast, but the track was so deep that day and they went off fast and there was nothing really catching her,” Callaghan said. “She can only beat what’s put in front of her and I think she’s answered every question.”

A “smart filly” not shy of advertising her well-being–“she can be a little tough to gallop because she just wants to get on with it”–the key, he said, to the Chandelier was the manner in which she relaxed around the two turns. “We’ve seen, obviously in the races in the summer, that she’s got lots of natural speed, but she had yet to prove her stamina over the extra distance.”

All of which bodes well for the Juvenile Fillies, over 1 1/16 miles, and a race that–surprisingly for a Breeders’ Cup that’s turned into something of a popularity contest–has come up a little light in numbers, with just 11 pre-entries. Not that Callaghan confuses quantity for quality.

“I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a field, but I think the fillies that are going into it are all really good,” he said. “I think it’s a going to be a very good race.”

Top of the pack is Kenny McPeek’s Restless Rider (Distorted Humor), impressive winner of a big-field GI Darley Alcibiades S. at Keeneland last time out. “She’s the one that worries me the most.”

Gary Contessa’s Sippican Harbor (Orb) beat Restless Rider in this summer’s GI Spinaway S. While Tom Amoss’s Serengeti Empress (Alternation) proved well named in the GII Pocahontas S. at Churchill Downs, storming away with the race like a runaway freight train.

“It’s tough when you’re trying to equate the form here on the West Coast to the East Coast–you don’t really know,” Callaghan said. “But we’ve got lots of respect for the other fillies in the race, naturally.”

Hovering as a proverbial and literal dark cloud over the whole two-day event is the meteorological unpredictability of Kentucky in November.

“[Rain is] obviously a possibility when you go back east this time of year, but I really don’t feel an off-track would be something that would inhibit her chances,” he said. “I know a few of the sons and daughters of Quality Road have won on off-tracks. With this filly, I just don’t think it’s a problem.”

If it isn’t indeed a problem, and Bellafina performs as connections expect she does, it would add a tasty garnish to what has already proven a very satisfying season for Team Callaghan. Aside from Bellafina’s exploits, he has sent out Kaleem Shah’s American Gal (Concord Point) to nab Grade I honors in the Humana Distaff S. at Churchill Downs.

He’s also picked up graded stake trophies with Beau Recall (Ire) and Treasuring (GB), horses by Sir Prancealot (Ire) and Havana Gold (Ire) respectively–perhaps not the most fashionable of stallions back home in Europe, where they stand, and yet, “sometimes you get those sires that, maybe like you said, aren’t top shelf, but they come to California and they just really sort of seem to improve,” he explained.

A good season made great by a Breeders’ Cup win? What trainer would turn their nose up at that? For Callaghan, it would mark his first Breeders’ Cup victory after just eight full seasons with a license. But there’s another major contest equally as alluring to any self-respecting handler. And Callaghan singled out a couple of his 2-year-olds that have him dreaming of a return to Churchill Downs next May.

One of them, he said, is a colt by Algorithms called Value Play. “He’s the one that we have high hopes for.”

The other is a Will Take Charge colt called Stretford End who ran a fine second on his debut in September. “I think he’s going to be a really nice horse for the future as well.”

A Derby win would, of course, be vindication for a narrow eclipse in the race more than three years ago, when Firing Line came within a head of spoiling American Pharoah’s Triple Crown coronation before it had even begun.

“Looking forward to seeing how he does at stud,” said Callaghan, about his former charge. “I think he’s got a chance to really throw some good horses. You know, the whole Derby experience just makes you want to get back there again. This time of year, it’s always really hard to tell who’s the best, but….” and he let the thought trail off.

All that, however, is for the distant–and yet not too far-off–future to determine. More immediately, there’s the events of next weekend to contend with. Whatever happens, Callaghan will afterwards give Bellafina a little R & R, “just let her sort of decompress. She’s obviously already achieved a lot, and we’ll just take our time with her and work backwards from the [GI Kentucky] Oaks, probably look to be having one or two races prior to the Oaks.”

As it happens, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies has a good record when it comes to the Oaks–in 34 runnings of the 2-year-old contest, the race has produced 11 winners of the filly’s Classic. Though only two, Silverbulletday and Open Mind, have clinched both.

“I really feel that we’re bringing the best horse we have into the Breeders’ Cup this year,” said Callaghan. “I think we’ve learned a lot and I think this year we can pull it off.”

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