January 26, 2022

Athena hunts down Belmont Oaks for O’Brien

Athena winning the 2018 Belmont Oaks with Ryan Moore (Photo by NYRA/Coglianese/Susie Raisher)

Going into Saturday’s Stars and Stripes Festival at Belmont Park, the Aidan O’Brien-trained Athena found herself in the shadow of male stablemates Mendelssohn and Hunting Horn. But the colts failed to deliver when third in the Dwyer (G3) and Belmont Derby Invitational (G1), respectively. Instead, the royally bred filly ended up putting them in the shade with a dominant victory in the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1).

Athena had the pedigree and the form in the book, but she had yet to star on the big stage, and went off as an overlooked 10-1. From the first crop of triple classic winner Camelot, she’s a three-quarter sister to 2014 Irish Oaks (G1) and Ribblesdale (G2) heroine Bracelet, both granddaughters of the blue hen Urban Sea. Athena was second to well-regarded Sea of Class in the Fillies’ Trial at Newbury, fourth to Magic Wand and Wild Illusion in the Ribblesdale at Royal Ascot, and third to Urban Fox and Forever Together in the Pretty Polly (G1) on Sunday.

Her busy schedule has only helped her to thrive, and the Greek goddess wheeled back six days later to post a new career high – and fill a rare lacuna on O’Brien’s resume by handing the Irish maestro his first Belmont Oaks.

With jockey Ryan Moore in town for the trio of rides, Athena bided her time near the rear of the field in the opening stages. La Signare opted to reprise her front-running role from the Wonder Again (G3), only she went faster in this longer contest. After rattling off fractions of :23.88, :48.26, 1:11.97, and 1:35.42, the French import could not maintain her advantage in the stretch.

Meanwhile, Athena had ambled into contention out wide and overwhelmed her foes in the final furlong. The Irish-bred powered 2 1/2 lengths clear to finish 1 1/4 miles on the firm inner turf in 1:58.71.

Thewayiam, who had saved ground a few lengths off the pace, got up in a blanket finish for second. Chipolata, just arrived from France, rallied from far back to snatch third in her debut for Christophe Clement. Significant Form was on the premises throughout as an early stalker, but the 3-1 favorite could not lift enough late and had to settle for fourth. Mighty Scarlett; Fatale Bere; British shipper Capla Temptress, who did not have a clear run; Paved; Toinette; and La Signare concluded the order under the wire.

Racing for the Coolmore partnership of Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier, and Derrick Smith, Athena improved her record to 10-2-2-1, and her $535,000 winner’s check boosted her bankroll to $608,736. The bay showed little in her two juvenile appearances, and her first two outings this season, but has come on markedly over the past couple of months.

Now the third major stakes winner for her dam, the Group 3-placed Green Desert mare Cherry Hinton, Athena joins Bracelet on the Grade/Group 1 honor roll. Another three-quarter sibling, Wading, had abundant promise by capturing the 2011 Rockfel (G2) but unfortunately never raced after her juvenile campaign. Wading is now the dam of smashing debut winner Just Wonderful, who failed to add to the family trophy cabinet in the Queen Mary (G2) at Royal Ascot.

Cherry Hinton is herself a daughter of 1993 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) queen Urban Sea, and therefore a half-sister to Galileo and Sea the Stars, among others. Urban Sea is also the ancestress of reigning Epsom Derby (G1) winner Masar.

Quotes from Belmont Park

Winning rider Ryan Moore: “There was no real plan, to be honest. She’s a very straightforward filly. She’s taken her racing very well. I rode her before the start of the year and all she’s done is improve tremendously. In her first out, I wasn’t sure what she could do. The second time I rode her, she really impressed me. This was the third time I’ve rode her and I thought she was very impressive.

“It was a nice even pace and when I asked her to move forward around the turn, the race was over very quickly. She couldn’t have done better.”

Traveling head lad T.J. Comerford: “I don’t think it was a surprise really because she traveled here well and Donnacha (O’Brien) wasn’t hard on her when she ran last week at the Curragh. Six days later, a mile and a quarter on hard ground is probably her trip. She can probably go a bit farther as well but it’s great to get her going at a mile and a quarter and she can go a mile and a half in time. She’s won over a mile and a quarter and she does it impressively.

“She didn’t look like she was stopping. The pace started off quick but it got moderate. She was in a good enough position. Ryan knew he had enough horse under him to do what he wanted. He just had to the press the button on her, and whenever he wanted her to go, she went. Aidan was very happy. It’s grand to get a Grade 1.”

Trainer Chad Brown on Significant Form, fourth as the favorite: “I thought she got a good trip in the pocket. I don’t really have any excuse other than I think we found out today she probably doesn’t want to run that far. As evidenced by her not being able to hold on for second in the deep stretch, it was clear who the winner was going to be, it was a matter of who was going to finish second. Her being unable to do that was the most telling part about her distance limitations.”