Homeracing

2021 Belmont Oaks international scouting reports: Santa Barbara, Cirona, Nazuna

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July 8th, 2021

As with stablemate Bolshoi Ballet in the Belmont Derby (G1), Santa Barbara brings a lofty profile into Saturday’s Belmont Oaks (G1) as a beaten classic favorite for Aidan O’Brien. Santa Barbara is also taking the same path as O’Brien’s only Belmont Oaks winner, Athena (2018). Both were coming off placings versus elders in the Pretty Polly S. (G1), but Santa Barbara went a lot closer. 

The highly regarded blueblood tops three internationals in the Oaks, along with Cirona representing France and English shipper Nazuna. Both Santa Barbara and Cirona sport early entries in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1).

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara has a pedigree to excel on the U.S. turf as a half-sister to two Breeders’ Cup winners – Iridessa, the 2019 Filly & Mare Turf (G1) heroine, and Order of Australia, the 73-1 stunner in last fall’s Mile (G1). Their dam, the Danehill mare Senta’s Dream, is herself a daughter of 2002 Filly & Mare Turf upsetter Starine.

Bred by Aidan and Annemarie O’Brien’s Whisperview Trading, Santa Barbara is by Camelot, also the sire of Athena. Camelot turned the 2000 Guineas (G1)/Epsom Derby (G1) double in 2012 and might have been unfortunate not to complete an historic sweep of the English Triple Crown in the St Leger (G1).

Santa Barbara stamped herself as a potential star in her lone juvenile appearance, when exceeding expectations as a 9-2 chance in her Curragh debut. She was in danger of overracing early, but jockey Seamie Heffernan eased her behind horses to get her to settle. Although several lengths back in a big field, Santa Barbara traveled well on the inside, deftly seized the split, and drew off under confident handling.

Heffernan paid Santa Barbara a handsome compliment in his postrace comments to irishracing.com:

I’ve won on two of that family (Iridessa and Order of Australia) and I’d say she could be the best. I’d rate her highly.

The classic hopeful suddenly shot to the top of the antepost market for the 1000 Guineas (G1) when O’Brien lauded her in an “At the Races” stable tour in late March:

She's done unbelievably well in physical terms over the winter. She looks like a five-year-old colt. She goes through her work unbelievably well. She shows loads of speed and always worked with an awful lot of class.

Santa Barbara’s raw talent and stellar homework, however, couldn’t make up for her inexperience in the Guineas. Making just her second career start in the mile classic at Newmarket, the 5-2 joint favorite was a bit keen stalking the early pace, her mouth gaping open. Santa Barbara was in the firing line at the decisive stage but found herself outpaced by stablemate Mother Earth. She kept on in a creditable fourth, beaten narrowly for second, in a manner suggesting she’d appreciate a step up in trip.

Indeed, the Guineas was intended as her stepping stone to the Oaks (G1), and Santa Barbara ranked as the 5-2 favorite at Epsom. As it turned out, she was no match for stablemate Snowfall, who routed the classic by a record margin of 16 lengths. Santa Barbara made a brief move into contention from last, but the combination of testing conditions and the 1 1/2-mile distance proved too much. She ended up losing ground late and labored home fifth.

The June 27 Pretty Polly back at the Curragh was the logical rebound spot, offering the happy medium distance of 1 1/4 miles at the scene of her maiden win. The wrinkle was that pitted her against a few smart elders, including Thundering Nights, who was unlucky not to win the New York S. (G2). Thundering Nights got the jump on her younger rival, then Santa Barbara produced a furious rally to draw alongside. The older filly parried Santa Barbara’s thrust by a neck in a race that reflected well on both.

Santa Barbara has become a money-burner, but you could say that she was a victim of her own early success. If the Guineas and Oaks were too difficult for her at that tender stage, the Pretty Polly shapes up as the turning point. Santa Barbara has weathered her stiff assignments, and those classic battles appear to have toughened her up.

Belmont’s big, galloping track figures to bring out her best. Perhaps the one caveat is if the ground has a lot of residual moisture Saturday. So far, Santa Barbara has shown a taste for quicker going, like half-siblings Iridessa and Order of Australia. Yet that’s from a very limited sample size, with the Epsom Oaks her only attempt on anything softer than good.

Cirona

Cirona has a different profile, as an oft-overlooked competitor with a habit of outperforming her odds. Her ability to go forward could help her chances, as would soft ground – not that she’s dependent, but she handles it well.

Trained by Christophe Ferland, whose lone Breeders’ Cup runner was third-placer Cavale Doree in the 2016 Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1), Cirona will be making her first start for a partnership led by Bradley Thoroughbreds. (Update: She will accordingly remain stateside after the Oaks and join Chad Brown.) Hitherto she’s been campaigned as a homebred by Ecurie Waldeck.

Cirona is by Maxios, a multiple Group 1-winning half-brother (by Monsun) to 2004 Arc hero Bago. Cirona’s dam, Italian stakes winner Coco Demure, is also responsible for stakes scorers Qaysar (in the May 8 Spring Trophy at Haydock) and Chares (in France as a juvenile). Chares captured the 2020 Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. at Kempton prior to his export to Hong Kong, where he’s failed to run up to his new name of Maximus.

Precocious enough to debut in late May as a two-year-old, Cirona justified even-money favoritism at Bordeaux Le Bouscat. She sat in a ground-saving spot just off the pace, had room on the rail, and picked up well to win comfortably. Cirona was favored again in a Compiegne conditions race, but she was never traveling. The jockey took care of her as she checked in seventh of nine.

Cirona was not seen again until last October, when she was promptly back in business at Nantes. Splitting foes into the stretch, she opened up by four lengths on the heavy going.

Up in class for the Prix des Reservoirs (G3) at Deauville, Cirona was let go at 15-1 and came close to springing an upset. Group 1-placed favorite Rougir got first run, but Cirona stayed on determinedly to miss by a neck. Next she held her own versus males in the Criterium de Languedoc at Toulouse, improving position to get up for second.

Cirona responded to new frontrunning tactics in her sophomore bow in the April 18 Prix de la Grotte (G3) at Longchamp, and nicked the race at almost 18-1. With an assist from new pilot Maxime Guyon, she got away with cozy fractions on good ground, shook off her pace companion, and bravely lasted from a battalion of closers. The wire came just in time.  

“Maxime gave her a super ride,” Ferland said according to Thoroughbred Daily News. “He didn't go too fast in front and he knew how to ride her. She lasted courageously and is a very sweet filly who knows how to quicken as she showed in the Reservoirs last year. She has a long acceleration and a lot of heart and loves a fight.”

Instead of staying at the same metric mile trip for the French 1000 Guineas (G1), Cirona stretched out for the about 1 1/4-mile Prix Saint-Alary (G1). She nearly pulled a 14-1 wire job with regular rider Julien Auge, only to be nailed by Incarville. Cirona saved second by a head from Es La Vida, with Sibila Spain a checkered fourth.

Cirona was most recently a non-threatening 10th in the French Oaks (G1), but the 24-1 chance was held up off the pace. She arguably could have fared better if sticking with her new forward style, especially since Sibila Spain played that role and finished a close fourth. O’Brien’s victorious Joan of Arc stalked her before pouncing. Moreover, a few of Cirona’s familiar foes, including Rougir (fifth) and Incarville (seventh), weren’t beaten far in the bunched-up finish. Cirona herself was only 3 1/2 lengths behind the winner.

Although Cirona’s best pieces of form in the la Grotte and Saint-Alary have a whiff of opportunism about them, her strengths are likely to serve her well in American conditions.

Nazuna

Nazuna’s previous U.S. venture in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf didn’t pan out too well in 10th, but she could be a bit better for this return visit.

Roger Varian, who trains the filly for his wife, Hanako, has won or placed with six of his 13 North American starters. That includes two Grade 1 wins, Nahrain in the 2012 Flower Bowl (G1) at Belmont and Sheikha Reika in the 2018 E.P. Taylor (G1) at Woodbine, as well as placings in three Breeders’ Cup races.  

Varian said going into the Breeders’ Cup that Nazuna wasn’t strictly a two-year-old type. Her sire, Kodiac, often gets smart juveniles, but they can also train on, like Wesley Ward’s recent Commonwealth Cup (G1) winner at Royal Ascot, Campanelle.

“Our filly wouldn’t be typical of Kodiacs,” Varian told At the Races. “She is not an up-and-at-’em two-year-old; she has more scope than that and will train on to be a lovely three-year-old.”

As I wrote in the Breeders’ Cup International Scouting Reports for Brisnet.com, Nazuna wasn’t expected to do much as a 25-1 shot in her unveiling at Goodwood, but she still ran a creditable fifth. She promptly won next time at Doncaster, when securing a better tactical position. Finishing fourth in that maiden was The Queen’s Light Refrain, eventually a multiple stakes winner.

Nazuna returned to Doncaster to place second in a good nursery during the St Leger Festival, rallying behind a pacesetting winner. The form worked out when fifth-placer Ventura Diamond and third Meu Amor went on to fill the exacta in the Bosra Sham at Newmarket. Meu Amor has continued to perform well in stakes company this season, capturing the June 23 Eternal S. in her latest.

Varian then pitched Nazuna into a “Win and You’re In” for the Juvenile Fillies Turf, the Rockfel (G2) at Newmarket. Anchored at the rear of a five-filly field, she closed for second to frontrunning Isabella Giles, who posted a strong seven-furlong time of 1:22.55. While the Rockfel form overall hasn’t stood up so well, Isabella Giles was a close third versus elders in the May 8 Chartwell Fillies’ S. (G3) in her optimal conditions.

Plans called for Nazuna to get another race in ahead of the Breeders’ Cup, in the Oh So Sharp (G3) back at Newmarket. Once the ground came up soft, she was scratched and bound for Keeneland.

Nazuna’s Breeders’ Cup hopes fizzled when she was shuffled back early, lagged well off the pace, and couldn’t make up much ground in the stretch. Yet she was fewer than two lengths behind Plum Ali and Spanish Loveaffair, the respective fifth and sixth, and now her Belmont Oaks rivals.

For her 2021 bow, Nazuna was supposed to be on her travels again for the German 1000 Guineas (G2), until the COVID protocols made it impossible for Varian’s staff to accompany her. Thus her trip was called off, and Varian had to find another race nearer to home. 

That context adds significance to her reappearance in the June 5 Princess Elizabeth S. (G3), since it was a backup option rather than a target of choice. No easy task to try older distaffers off the bench, Nazuna also faced ground softer than ideal, and an Epsom camber that forced her to work harder to find her balance. In the circumstances, her clear second to frontrunning Parent’s Prayer was a commendable effort.

Nazuna is eligible to move forward second off the layoff, if she can handle the considerable step up to 1 1/4 miles, and the ground is passable. Her dam, Night Fever, offers hope as a daughter of Galileo and French Group 1 winner Ask for the Moon. Night Fever is a full sister to Astrology, winner of the 2012 Dee S. and third in the Epsom Derby, and the marathoner Sandro Botticelli.

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