By John Manley
Niall O’Callaghan would have been overjoyed if told a couple months ago that he would be posing in the Belmont Park winner’s circle on Belmont Stakes day. After all, the Corkman harbored Triple Crown aspirations with Nite Dreamer. But that one went lame three days before the Kentucky Derby, and Bob Baffert had one less set of legs to outrunon Saturday. But a preliminary stakes to the Belmont was the Just a Game Breeders’ Cup Handicap, a Grade III grass stakes for fillies and mares at a mile, the optimum distance for Witchful Thinking.
O’Callaghan shipped the 4-year-old daughter of Lord Avie up from Kentucky off a win at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. The filly assumed the lead at Belmont out of the gate and was never headed, posting a narrow victory over Sopran Mariduff. Chris McCarron rode Witchful Thinking, getting the mile in 1:33.2. The winner paid $9. Witchful Thinking, owned by Leslie Grimm of New Jersey, earned $95,745 with the victory, pushing her career bankroll to $595,860. She has won 10 of 16 starts.
Her Cork-born trainer suggested that the Diana Handicap at Saratoga on Labor Day weekend could be her next outing. The break of three months suggests that this year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile at the friendly confines of Churchill Downs could be a long-term goal. Looming nearer on the horizon for O’Callaghan is the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine on June 21. He has Nite Dreamer, a Canadian-bred, on the comeback trail for that prestigious event.
The Belmont Stakes was the occasion of another hiccup from the Irish-bred Hanuman Highway. Forced to come into the race off workouts, having scratched from the Peter Pan Stakes two weeks earlier, Hanuman Highway came down with a case of colic Friday night and was scratched by trainer Kathy Walsh. Another scratch from the final Triple Crown race was Hot Wells, the son of Go and Go, due to licensing problems with the owner. Yarrow Br’, co-owned by Ireland’s Susan Magnier, was a non-factor in the Belmont, finishing 10th, next-to-last.
Events on the other side of the Atlantic had a gloomier cast to them for Mrs. Magnier and the entire Coolmore/Michael Tabor/Aidan O’Brien team. Friday’s Epsom Oaks started the weekend auspiciously enough, with Shahtoush posting a surprise victory under Michael Kinane in this 12-furlong feature for 3-year-old fillies. It turned out to be the highlight of the journey across the Irish Sea for O’Brien’s troops. After all, what price would you have given that Sunshine Street, Noel Meade’s maiden, would outrun all three of O’Brien’s bullets, namely King of Kings, Saratoga Springs and Second Empire in the Epsom Derby? It would have to have been a high price, but a winning one nonetheless.
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Sunshine Street didn’t win the Derby, but his fourth-place finish was considerably better than anything O’Brien could muster. Sunshine Street, a 200-1 non-winner, was sent to the front by John Murtagh and still had the lead two furlongs from home. But a trio of pursuers ran him down, with the nod going to High-Rise, an Irish-bred son of High Estate, owned by Sheikh Mohammed and trained by Luca Cumani. Irish jockeys John Reid on City Honours and Ray Cochrane on Border Arrow got second and third, respectively. Sunshine Street passed the wire fourth, three lengths off the winner.,
Second Empire, the center of controversy after a puzzling ride by Christy Roche in his last race, finished eighth under Kinane at Epsom. Saratoga Springs, ridden by Willie Ryan, was 10th while King of Kings and Pat Eddery were last to cross. King of Kings, talked about at this time last year as a potential wonder horse, was retired after the Derby, due to an aggravation of a knee injury that required surgery last winter. As for his other two, O’Brien admitted after the race that he may have brought Saratoga Springs back too soon after last week’s French Derby, in which he was fourth. The Budweiser Irish Derby on June 28 is a possibility for this one. O’Brien will look for shorter trips than 12 furlongs for Second empire, which would preclude his running at The Curragh later this month. the top two finishers at Epsom have declared the Irish Derby as their next target, as has Meade, who stables Sunshine Street at his yard in Navan, Co. Meath.