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International scouting report: Belmont Oaks Invitational

By Kellie Reilly

Although repackaged as the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1) in 2014, and accordingly luring international shippers, New York’s premier contest for three-year-old turf fillies has continued to go the way of U.S.-based performers.

That trend is very likely to continue on Saturday, for the domestic contingent has been boosted by a couple of new French imports for the Chad Brown barn. Brown won this race for four straight years (2012-15), the final two runnings as the Garden City and the first two under its new moniker, until Mark Casse’s Catch a Glimpse broke the sequence last season. As if Brown didn’t have enough of a chance already with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) star New Money Honey and Fifty Five, he’s now doubled his hand and picked up arguably the one to beat.

Sistercharlie merits 5-2 morning-line favoritism on the strength of her surging second in the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) (G1), where she was a little unlucky after meeting with traffic woes in the stretch. I’ve tried to play devil’s advocate with this result, considering that there were other hard-luck stories too. Chief among them were Goldikova’s daughter, Terrakova, and Aidan O’Brien’s unfortunate Rhododendron, who bled and had to be pulled up past the halfway point. Nevertheless, ruing their trips is just nitpicking in the context of the Belmont Oaks. Even if you take the most hardline position about how the result might have played out in different circumstances, the fact remains that Sistercharlie was beaten a mere length in a proper classic, a formline that’s gilt-edged here.

Moreover, Sistercharlie would have been appealing off her prior performances as well. For original trainer Henri-Alex Pantall, she scored in a newcomers’ event on the Deauville all-weather in December. You can’t see much of the about 1 3/16-mile race, wrapped as it was in fog, but in the final strides Sistercharlie appeared to be under a measured hand ride. She next stepped up to listed company for the March 11 Prix Rose de Mai at Saint-Cloud, finishing a hard-trying fourth on heavy ground. Subsequent evidence indicates that the going blunted her chief weapon – a potent turn of foot.

In her three ensuing starts, Sistercharlie proved what she’s capable of on a quicker surface. Despite a checkered passage in a Saint-Cloud conditions race, she flew late once clear to win going away, rescuing a dire situation. No one could have blamed her if she’d lost that day, yet she found a way to win. Up in class for the April 23 Prix Penelope (G3) over the same course and 10 1/2-furlong distance, Sistercharlie again mowed them down despite an unfavorable set-up. This time it was a dawdling pace, with the two early leaders keeping on stoutly enough to finish second and third.

Peter Brant had seen enough to swoop and buy into the classic prospect. Sporting his White Birch Farm silks in the French Oaks, Sistercharlie was boxed in at a crucial stage, and appeared to be jostled, before finally breaking free. By that point, the race was virtually over, but she still managed a furious rally to snatch runner-up honors from Terrakova and favored Shutter Speed (who’d earlier beaten eventual Epsom Oaks [G1] romper Enable).

 

With Brant now her sole owner, Sistercharlie was transferred stateside to Brown. She’s proven over the distance, brings the highest standard of form, and shapes as the type to thrive in American conditions.

The main concern is the relatively quick turnaround from the June 18 French Oaks, which had been her primary objective. If Sistercharlie is in the same form she was at home, she’ll be tough. But she may prefer the Belmont turf to dry out more.

Aside from her record, note that Sistercharlie had been made eligible for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). Her other fancy entries included last Sunday’s Pretty Polly (G1) versus her elders at the Curragh and the August 12 Beverly D. (G1), an Arlington option apparently turned in by her original connections.

Sistercharlie could develop into the latest distaff headliner sired by Myboycharlie, who’s also responsible for 2014 Beverly D. heroine Euro Charline and multiple Australian Group 1 queen Jameka. A bargain €12,000 Arqana October yearling, Sistercharlie is out of a full sister to Group 3 scorer Leo’s Starlet. Thus she’s by a Danehill-line stallion out of a Galileo mare.

Uni, Brown’s first arrival from France, has yet to try this 1 1/4-mile trip or Grade/Group 1 company. But she could have if so inclined. In a what-might-have-been scenario, she was herself under consideration for the French Oaks, until new co-owners Sol Kumin and Michael Dubb preferred to get her to New York early. So unlike Sistercharlie who just showed up, she’s been settled into her American quarters since the latter part of May. And in another contrast with her new stablemate, Uni’s owner/breeder, Haras d’Etreham, has remained on board as a co-owner.

A well-bred daughter of More Than Ready, Uni is out of a Dansili mare from the productive family of Invincible Spirit. She was offered as a yearling at Arqana August, but brought only €40,000. As reported by Thoroughbred Daily News, however, Uni actually returned home to Haras d’Etreham.

Starting off in an unraced two-year-old maiden over Chantilly’s all-weather, Uni bumped into a good one when second to front-running Le Brivido. That colt has since missed by a whisker in the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) (G1) and recently captured the Jersey (G3) at Royal Ascot.

Uni stayed on the synthetic for a winter campaign for trainer Fabrice Chappet. After a rallying second from well off the pace at Deauville, she took up a much better early stalking position to break her maiden handsomely next time out. Perhaps the eye-catching rider change to Christophe Soumillon made the difference. Uni then tackled the boys in the Prix de la Californie at Cagnes-sur-Mer, but without Soumillon, she didn’t settle as kindly. She also had to alter course in the stretch, and just when gaining momentum, got squeezed a bit in a close third at the wire.

In her turf debut (and first start for the d’Etreham/Kumin partnership) in the April 9 Prix Vanteaux (G3), Uni again didn’t seem to click with regular pilot Tony Piccone. She pulled early and didn’t kick on late when sixth of eight. Another rider switch may have been conducive to her success over males in the May 11 Prix Matchem. Maxime Guyon, sensing her free-running tendency, allowed her to stride on, and she was much happier dictating in the small field. Now nicely relaxed with ears pricked, she found plenty when challenged, and even briefly headed, in the stretch.

While Uni does not have the resume of Sistercharlie, we also might not have seen her to best effect yet. She was regarded well enough to be entered in France’s marquee springtime races in her division, the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches (French 1000 Guineas) (G1), Prix Saint-Alary (G1), as well as the French Oaks. Her tactical speed will come in handy over here, and she gets both Irad Ortiz Jr. and Lasix (unlike Sistercharlie).

In addition to the test of class, the other question involves Uni’s preferred going. It’s unfair to judge from only two turf starts, but she may enjoy a little bit of give in the ground. With Belmont rained off the turf Friday, any residual moisture in the course Saturday would be welcome.

Ballydoyle invader Key to My Heart is technically the lone international flag-bearer. If you had to compare her to past O’Brien shippers for the Belmont Oaks, she’s reminiscent of Outstanding, who was third to Lady Eli here in 2015. Like Outstanding, Key to My Heart is wheeling back off a career high in the Naas Oaks Trial.

The salient difference between them is that Outstanding was still unexposed, having broken her maiden two starts back and making just her fifth career start at Belmont. Key to My Heart, on the other hand, has taken longer to figure out the game. She needed six starts to break her maiden, and 10 to become a stakes winner at Naas June 28.

Yet given how quickly fillies can get hot for this yard, Key to My Heart isn’t readily dismissed. The daughter of Galileo and Grade 1-winning Bernardini mare A Z Warrior was a pricey 1.3 million guineas Tattersalls October yearling, making her residual broodmare value clear. She enhanced that value with a first black-type victory, as jockey Donnacha O’Brien told irishracing.com, and a Grade 1-placing would be icing on the cake.

Placed four times from five starts at two, Key to My Heart was the beaten favorite in her last three outings of 2016. O’Brien added blinkers for her April 12 reappearance at Dundalk, and she responded by finally shedding her maiden tag, albeit versus an iffy bunch. Key to My Heart didn’t progress on the class hike thereafter, winding up unplaced in the Salsabil, Blue Wind (G3) and Munster Oaks (G3). In each case, she was prominent early before retreating.

So what sparked the turnaround last time out in the Naas Oaks Trial? She was reverting in distance to 1 1/4 miles, and dropping from older Group 3 company to a listed race against fellow sophomores, but still her breakout effort wasn’t exactly foreseeable at 7-1. Key to My Heart prompted the pace, forged clear early in the straight, and held sway by 2 3/4 lengths. Perhaps the yielding ground advantaged her, although she’d run decently on better ground in the past.

If Key to My Heart needs to keep up that rate of improvement to factor here, she may be finding herself at the right time.

Sistercharlie photo courtesy Henri-Alex Pantall via Twitter

Uni photo courtesy Bradley Weisbord via Twitter