By Bill Heller
Almost as if it were her New Year’s resolution to atone for her fourth-place finish as the favorite in the Gr1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly at Churchill Downs, November 2, Kaleem Shah’s three-year-old filly Bellafina delivered a jaw-dropping, 8 ½ length victory in the Gr2 Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita, January 6, confirming her trainer Simon Callaghan’s faith in her. “It was a relief more than anything,” Callaghan said. “I knew in my mind that the Breeders’ Cup wasn’t her race. For some reason, she didn’t run her “A” race. You can’t win a Breeders’ Cup race without an “A” performance.”
Bellafina has had several A’s, posting four victories in her first six starts, including two Gr1 stakes and a pair of Gr2’s. “We’ve always felt from Day 1 that she could be potentially really good,” Callaghan said. “She’s the best filly I’ve trained.”
With her resounding victory in her three-year-old debut, she is back on track to tackle the Gr1 Santa Anita Oaks and the Gr1 Kentucky Oaks as Callaghan continues to prosper at the young training age of 35. His age is misleading. He has been living with horses his entire life—the son of a successful trainer growing up in the unique horse hub of Newmarket, England. “By the time I was 12, I knew what I wanted to do,” Callaghan said. “I was really passionate about it. It’s very special to see a horse out there trying, running in a race.”
His father, Neville, trained for 37 years before retiring in 2007. “He taught me not to cut any corner,” Callaghan said. “Feed them well. Get good help. He took a lot of pride in how his horses looked.”
After working for trainer Richard Hannon in England, Callaghan got two gigs with Todd Pletcher in America. “He’s extremely dedicated, very hard-working,” Callaghan said. “His horses looked fantastic. Obviously, he’s a very intelligent man. He just doesn’t miss anything. His attention to detail is second to none.”
Callaghan opened his own stable in England at the age of 24, but soon set his sights on America. “One of my clients, Anthony Ramsden, pitched the idea of me working there,” Callaghan said. “I spoke a lot with other clients I had, Michael Tabor and Coolmore, and they were much behind me. I felt I was so young at the time (26), if it didn’t work out, I could come back to England. In England, unless you had support from the top owners, it was very hard to come up with Gr1 horses. That’s what I always wanted to do: get horses to win at the top level. That was easier to do in America.”
And he has done it, quickly becoming a force at Santa Anita, where he keeps a stable of 50. His horses have earned more than $1 million for eight straight years and topped $2 million three times in 2015, 2017 and 2018. In 2015, his Firing Line finished second by one length to eventual Triple Crown Champion American Pharoah in the Gr1 Kentucky Derby.
Dubawi Heights gave Callaghan his first two Gr1 stakes victories in the Gamely Stakes at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita’s Yellow Ribbon Stakes. Slim Shadey won three stakes on turf and triple stakes winner Taris earned more than $1 million.
“We’re lucky we can have a living working around horses,” Callaghan said. “When you go out there and train a winner, it’s satisfying and rewarding.”
Bellafina may give him his most satisfying and rewarding year yet. After she won the Santa Ynez Stakes, Callaghan sent out a tweet: “Great start to 2019!”
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Spring 2019, issue 51 (PRINT)
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