“Beware the Ides of March,” the old soothsayer famously uttered in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. And while the Ides of March pertains to the 15th of the month—the day in history on which the titular character was infamously assassinated—given a handsome amount of wriggle-room, the old soothsayer’s premonition could have proven an apt one for Santa Anita trainer Simon Callaghan.
That’s because March of this year is when Callaghan saw the removal from his barn of Abel Tasman – a filly he had trained to win the GI Starlet Stakes the previous winter, and who was gearing up for a full-throttled bid at the GI Kentucky Oaks. The reason given for the move was negligible – missing silks meant the horse ran without the owners’ colors the day of the GIII Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita. The owners in question, China Horse Club, have remained tight lipped about the whole affair, but the loss to the Callaghan barn was profound, especially when, under the care of her new trainer Bob Baffert, Abel Tasman proceeded to win a trio of summer GI’s, including the big one at Churchill Downs in May.
For any stable to lose a future Classic winner on the eve of their shining hour is tough – tougher still for an emerging stable working hard to build its stock of firepower and fame. But given the way the rest of the year has played out, it seems as though the bitter experience has only spurred the young trainer towards the most satisfying of all redemption stories…
…revenge by success.
“Obviously it’s been a very good year,” says Callaghan, one morning late October, about a season that’s bagged him three GIs, and pulled in a purse haul topping the not inconsiderable $2 million mark, and counting.
We’re stood at the rail beneath the dark yawning hulk of the Santa Anita grandstand. Before us, horses thread by, shrouded beneath the grim half-light of the early hours, and framed by the misty capped outline of the San Gabriel Mountains. The air is thick with possibility, of races yet won, dreams yet realized. But Callaghan’s mind is, just right now, hovering over the past.
“Obviously it started off tough, losing Abel Tasman, but you’ve just got to move on. It’s part of racing,” he says. “I knew how good she was, and I knew we were just touching the tip of the iceberg with her. We campaigned her really well, really patiently, to have a really, really big summer. And then for us not to be able to enjoy it, it’s very tough.”
“I’m happy that she’s gone on and done so well – she’s such a wonderfully minded filly,” he says, then adds, perhaps not totally convincingly, “there’s certainly no hard feelings.”
In the end, of course, he did have a really, really big summer. And though the year may be getting a little long in the tooth, it’s far from over, not when the Breeders’ Cup is just around the corner, and an opportunity for the ex-Brit to notch a very first success on the biggest stage of them all.
“It’s everything you want to achieve in the sport,” he says. “I grew up watching Breeders’ Cups for many years, seeing a lot of the English trained horses come over and do really well. It’s always been an ambition and dream to win a Breeders’ Cup. You need the luck and the horse – a lot goes into it.”
Callaghan’s big hope for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies is Moonshine Memories – a thrice raced filly who enters the contest one of the favorites. Neat and perfectly formed could be one way to describe her. Supremely talented is another – that’s because her resume is not only blemish free, but contains a brace of GI’s already. “She’s got that effortless long stride – she’s a class act. She knows what she’s here for.”
Callaghan’s big hope for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is Run Away, a winner of the GII Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar and an honorable third next time in the GI Del Mar Futurity. Run Away’s been kept a little busier this year than his headline topping stablemate. As Callaghan puts it, “he’s a very precocious horse. But he’s also such a good feeling horse that he needs to go out and train every single day – he’s very tough. Takes his races well. He’s got a great constitution.”
Those two aren’t the only top-notch performers Callaghan’s pointed towards the stars this year. In a moment of ironic serendipity this May barely two months after the Abel Tasman sucker-punch, the young trainer was the happy beneficiary of Kaleem Shah’s latest game of equine musical chairs when the owner moved a batch of horses from the Doug O’Neill barn to Callaghan’s. The new influx contained another talented three-year-old filly with a sizeable engine – American Gal, who’s three-from-three this year, including a stunning win in the GI Test Stakes at Saratoga in August.
“Shame she’s not running in the Breeders’ Cup, but we just had to give her a little time off,” Callaghan says. Her main target next year is the GI Humana Distaff, at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend. “She’s going to come back into training in the next month.”
For those who believe in the worn old theory that a large part of one’s success is incumbent upon one’s surroundings, then Callaghan is on solid footing, for he’s found himself in some gold-clad real estate at Santa Anita.
A home in the past to none other than multiple champion trainer D. Wayne Lukas—part cowboy, part game-changer, part Mark Twain—Callaghan’s barn has housed the likes of Kentucky Derby winning Wonder Woman, Winning Colors, and the ill-fated Landaluce, thought at one time to be as good as the mighty Ruffian, before her young career was cut short.
But Callaghan is hardly a star-struck newbie when it comes to rubbing shoulders with legends of the turf (and dirt, for that matter). His father is Neville Callaghan, a decorated veteran of the training ranks in Newmarket, a sprawling town criss-crossed with gallops that serves as flat racing’s HQ in the UK. It’s the sort of place where horse racing is ingrained into the architecture – dotted throughout are handsome old stone stables with cobbled courtyards and manicured lawns at the center.
Neville found success with early maturing sorts. Think Fairy Heights and Danehill Dancer – both GI winning two-year-olds. But after stepping out from beneath the shadow of his illustrious and formidable father—legends abound throughout Newmarket of how Neville ran his stable with a sergeant major’s zeal—Callaghan spent a number of years working for another training legend in Richard Hannon, a big-numbers man playing a big numbers game. Two-year-olds especially. His was a mammoth operation with hundreds of horses on his books – a similar scenario to the trainer Callaghan worked for next, as assistant. Todd Pletcher.
This grounding hasn’t been wasted. “The fact that I’ve worked for some really good two-year-old trainers, that’s definitely stood me in good stead,” he says. “It’s just taken me a bit of time to get to this stage.”
In the eight years he’s been training in the U.S., Callaghan has seen his stable pretty much grow year-on-year, in terms of victories and end of season winnings. What he’s always been able to do is find one or two gems each year to burnish the results. In his first full year as a trainer on these shores, he unleashed duel GI winner Dubawi Heights. On his second full year, he won the GI Gamely Stakes with Belle Royale. Two years ago, with Firing Line, he came within a squeak of landing the most prestigious pot of all.
“We came very close to winning the Derby,” he says. “That really makes you want to get back there. Second was great, but to win it would be amazing. The whole atmosphere, the press, the pressure, just seeing all the same horses on the track leading up to it. The whole atmosphere is very hard to replicate.”
Should Simon Callaghan succeed, however, whether sooner or later, one gets the impression there would be a sense of vindication in the victory.
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