by Brian Bohl
Athena was a Greek goddess of strength and strategy, among other positive attributes, and her namesake thoroughbred embodied those qualities in impressively overtaking La Signare and Toinette in the stretch to capture the 40th running of the Grade 1 $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational on Saturday, Stars & Stripes Day, at Belmont Park.
Owned by Derrick Smith, Michael Tabor and Mrs. John Maginer, Athena made a strong impression in her North American debut, staying well off La Signare's early pace of 23.88 seconds for a quarter mile with the half in 48.26 on the firm inner turf.
La Signare maintained the lead out of the final turn before Toinette made a strong move near the rail. But acclaimed international jockey Ryan Moore positioned Athena to surge from the outside, where she took the lead in midstretch and held off Thewayiam by 2 ½ lengths, completing 1 1/4 miles in 1:58.71.
"There was no real plan, to be honest," Moore said. "She's a very straightforward filly. She's taken her racing very well. I rode her before the start of the year and all she's done is improve tremendously. In her first out, I wasn't sure what she could do. The second time I rode her, she really impressed me. This was the third time I've rode her and I thought she was very impressive.
"It was a nice even pace and when I asked her to move forward around the turn, the race was over very quickly," he added. "She couldn't have done better."
Trained by Aidan O'Brien, Athena arrived in New York on a quick turnaround after running third in the Group 1 Pretty Polly, contested at the Belmont Oaks distance, on July 1 at Curragh in her native country. Neither jet lag nor the long distance deterred the Camelot filly from winning her first career stake.
"I don't think it was a surprise really because she traveled here well and [jockey] Donnacha [O'Brien] wasn't hard on her when she ran last week at the Curragh," said O'Brien's traveling head lad T.J. Comerford. "Six days later, a mile and a quarter on hard ground is probably her trip. She can probably go a bit farther as well but it's great to get her going at a mile and a quarter and she can go a mile and a half in time. She's won over a mile and a quarter and she does it impressively.
"She didn't look like she was stopping," he continued. "The pace started off quick but it got moderate. She was in a good enough position. Ryan knew he had enough horse under him to do what he wanted. He just had to the press the button on her, and whenever he wanted her to go, she went. Aidan was very happy. It's grand to get a Grade 1."
Off at 10-1, Athena paid $22.80 on a $2 win wager. She increased her career earnings more than eightfold, brining her total to $608,749.
The ultraconsistent Thewayiam finished second in a stakes for the third straight race. Under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, the French-bred filly moved to 5-3-1 in 11 career starts for trainer Graham Motion when she edged Chipolata by a neck.
Significant Form, the 3-1 favorite for trainer Chad Brown, finished fourth while her stablemate Mighty Scarlett was fifth.
"I thought she got a good trip in the pocket," Brown said regarding Significant Form. "I don't really have any excuse other than I think we found out today she probably doesn't want to run that far. As evidenced by her not being able to hold on for second in the deep stretch, it was clear who the winner was going to be, it was a matter of who was going to finish second. Her being unable to do that was the most telling part about her distance limitations."
Completing the order of finish was Fatale Bere, Capla Temptress, Paved, Toinette and La Signare.