The combination of Bob Baffert and Mike Smith usually attracts plenty of bettors’ attention in big races but Abel Tasman triumphed at 9/1 for them in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs (May 5).
Owned by the China Horse Club and Clearsky Farms, Abel Tasman spent most of the race dead last but gradually picked off her opponents in the mud beating Daddys Lil Darling (13/1) trained by Kenneth McPeek by just over a length. The William Mott-trained Lockdown (37/1) took third for Juddmonte Farms ahead of Vexatious (41/1).
Baffert was delighted by the win and was spotted ‘doing the dab’ with his son Bode immediately afterwards. Half way through the race when Abel Tasman was way out the back Bode said that he guessed they would be going to the downtown sports bar that evening, it was their customary venue after a downbeat day.
Baffert admitted that the win was particularly enjoyable as, for once, he did not have the pressure associated with saddling a favorite. He thought that Abel Tasman had ‘slipped under the radar’.
Why was Abel Tasman largely ignored by bettors this time? Probably because Paradise Woods, the unplaced 6/5 Kentucky Oaks favorite with the US bookies, had beaten her by a jaw-dropping 12 lengths into second a month earlier in the Santa Anita Oaks. On that day Abel Tasman was a magnet for money, starting as the 9/10 favorite. It was her first run since she moved to Baffert from Simon Callaghan but Paradise Woods took the lead soon after the gates opened at Santa Anita and kept running all the way to the wire under Flavien Prat, never seeing another filly.
Abel Tasman’s relocation occurred soon after the China Horse Club’s investment in a row over the jockey’s silks. Her win in the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos as a juvenile for Callaghan had attracted the attention of the China Horse Club’s bloodstock and racing manager. Callaghan must be wishing that had not happened because in her first race for the new 50 percent owners, he saddled the horse in the original Clearsky Farms’ silks rather than the China Horse Club colors. It was the excuse the new owners needed to move her to the Baffert yard. Questions regarding the reasons for the change of handler were left unanswered in the press conference after the Kentucky Oaks. They had conveniently agreed not to talk about it.
Mike Smith was willing to answer all the questions put to him. It was his second Kentucky Oaks win and he was enjoying it much more than his first success in the race, which was such a shock it took a long while to sink in. Smith admitted that he did not intend to give the filly an extreme hold-up ride but had planned to grab the rail as the way previous races had panned out suggested that it was a good place to be. Abel Tasman had been drawn with only one filly wide of her so it was not going to be easy.
Having gained his intended position on the inside but with 13 horses in front of him and none behind, Smith found that his filly was not happy getting covered in kick back from the sloppy track. He consoled himself by thinking that they must be going pretty quick up front, especially for that racetrack. He was not actually applying the brakes at all but was just a very long way off the lead.
Fortunately Smith’s judgement on the pace was correct. It appeared that Flavien Prat intended to utilize the same plan that worked so well at Santa Anita. Prat managed to take the lead relatively easily after starting from a low draw but Paradise Woods did not enjoy the luxury of an uncontested lead. Paco Lopez rode Miss Sky Warrior (6/1) aggressively too and their battle at the head of affairs resulted in some over generous fractions for the conditions.
They covered the first half mile in 46.24 and the leading pair were three lengths clear of Farrell (9/2) who was a similar distance ahead of the chasing pack led by Jordan’s Henny (66/1) and Sailor’s Valentine (45/1). Abel Tasman was dead last, more than 20 lengths off the pace.
Having languished at the back of a pack strung out like laundry Smith decided to abandon the rail and pulled Abel Tasman out wide, away from the kick back. She seemed to approve of Plan B and passed five horses approaching the final turn. Meanwhile Paradise Woods was finally headed by Miss Sky Warrior round the turn and, although Abel Tasman was widest of all, she was making eye-catching progress.
Approaching the final furlong Abel Tasman was in the centre of the track with only three horses in front of her and took the lead as the front runners weakened. Smith admitted that he might have hit the front too soon but, as she was going forwards, did not dare break her momentum by taking a pull. It was Daddys Lil Darling who had tracked her move under Julien Leparoux and looked the only threat as others emptied but Abel Tasman kept galloping to the wire.
Whilst the generous pace had obviously been a factor in Abel Tasman’s victory Baffert was asked how he had managed to get this filly back on track. Baffert described Santa Anita as a ‘test run’ that convinced him to equip this daughter of Quality Road with shallow-cup blinkers to help her focus. He had tried them on her at home with positive results and Smith agreed that they helped her to concentrate. They might have helped protect her from the flying mud too.
An Appreciated Win
Abel Tasman’s Kentucky Oaks victory was a much appreciated one for her jockey and trainer. At the end of March Smith thought he would be riding the Kentucky Oaks favorite in the shape of Unique Bella, the top three-year-old filly trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. She developed a shin issue which prevented her from lining up in her final prep run for the Oaks and has kept her off the track ever since.
Smith had also hoped to partner Mastery, Baffert’s Kentucky Derby hope and Triple Crown prospect. Mastery won his final prep race in style, the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, but pulled up lame and will be off the track for some time.
It was a great triumph for the China Horse Club in their fourth year of owning thoroughbreds. Their many investors across China and Asia have to stake $1 million to get involved and have enjoyed a profitable run so far. The club have shares in horses in nine other countries but this was their most significant win in the US to date.
The pragmatic Baffert commented that they had all ruined their shoes and coats in the appalling conditions but that it was worth it as they had “pulled off something really spectacular”.