The China Horse Club and Clearsky Farm’s Abel Tasman gave fans an exciting rendition of the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks on Sunday, making a sweeping move to take the lead early in the backstretch and holding off the late charge of Elate to keep her head in front at the wire. Guided by veteran reinsman Mike Smith, the 3-year-old daughter of Quality Road earned her third consecutive G1 victory, completing nine furlongs over Saratoga’s fast main track in 1:51.74. Though both a stewards’ inquiry and a jockey’s objection were lodged against Abel Tasman, the favored Bob Baffert trainee was named the official winner and no change was made to the order of finish.
“It’s funny how things will turn around,” said Smith, referring to champion Arrogate’s shocking loss in Saturday’s G2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. “We went from yesterday being a total shock – we don’t know, we’re just going to draw a line through it – but to come back…that’s what is great about this sport. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. It felt like it was a 15-hour flight [to get from California to Saratoga] but man, it’s going to be sweet going home.”
Salty, breaking from the outermost post position in the seven-filly field, hopped badly at the start and spotted the field several lengths. Both Summer Luck and Elate, the latter at the rail, seemed intent on taking the lead headed toward the first turn, but jockey Jose Ortiz reined Elate back to second and Summer Luck took up a length’s advantage to mark the first quarter mile in 23.81 seconds. Abel Tasman, meanwhile, had broken with the field but settled second-from-last in the early going.
Smith must have felt Summer Luck slowing down the pace as the field entered the backstretch, because he sent Abel Tasman up the far outside to take the lead. Marking the half-mile in 48.83 seconds, a second quarter-mile split in a pedestrian 25.02 seconds, Abel Tasman sidled up alongside Summer Luck with a half-length lead. Elate, meanwhile, was trapped at the rail beside Berned.
“She scrambled early and got up,” said Smith. “There was no pace in the race. Everyone threw the anchor out and went to slow down. She got into such a pretty stride and felt so good, I didn’t want to get in the way of it. If I did, I felt like I’d hurt her more than help her. She’s capable of that, and once she gets in that big, beautiful stride, that’s where you want her. It was there. I took it. If I had got beat, it would have been horrible.”
Headed into the far turn, Abel Tasman maintained her pace to keep that half-length lead, but Salty and Joel Rosario were making a big move three-wide. Ortiz had Elate’s nose glued to the outside of Summer Luck’s flank, in third position overall, waiting for that filly to drop back out of the race. He waited nearly a full eighth of a mile, but Summer Luck did drop out of the picture just as Abel Tasman reached the head of the lane.
Gunning his filly through the suddenly wide-open hole, Ortiz had Elate within a half-length of Abel Tasman very quickly. Salty had looked threatening on the outside, but swung very wide on the far turn and lost significant ground and momentum.
Smith felt Elate’s presence at the rail, and gave Abel Tasman a couple of right-handed swats to move her toward her opponent, encouraging her fighting spirit to shine through. In an absolute clinic, Smith placed Abel Tasman directly alongside Elate, forcing the other filly to nearly rub up against the inside rail as he got into her space while never actually impeding her path. The mental intimidation, combined with Abel Tasman’s inarguable will to win, kept her and Smith in front by a head at the wire. Elate and Ortiz had to settle for second, with Salty wrapping up third.
“He [Mike Smith, aboard Abel Tasman, No. 2] brushed me, I think he made a little bit of contact,” said Ortiz. “It looked really close; I think I would have won the race.”
Though Oritz filed an objection and the stewards also conducted an inquiry into the stretch run, the eventual ruling was that the order of finish was to remain unchanged.
“It was a tough call, a tough decision to make,” said Bill Mott, trainer of runner-up Elate. “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad call, they did the right thing with the stewards’ inquiry and I think he [Jose Ortiz] did the right thing by claiming foul. I think they needed to look at it. He said there was just enough contact maybe to get us beat. You get beat by that much and he [Mike Smith] comes from the four-path on top of us and it was tight. He was race riding and they let it stand. If they would have let it gone the other way I could understand it.”
“It’s just good, old fashioned race riding,” Smith agreed. “By no means did I put her [Elate, No. 1] in any harm. My filly really waits. Once she was in there, she was engaged. I made sure that I didn’t touch him [jockey Jose Ortiz]. I made it tight, but there’s no rules that say you can’t make it tight. They make it tight on me all the time and I’m too old for that.”
Bred in Kentucky by Clearsky Farms (also the breeder of champion Arrogate), Abel Tasman is out of the unplaced Deputy Minister mare Vargas Girl, and is a half-sister to Grade 3 winner Sky Girl. She did not meet her reserve when bidding stopped at $ 65,000 in the Keeneland September Sale, but won her second lifetime start to kick off a three-race win streak culminating in a Grade 1 Starlet Stakes victory. Abel Tasman was second twice to kick off her 2017 season, but has now won the Kentucky Oaks, Acorn, and CCA Oaks in her last three starts. Overall, she boasts a record of six wins, two seconds from nine starts with earnings of over $ 1.4 million.
“Wow, what a race,” said Baffert’s assitant Jimmy Barnes. “What a strangely run race, really. There was so much happening; it had its highs and lows, it was dramatic.
“Mike [Smith] had to make the move he thought was the right move. They were walking [up front] and he knew how the track was playing. They’re not really coming from off the pace and they were crawling. So, he went ahead and let her run. Then down the stretch, maybe she needed to get into a fight again, so he just let her come on over to him [Jose Ortiz, aboard Elate, No. 1], but he never really hit her or bump her at all. Just race riding, that’s what it looked like to me.”
It is possible that Abel Tasman and Elate might meet again in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 19. Mott indicated that Elate, if she comes out of the race well, will definitely be pointed at the Alabama.
“I think she ran a super race,” Mott summarized. “That’s the filly I thought we had when we started out and it’s just taken her a while to progress. I thought when we started up the spring she was more of an Alabama-type filly than a Kentucky Oaks filly and I said that in January and February. It looks like she’s coming around at the right time. After this performance we certainly wouldn’t be afraid of taking her on again at a mile and a quarter [in the Alabama]. If our filly’s good we’ll be raring to go.”
Baffert, reached by phone after the race, was orginially hesitant about sending his filly to Saratoga.
“Well, I sort of called an audible, Baffert said. “I wasn’t going to go up there. But she worked so well that I did. Mike Smith gave her a wonderful ride. What she has accomplished…I flew her to Kentucky, and I flew her back, flew her to New York [for the (Acorn] and flew her back… she does that and it takes an exceptional filly to do that… I don’t know if people realize what she has done…she is really outstanding.
“You know, I have seen him do that before when they are walking up front,” he said of Smith’s move. “He knew he was on the best horse. That is why he did that. It was a brilliant move, it takes years of experience and he has the accomplishments and he knew he was on a good filly, you can’t do that with any horse.
“We put blinkers on her [and] when he made the lead, he wanted to make sure she saw another horse. It makes them run. Not to intimidate the other horse, but it makes them keep digging in… don’t want them to lose momentum, he made it tight, but I was never worried about being disqualified because the other kid was still riding.”
Watch the race replay here:
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