Trainer Bob Baffert was absolutely devastated when Kentucky Derby hopeful Mastery suffered a serious injury after a big win in the G2 San Felipe. For the first time in a number of years the Hall of Fame trainer was left without a contender for the first Saturday in May.
China Horse Club and WinStar Farm’s Abel Tasman did her best to make up for that gap in the trainer’s barn, closing from last over the sloppy Churchill Downs surface to win Friday’s Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks. A sophomore daughter of Quality Road, the filly and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith were soaked in mud after a poor start, but found their stride mid-way through the nine-furlong contest to come with a strong closing rush down the lane. The crowd of 105,100 rain-soaked fans cheered Abel Tasman down the lane as she held off the last-minute run of Daddys Lil Darling by 1 1/4 lengths on the wire, stopping the clock in 1:51.62.
“We knew she was doing well coming into this race,” Baffert added. “The way the track was today, horses from off the pace weren’t doing so well, so we really felt like we were up against it… but she’s a great filly. She’s got a lot of talent, and she’s getting better.”
Abel Tasman was transferred to Baffert’s barn just two months ago, having first been trained by Simon Callaghan to a Grade 1 win in December’s Starlet at Los Alamitos. At that time she was owned by her breeder, Clearsky Farms (also the breeder of the world’s best racehorse, Arrogate), but WinStar and the China Horse Club purchased Abel Tasman early in 2017. In March, she could only manage second to Unique Bella in the G2 Santa Ysabel, but a mix-up in the silks room led the connections to move the filly over to Baffert’s barn. In April, Abel Tasman was again second in the G1 Santa Anita Oaks behind the 11 3/4-length winner, Paradise Woods.
The Kentucky Oaks contest would prove a different story, as a dramatic speed duel between prep race winners, each by double-digit margins, developed on the front end. Frantic early fractions led to a complete pace meltdown, setting up the race for the late closers like Abel Tasman.
Actually, Abel Tasman had broken from the gate extremely poorly, and found herself at the very back of the field heading into the first turn.
“She just kind of left there spinning her wheels in the mud,” said Smith. “About half way down the backstretch, she just kind of put it all together.”
Meanwhile, as expected, the race favorite Paradise Woods had left the gates on top to take the lead under the wire for the first time. She was quickly joined by Miss Sky Warrior on her outside, keeping up the pressure about a half-length off Paradise Woods’ hip through a first quarter in 22.79 seconds. Another well-regarded filly, Farrell, took up a solid stalking position in third, but appeared to be having trouble with the surface and was moving awkwardly into the first turn.
Rounding into the backstretch, Paradise Woods was able to move to a three-quarter length lead over Miss Sky Warrior, though they kept the pace hot with a half-mile in 46.24 seconds. The leading pair had drawn away from Farrell by about two lengths, and behind her is was another four lengths back to Jordan’s Henny, Lockdown and the rest of the field. Abel Tasman didn’t find her footing until there were just five furlongs left to run, but she quickly began to make up ground moving around the outside of the compact back half of the field.
In the far turn, Miss Sky Warrior drew even with Paradise Woods, clocking six furlongs in 1:11.42. The gap between that pair and the rest of the field was quickly disappearing, but neither filly gave an inch as they continued to duel approaching the head of the lane. Vexatious was moving fluidly through the slop, and threatening the leaders, as was Lockdown, between horses. Meanwhile, Smith had guided Abel Tasman to the outside, ended up nearly seven paths off the rail, and was making up ground quickly. With a slightly better early position, though behind the eventual winner at this point, Daddys Lil Darling was also moving well nearing the stretch run.
Miss Sky Warrior put away Paradise Woods at the top of the stretch, but appeared to be staggering with the effort to maintain her lead. Abel Tasman and Smith hit top gear while the filly was still on her left lead, then burst away from the pack once she switched to her right lead. Daddys Lil Darling kept charging down the outside but was too late to catch the winner, and ended up second-best.
Crossing under the wire, Abel Tasman finished 1 1/4 lengths in front of Daddys Lil Darling. Lockdown just got past Vexatious for third. Meanwhile, the frontrunners both finished well back of the field: Miss Sky Warrior was eighth, and Paradise Woods finished eleventh.
Bred by Clearsky in Kentucky, Abel Tasman is a daughter of the unplaced Deputy Minister mare, Vargas Girl, half-sister to Grade 1 winner Bevo, daughters of stakes winner Wheatley Way. Entered in the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Abel Tasman did not meet her reserve when bidding stopped at $ 65,000, so Clearsky kept her and raced her to that G1 Starlet win in December. The sale to China Horse Club and WinStar Farm, and subsequent transfer to Baffert’s barn, have not slowed down the filly’s momentum; overall, Abel Tasman boasts a record of four wins from seven starts, two of those in Grade 1 company, with two seconds. She has now earned over $ 940,000.
Watch the race replay here:
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