Six graded stakes winners vie for supremacy in Saturday's G1 Acorn
by Brian Bohl
China Horse Club and Clearsky Farms' Abel Tasman will look to win her second Grade 1 race in as many months, headlining an accomplished field of eight 3-year-old fillies in the Grade 1, $700,000 Acorn at one mile on the Belmont Park main track on Saturday, Belmont Stakes Day.
One of six graded stakes winners in the field, Abel Tasman posted a 92 Beyer Speed Figure for her victory in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks on May 5. In her first start since Hall of Famer Bob Baffert took over as trainer, the Quality Road bay filly rallied from 14th to win by 1 1/4 lengths after Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith moved her six-wide and gained the advantage near the eighth pole.
"We knew she should run well but the way the track was playing that day we were up against it," said Baffert, who won the Acorn with Midnight Lucky (2013), Contested (2012) and Gabby's Golden Gal (2009). "We were outside and checked into the first turn and then she was last, so I thought we completely had no chance at all, then she came around and won. The fast pace was in our favor. Our post and the way she went into the first turn wasn't in our favor. She's such a quality filly. I think she's improving; she's better now than she was then. She'll have to show a little bit more speed. I don't know how she's going to do going the one-turn mile but sometimes a good horse can overcome it."
Abel Tasman won the Grade 1 Starlet and was the runner-up in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks before Baffert was named trainer.
"I'm always the target everywhere I go. We're used to being the target," Baffert said. "We're backing her up a little bit but she's been training really well. I haven't seen anything in her training that would make me think differently so I think she'd be very competitive. I think post position will be important for her, too."
Smith, who won four Acorns in the 1990s with the latest coming aboard Jersey Girl in 1998, will be the irons from post 3.
Shortleaf Stable's Benner Island also put in an impressive performance May 5 at Churchill, notching her first graded stakes win by holding off Union Strike by a head in the Grade 2 Eight Belles. She earned a personal-best 89 Speed Figure after outlasting the 14-horse field under jockey Javier Castellano, which was the first win in her 3-year-old campaign.
"It's a good race and it's the next step up," trainer Brad Cox said. "We think she can go a one-turn mile, that shouldn't be an issue. Hopefully with a good trip, she'll be very competitive. I'd prefer a good track and it looks like we're getting good weather, but it looks like a beautiful weekend. She'll run on whatever. So far in her career, she's always shown up and given what she's got."
With Castellano riding Sweet Loretta, Jose Ortiz will have the mount on Benner Island from post 5.
Castellano will ride one of three Grade 1 winners in the field, as Sweet Loretta was victorious in the Grade 1 Spinaway on September 3 at Saratoga Race Course, helping her secure a spot in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, where she stumbled at the start and finished 11th. The daughter of Tapit, owned by St. Elias Stable, rebounded with a win in the Grade 3 Beaumont on April 9 at Keeneland in her 3-year-old debut.
With four wins in five starts, trainer Todd Pletcher said Sweet Loretta, owned by St. Elias Stable, has been training well at Belmont, including a four-furlong breeze in 49.49 seconds on the training track Friday.
"I think the one-turn mile will be a good fit for her," Pletcher said. "The Breeders' Cup was not a true indication of her ability. She was impeded on the first turn and came out of it with a large laceration on her pastern I was pleased with her [victory in] the Beaumont. It showed she had progressed from two to three."
Sweet Loretta will exit post 7 in her first start on Big Sandy.
Salty arrived at Belmont on Tuesday, shipping in with three other Mark Casse contenders from Kentucky, including expected Belmont Stakes favorite Classic Empire. Salty, who was bumped twice in the Kentucky Oaks, recovered to finish fifth.
In her first start around two turns, Salty, a daughter of Quality Road, went four-wide around the far turn for a 4 ¼-length score in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks at 1 1/16-miles on April 1. Salty will now turn back in distance with Joel Rosario out of the outside post.
"We had a rough trip in the Oaks so I think we're going to be tough, she's training well," Casse said.
Union Strike is the third Grade 1 winner, having won the Del Mar Debutante in her 2-year-old campaign. Trained by Mick Ruis, the Union Rags filly is coming off the two best Speed Figures of her career, including a 90 for her win in the Santa Paula on April 9 at Santa Anita. Jockey Brice Blanc drew the assignment from the rail.
Rounding out the field is Tequilita, winner of the Grade 2 Forward Gal, for trainer Michael Matz from post 6; Nikki My Darling, a Dominic Giglio-trainee who will leave from post 4; and Florida Fabulous, seeking her first stakes win for trainer David Fawkes, breaking from post 2.