Abel Tasman wins by head to capture G1 Coaching Club American Oaks
by Anthony Affrunti
A brave, early outside move by Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith may have proven the key to China Horse Club and Clearsky Farm's Abel Tasman getting the jump to win the Grade 1, $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on Sunday at Saratoga Race Course.
Abel Tasman outlasted Elate by a head, completing 1 1/8 miles on the main track in 1:51.74 that stood after a stewards' inquiry and a claim of foul by runner-up Elate's rider Jose Ortiz.
At the start, Salty lept at the break, spotting the field multiple lengths while Abel Tasman, sent off as the 4-5 betting favorite, sat off the pace. Smith sent Abel Tasman up among the front-runners down the backside after Summer Luck set the opening quarter run in 23.81 seconds and the half in 48.83.
Abel Tasman then found herself on the lead for the first time in her career. The daughter by Quality Road led the field of six others into the stretch while Salty, forced to take a wide trip into the stretch tried to rally outside.
Elate, possibly the most physically dominant looking in the paddock before the race, was taken for an inside rail skimming trip in the stretch where a strong display of race-riding by the veteran Smith prolonged what may have been a victory by Elate and jockey Jose Ortiz.
The cloudy pre-race pace scenario offered many different guesses as to how and who would sit among the leaders in the early stages. The track favored speed early, but then better suited closers late on the program. Jimmy Barnes, assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, handled the saddling duties for Baffert, who remained in California.
"Wow, what a race. What a strangely run race, really," Barnes said. "There was so much happening; it had its highs and lows, it was dramatic. Mike 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, but he never really hit her or bump her at all. Just race riding, that's what it looked like to me."
Abel Tasman's victory was her sixth from eight starts and third in a row since she closed to best 13 in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, then six others including Salty in the Acorn at Belmont Park.
"Abel is a phenomenal filly. It's her third Grade 1 in a row," Barnes said. "We're blessed to have her. She's come through each and every time. She's had to travel three times now and that says a lot for her. To pick up from your home track, go to Churchill, go to Belmont with the big sandy track and then come here on opening weekend, it's very exciting for us."
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."
Smith, fresh off a redeye flight from California after riding last year's Travers winner Arrogate to a disappointing fourth-place finish in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar yesterday.
"It's just good, old fashioned race-riding, Smith said. "By no means did I put her [Elate] 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. It's a questionable move that I would have questioned myself if I got beat. But I didn't, so I liked it.
"She scrambled early and got up. There was no pace in the race," he said. "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.
The victory proved how racing can differ from day to day, and coast to coast even for a rider who has done it all.
"It's funny how things will turn around. 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 but man, it's going to be sweet going home."
Abel Tasman's win was Smith's sixth CCA Oaks win, beating Johnny Velazquez's record of five.
Abel Tasman could be the first filly to sweep the Triple Tiara with victories in the Acorn, Coaching Club American Oaks, and the upcoming Alabama Stakes on August 19. Baffert will opt to return Abel Tasman to California before making any further decision as to whether the Alabama will be her next start.
"It could be, Baffert said. "I am going to bring her home... we will play it by ear... we see how she trains."
Elate, so close, and still in search of her first graded stakes victory is on the improve according to her Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. The Steward's decision to let the result stand was understood by Mott.
"It was a tough call. A tough decision to make," said Mott. "I wouldn't say it's a bad call, they did the right thing by Steward's inquiry and I think he 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 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.
"I think she ran a super race. 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 then 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 [Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama Saturday, August 19]. If our filly's good we'll be rearing to go."
Salty, in search of revenge after finishing second and fifth in the Acorn and Kentucky Oaks respectively had to settle for a third place finish.
Abel Tasman, winner of three straight Grade 1 races paid $3.60 to win.