China Horse Club and Clearsky Farm’s Abel Tasman on Friday unleashed an impressive last-to-first performance over a main Churchill Downs track that can be best described as a quagmire to win the $1 million Kentucky Oaks (GI). The daughter of Quality Road defeated a field of 13 of the best in her crop and won by 1 ¼ lengths on a surface that was officially listed as sloppy after a week’s worth of heavy rain.
The bay daughter of Quality Road gave her Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, his third winner in the Run for the Lillies and a second for her similarly enshrined jockey Mike Smith. At odds of more than 9-1, Abel Tasman was good for $20.40, $9.40 and $6.40. Daddy’s Lil Darling, who also closed strongly in the lane from way back early, crossed the wire in second and paid $11 and $6.60, capping off the $203 exacta. Near 37-1 chance Lockdown completed the $5,727 trifecta and was good for $18.40. The superfecta, which included 40-1 outsider Vexatious, paid $85,555.10.
As expected, Santa Anita Oaks (GI) heroine Paradise Woods sped right to the lead after the break and was joined to her outside by Gazelle Stakes (GI) winner Miss Sky Warrior and with a clear advantage over the field behind them, dueled through quick early splits of :22.79, :46.24 and 1:11.42. Abel Tasman, meanwhile, was content to sit at the back of the back — after briefly checking a furlong in — for her run around the clubhouse turn before slowly making her way toward the lead up the backstretch. Smith asked his winning mount for her best run as she made her way into the far bend and, while racing extremely wide, had passed the tiring frontrunners and reached contention as they straightened out for the drive.
Abel Tasman passed all of her rivals by the time she passed the eighth pole in 1:38.47 and continued onto the wire under a stiff left-handed whip to prevail, safely holding off the late chargers behind her and stopping the Teletimer in 1:51.62 for the nine-furlong distance.
“Immediately after her second-place finish in the Santa Anita Oaks, we realized she probably needed a slight blinker,” Smith. “She broke OK that day, but was not a 100 percent focused. She’d run for a sixteenth of a mile and then lose focus. The blinkers kept her from doing that today. I hit the front a little sooner than I wanted and I was afraid she’d pull herself up, but she stayed focused and galloped out even better.
“If you surround yourself with good people, good things happen. It’s just like your mom always told you. I surround myself with Bob Baffert and other great trainers and owners and this is the outcome.”
Kentucky-bred Abel Tasman was a $65,000 RNA as a Keeneland September yearling in 2015 and began her career for her breeders, Clearsky Farm, before the China Horse Club bought an interest in her shortly after she won last year’s Los Alamitos Starlet for trainer Simon Callaghan. She was transferred to Baffert shortly after a runner-up finish to then division leader Unique Bella in the March 4 Santa Ysabel Stakes (GII). The daughter of the Deputy Minister mare Vargas Girl earned her fourth career victory in her seventh start and with the $564,200 she earned for the Kentucky Oaks win her bankroll now stand at $912,060. She also finished second in last month’s Santa Anita Oaks.
The win marked an unusual weekend for Baffert as this year represents the trainer’s second without a Kentucky Derby starter for the past 11 years.
“It’s just exciting to win the Kentucky Oaks,” Baffert said. “We’d like to have a horse in the Derby, but I’m so happy for the China Horse Club. They trusted me with the filly. And ‘Big Money’ Mike [Smith] — what can you say? Incredible ride. We knew she was doing really well coming into this race. We got a nice, hot pace and it worked out.
“They were going pretty fast but I have a lot of respect for Paradise Woods and she was getting a lot of pressure. About the three-eighths pole, [Smith] started moving and I thought we might have a shot. She’s a beautiful filly to train. She shipped beautifully and we knew we had a chance.”
Oaks/Derby Double Will-Pays
- Lookin At Lee (20-1), $302.80
- Thunder Snow (20-1), $223.30
- Fast and Accurate (50-1), $1,195.00
- Untrapped (30-1), $799.10
- Always Dreaming (5-1), $73
- State of Honor (30-1), $714.90
- Girvin (15-1), $204.40
- Hence (15-1), $148.90
- Irap (20-1), $412.10
- Gunnevera (15-1), $76
- Battle of Midway (30-1), $387.20
- Sonneteer (50-1), $407.80
- J Boys Echo (20-1), $310.30
- Classic Empire (4-1), $73.40
- McCraken (5-1), $82
- Tapwrit (20-1), $235.90
- Irish War Cry (6-1), $69.90
- Gormley (15-1), $226.70
- Practical Joke (20-1), $191.90
- Patch (30-1), $668.70