05/05/2017 7:55PM

Abel Tasman more than able in Kentucky Oaks victory

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Barbara D. Livingston
Abel Tasman and jockey Mike Smith rally to win the Kentucky Oaks by 1 1/4 lengths on Friday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Bob Baffert felt a little disappointed coming to town this week without a Kentucky Derby starter. But that empty feeling suddenly vanished Friday when Abel Tasman rallied from far off a ruinous pace in posting a 9-1 upset in the 143rd running of the Grade 1, $1 million Kentucky Oaks at soggy Churchill Downs.

“I would’ve liked to have a horse in the Derby,” said Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer with four Derby victories from 27 starters in the last 20 years. “But this was really exciting. We came here under the radar without any pressure. Winning these big races never gets old.”

Abel Tasman returned $20.40 after finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.62 over sloppy going.

As the field of 14 3-year-old fillies turned down the backstretch, Abel Tasman, ridden by Mike Smith, was last, having left post 13 in no hurry. Up front, Paradise Woods, the 6-5 favorite, and Miss Sky Warrior, the 6-1 third choice, were dueling in splits of 22.79 seconds, 46.24, and 1:11.42 over the sloppy surface. As they began to tire, well, here came the world.

Daddys Lil Darling, like the other top finishers, also closed from well back as a 12-1 chance, finishing 1 1/4 lengths behind Abel Tasman and a length before Lockdown. Vexatious was fourth by another half-length.

Daddys Lil Darling, ridden by Julien Leparoux, was passed by Abel Tasman leaving the half-mile pole, then immediately began to tail Abel Tasman as the inside runners were spinning their wheels. Daddys Lil Darling is trained by Ken McPeek, the longtime Kentucky-based conditioner still seeking his first classic win at Churchill. Baffert, based in Southern California, now has won three runnings of the Oaks (Silverbulletday, 1999; and Plum Pretty, 2011) to go with his four Derby wins.

“Baffert didn’t need another one,” McPeek said half-joking in the immediate race aftermath. “I like winning races, but she ran fantastic.”

Abel Tasman, owned by the China Horse Club and Clearsky Farms, was making just her second start for Baffert. Her former trainer, Simon Callaghan, was deemed the culprit – fairly or not – in a jockey’s silks mix-up prior to the filly’s second-place finish in the March 4 Santa Ysabel that led to her being turned over to Baffert.

A bay Quality Road filly bred in Kentucky by Clearsky, Abel Tasman now has four wins and two seconds from seven career starts. Her lone prior stakes win came in the Grade 1 Starlet last December at Los Alamitos when still trained by Callaghan. She was a distant second to Paradise Woods in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks on April 8 in her first start for Baffert.

“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my team, Jimmy and Dana Barnes and everybody else, for getting her ready for this,” said Baffert.

Before a crowd of 105,100 that either dodged or endured raindrops for much of the 13-race card, Paradise Woods sped to the lead under Flavien Prat, with Miss Sky Warrior also being sent from post 10 by Paco Lopez. Farrell, the 9-2 second choice, assumed an ideal stalking position from a few lengths behind the top pair, with a sizable gap back to the rest as the field made its way down the backstretch.

Nearing the stretch, as Farrell surrendered first and the two leaders soon began to wilt, Abel Tasman had a full head of steam while picking off rivals one by one when kept widest of all. By the eighth pole, she had passed all 13 of her opponents and was gliding clear.

“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,” said Smith.

Lockdown, a 36-1 shot, was splitting horses with an inside run approaching the furlong pole when jockey Jose Ortiz lost his whip, although it’s arguable whether that mattered in regard to his mount outfinishing the top pair.

“I’m really pleased,” said trainer Bill Mott. “We came in a bit of an underdog, and she really ran well.”

After the top four, the order was Salty, Sailor’s Valentine, Tequilita, Miss Sky Warrior, Ever So Clever, Mopotism, Paradise Woods, Jordan’s Henry, Wicked Lick, and Farrell. Summer Luck, the lone also-eligible, was an early scratch.

Wayne Catalano, the trainer of Farrell, said jockey Channing Hill told him “she couldn’t handle the track at all,” adding that the filly would be closely inspected for possible illness or injury.

Smith now has won the Oaks twice, with his prior score coming in 2013 on 38-1 shot Princess of Sylmar. The 51-year-old Hall of Famer would have had the solid favorite for this renewal in Unique Bella, the 11-10 favorite in the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager pool offered by Churchill in late February, but she was declared from consideration in late March with a shin injury.

Similarly, both Smith and Baffert might well have had one of the favorites for the 143rd Derby on Saturday with Mastery, but the colt was injured in his dominant victory in the March 11 San Felipe.

“It shows you how brutal this business can be,” said Baffert. “You can’t take anything for granted. He was a special horse.”

The $2 exacta (13-12) paid $203, the $1 trifecta (13-12-2) returned $2,863.80, and the $1 superfecta (13-12-2-6) was worth a whopping $85.555.10.

– additional reporting by Jay Privman