07/23/2017 7:02PM

Abel Tasman survives inquiry in Coaching Club American Oaks

Barbara D. Livingston
Abel Tasman gamely held off Elate to win the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 23, 2017 at Saratoga.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – After a quarter of a mile in Sunday’s Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga, Mike Smith, the rider of 4-5 favorite Abel Tasman, sensed the pace was slowing down and he wasn’t going to have his filly get stuck behind it.

So, turning down the backside, Smith put Abel Tasman in the clear and she advanced quickly from sixth to first. After turning aside the pace challenge of Summer Luck by the quarter pole, Abel Tasman then had to fend off an inside rally from Elate. Benefiting from some classic race-riding by the Hall of Famer Smith, Abel Tasman held off Elate for a head victory in the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks.

Jose Ortiz, the jockey of Elate, lodged an objection for what he felt was contact in the stretch, and the steward’s lit the inquiry sign. But after several looks at the replay, the stewards let the result stand.

“I made it tight but I didn’t touch him and there’s no rules saying you can’t make it tight,” Smith said. “They make it tight on me every day. I’m too old for it.”

Smith breathed a sigh of relief after the steward’s decision. Not only did it mean he won Sunday’s race by making an early move that even Smith called “questionable,” but it helped ease the pain of Saturday’s San Diego Handicap at Del Mar when his heavily favored mount, Arrogate, finished a well-beaten fourth.

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“It’s funny how things turn around, we went from yesterday still total shock on what happened – we don’t know, just going to draw a line thru it,” Smith said. “This is what’s great about this sport. The highs and lows, it’s an emotional rollercoaster.”

This rollercoaster went from here to Southern California where Bob Baffert, the trainer of Abel Tasman and Arrogate, watched the race on television.

“We needed a lift after yesterday,” Baffert said. “That was good.”

The start of the Coaching Club was a bit of a mess. Two jumps into the race, Elate bobbled. Salty, the 5-2 second choice, had her head up when the doors opened and leapt in the air. Abel Tasman, Smith said, “was scrambling.”

Summer Luck, one of three horses trained by Mark Casse and owned in part by Gary Barber, went to the lead through an opening quarter in 23.81 seconds. By the time they ran the second quarter in 25.02 seconds, Abel Tasman was in front by a length over Summer Luck.

“There’s no pace in the race, everyone threw the anchor out and went to slow it down and she got into such a pretty stride that felt so good I couldn’t get in the way of it,” Smith said. “If I did, I felt like I was going to hurt her more than help her.”

Abel Tasman sparred with Summer Luck to the top of the stretch when Summer Luck faded. But along the inside came Elate, who was gaining ground on Abel Tasman. Inside the eighth pole, Smith brought Abel Tasman right alongside Elate and the two were shoulder to shoulder to the wire with Abel Tasman barely holding on.

“Good-old fashioned race riding,” Smith said. “By no means did I put him in any harm. I didn’t bump him. My filly really waits the last part of the race, she’ll get to waiting and she felt [Elate] there. She engaged, she was fine, I was fine and I made sure that I didn’t touch him.”

Said Baffert: “That’s where Mike comes in. I saw him do that on Zenyatta one time. They were walking and he took over. When you’re riding the best horse, that’s where you’re supposed to be.”

Abel Tasman, a daughter of Quality Road owned by China Horse Club and Clearsky Farms, added the Coaching Club American Oaks to earlier Grade 1 victories in the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn. She ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.74 and returned $3.60 to win.

Elate finished second, 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Salty. Berned, Daddys Lil Darling, Summer Luck and Corporate Queen completed the order of finish.

Bill Mott, the trainer of Elate, said the stewards’ call could have gone either way.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a bad call,” Mott said. “He was race-riding and they let it stand. If it would have gone the other way I would have understood it.”

Mott said he would definitely run Elate back in the Grade 1 Alabama on Aug. 19.

Abel Tasman was due to fly back to California on Monday. Baffert said if Abel Tasman is doing well in a month’s time, he would consider shipping her back for the Alabama. But he noted that Abel Tasman has already shipped three times this year from her California base.

 “If she’s doing really well, I’ll do it,” Baffert said.