04/06/2017 12:30PM

Star's absence improves balance in Santa Anita Oaks

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Barbara D. Livingston
Abel Tasman, making her first start for trainer Bob Baffert, has inherited the role of favorite for the Santa Anita Oaks.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Unique Bella was chasing everyone out of town until her shins flared up. Her defection from the Santa Anita Oaks changed the race from a virtual walkover to a refreshingly competitive Grade 1.

“I didn’t want to run against Unique Bella,” said Abel Tasman’s new trainer, Bob Baffert. “I was going to the Ashland,” he added, referring to Saturday’s stakes at Keeneland.

“We were going to the Ashland,” Princess Karen’s trainer, Jeff Bonde, said.

Paradise Woods was headed for a sprint stakes.

“I was going to be conservative,” trainer Richard Mandella said. That changed, he said, “after the news.”

A field of seven entered the Unique Bella void, and though bettors might be reluctant to single the first leg of the pick six – the Oaks is race 6 on an 11-race card Saturday – there is no mistaking the favorite.

Abel Tasman, a Grade 1 winner last year and the runner-up to Unique Bella last month, is favored in her first start since she was transferred to Baffert from trainer Simon Callaghan. She faces a good field, including Grade 3 winner It Tiz Well, the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee with big shoes to fill. After the Hollendorfer-trained Unique Bella was sidelined, It Tiz Well was promoted to first string.

Mopotism, Bernina Star, and Majestic Quality also entered the $400,000 Oaks, a historically predictable race won by the favorite in 14 of the last 21 years.

Abel Tasman was transferred to Baffert days after her promising runner-up comeback, and the trainer change came with a minor hiccup.

“When I got her, she had a little temp,” Baffert said. “We let her get over that. You have to get [new acquisitions] used to your feed, and it took her a few days. Then just train her and get her used to the way I train.”

So far, so good. Abel Tasman recovered from the temperature, resumed training, and posted three solid workouts for Baffert.

“Everything we’ve seen has been really positive,” Baffert said. “We’ll get a feel for her; Mike Smith is riding her for the first time. Obviously, we want to win, but you’ve got to find out what they want to do. We’re going to find out a lot about her in this race.”

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Abel Tasman compiled an impressive résumé for Callaghan, winning three of five starts, including the Grade 1 Starlet in December at Los Alamitos. She is a proven commodity around two turns, while others in the Oaks field will test their stamina while going long for the first time.

Although neither Princess Karen nor Paradise Woods has raced beyond a sprint, their trainers are confident that 1 1/16 miles is within range.

Princess Karen scored a sharp allowance-sprint victory last month, but will she run long?

“Everybody that’s been around her believes so,” Bonde said. “Mike Smith has ridden her a couple times, and Gary Stevens worked her the other day. They both think she’ll route.”

Stevens rides Princess Karen, who is likely to contest the pace with Paradise Woods, a lightly raced filly moving up from a maiden sprint to a Grade 1 route in the third start of her career.

“She looks like a mile-and-a-sixteenth filly; she doesn’t look like a sprinter,” Mandella said while watching Paradise Woods work an easy three furlongs this week. “You see the stride she’s got; I never thought [two turns] was a problem.”

Flavien Prat rides Paradise Woods.

It Tiz Well won the Grade 3 Honeybee at Oaklawn Park last out and might have returned for the Fantasy Stakes there had Unique Bella entered the Oaks. It Tiz Well has won three of five.

“She’s training here, we don’t have to ship, and we get an extra week [before the Kentucky Oaks],” assistant trainer Dan Ward said.