After making a gusty move to the front of the six-horse field in the backstretch, Abel Tasman won her third consecutive Grade 1 victory in the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga Race Course July 23.
"There was no pace in the race. Everyone threw the anchor out and went to slow down," jockey Mike Smith said. "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. Once she gets in that big, beautiful stride, that's where you want her. It was there. I took it."
In the 1 1/8-mile test, 4-5 favorite Abel Tasman and 5-2 second choice Salty broke slow, as Summer Luck assumed the lead and took the field through the first turn. Not up for waiting behind an even pace, Smith asked Abel Tasman to move up, and she took over before heading into the second turn. Salty briefly made a bid exiting the turn, but a bigger challenge came in midstretch, when 5-1 third choice Elate charged down the rail. Both fillies battled heartily through the final sixteenth, making contact, but Abel Tasman was resolute in holding off Elate by a head to cross the wire first.
China Horse Club International and Clearsky Farms' runner survived an inquiry and picked up her fourth Grade 1 win overall. Elate settled for second and Salty finished third. The final time was 1:51.74 over a track rated fast.
"It's just good, old fashioned race riding," Smith said about the stretch battle. "By no means did I put (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 (Elate’s 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."
Berned, Daddys Lil Darling, Summer Luck, and Corporate Queen completed the order of finish. The victory was a high point in what has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs for Smith and trainer Bob Baffert over the last 24 hours.
"It's funny how things will turn around," Smith said, referencing his puzzling fourth-place finish aboard Arrogate in the TVG San Diego Handicap on Saturday.
"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 (to get from California to New York) but man, it's going to be sweet going home."
But for now, the team is riding high on the achievements of their top-class filly, whose prior two Grade 1 wins this year came in the June 10 Acorn Stakes and the May 5 Longines Kentucky Oaks. The daughter of Quality Road now boasts a 6-2-0 record from nine starts with earnings of $1,467,060.
"Abel is a phenomenal filly," said long-time Baffert assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes. "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."