Left without a horse in the Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert sought to make the most of his lone entry in the Kentucky Oaks.
Abel Tasman rewarded the Hall of Fame trainer with a surprising victory that made Baffert and son Bode strike a pose in celebration.
Abel Tasman rallied from last and charged late to win the Oaks by 1 1/4 lengths Friday and give Baffert the victory with his lone entrant in the weekend marquee races at Churchill Downs.
As Miss Sky Warrior charged past favorite Paradise Woods through the far turn, Abel Tasman and Daddys Lil Darling also began making their moves on the sloppy track. Abel Tasman got clear in the stretch to win the $1 million race for 3-year-old fillies and make up for her distant second to Paradise Woods in the Santa Anita Oaks.
“About halfway down the backside, man, she got it all together and she made it up quick,” jockey Mike Smith said as the filly was draped in a garland of pink lilies. “I knew we were alive then, and once we straightened up it was a matter of keeping her held together, staying busy and she did it all.”
Celebratory dabs from the Bafferts soon followed.
“That was just a release,” the trainer joked. “We don’t dab for every stakes race.”
The Bafferts’ impromptu gesture was fitting, considering Abel Tasman was far back at one point before regrouping to reshuffle the running order in the 14-horse field entering the stretch.
The Kentucky-bred bay filly also had to atone for losing by 11 lengths to Paradise Woods at Santa Anita last month. That filly’s dominating performance offset a relatively short resume compared to several of her challengers and made her the even-money choice.
Baffert himself praised Paradise Woods earlier this week and agreed that she was the filly to beat, though also he liked his horse’s chances as well with Smith aboard. Abel Tasman and Farrell were the co-third choices at 5-1.
Smith credited blinkers with improving Abel Tasman’s focus, which showed as she overcome the slow start, rain and mud flying in her face. Once she got clear in the middle by the eighth pole, her second Grade 1 win and fourth career victory in seven starts was assured.
“That stretch was so long here and I thought it was going to be forever to get the finish line,” said Baffert, who also credited Smith’s handling. “It (winning) never gets old. It’s exciting, especially when you’re not the heavy favorite to sneak in there and win one like that.”
Abel Tasman ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.62 and paid $20.40, $9.20 and $6.40.
Daddys Lil Darling returned $11 and $6.60, and Lockdown paid $18.40.
Paradise Woods and Miss Sky Warrior, the 9-2 second choice, finished 11th and eighth, respectively.
“She just wasn’t herself today,” said Paradise Woods’ jockey, Flavien Prat. “She never ran on a sloppy track before and she didn’t run good today, so maybe that had something to do with it.”