SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – There is a reason why jockey Mike Smith is a Hall of Fame rider, and he proved it again on Sunday when guiding Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman to her third straight victory in the Grade 1, $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga Race Course.
In the end, it was Abel Tasman narrowly holding off a game Elate, but so much more happened during the race.
At the start, the favored Abel Tasman made her usual move of sitting well off the pace, but then Smith sent her up among the front-runners down the backside after Summer Luck set reasonable fractions on the front end. The move was a bold one and paid off for Smith; if it hadn’t, he would have been heavily criticized for it.
“She scrambled early and got up; there was no pace in the race,” Smith said. “Everyone threw the anchor out and went to slow down. 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. She’s capable of that, and once she gets in that big, beautiful stride, that’s where you want her. It was there, I took it. If I had got beat, it would have been horrible.”
However, the move up the backside wasn’t Smith’s only winning tactic on Sunday. In deep stretch, the Bill Mott-trained Elate was charging hard up the rail, but Smith squeezed her ever so slightly, which discouraged her from going forward. There was in inquiry into the stretch run, but no change was made, and the order of finish become official.
“It’s just good, old fashioned race-riding,” Smith said. “By no means did I put her (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 (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.
“It’s funny how things will turn around. 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, but man, it’s going to be sweet going home.”
Assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes watched intently throughout the race and inquiry. Viewers could visibly see the sense of relief on his face once Abel Tasman was finally in the winner’s circle and having her picture taken.
“Wow, what a race, what a strangely run race, really,” Barnes said. “There was so much happening; it had its highs and lows, it was dramatic. Mike had to make the move he thought was the right move. They were walking (up front) and he knew how the track was playing. They’re not really coming from off the pace, and they were crawling, so he went ahead and let her run. Then, down the stretch, maybe she needed to get into a fight again, so he just let her come on over to him, but he never really hit her or bumped her at all. Just race riding, that’s what it looked like to me.”
“Abel is a phenomenal filly – it’s her third Grade 1 in a row,” Barnes said. “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.”
Trainer Bob Baffert watched the action from his home base at Del Mar. He offered his thoughts after the race:
“Well, I sort of called an audible, Baffert said. “I wasn’t going to go up there, but she worked so well that I did. Mike Smith gave her a wonderful ride. What she has accomplished… I flew her to Kentucky and I flew her back; flew her to New York (for the Acorn) and flew her back. She does that, and it takes an exceptional filly to do that. I don’t know if people realize what she has done. She is really outstanding.
“You know, I have seen him do that before when they are walking up front,” he said of Smith’s move. “He knew he was on the best horse. That is why he did that. It was a brilliant move, it takes years of experience, and he has the accomplishments and knew he was on a good filly. You can’t do that with any horse.
“We put blinkers on her. When he made the lead, he wanted to make sure she saw another horse. It makes them run. Not to intimidate the other horse, but it makes them keep digging in; don’t want them to lose momentum. He made it tight, but I was never worried about being disqualified because the other kid was still riding.”
Abel Tasman’s win entrenched her as the number-one 3-year-old filly in the country and increased her career earnings to $1,467,060.
Salty once again had a troubled trip but managed to get third, 3 1/4 lengths behind Elate, with another 7 lengths separating her from Berned. Daddys Lil Darling, Summer Luck, and Corporate Queen completed the order of finish.
Abel Tasman returned $3.60, $2.5o, and $2.10. Elate brought back $4.80 and $3.20, while Salty paid $2.50 to show.