When the year began, ole’ way back sometime when the wind was cold and the month was January, there was a filly on the West Coast that everyone raved about.  She should run against the colts, many argued. She could win the Kentucky Derby, others contended. She was the best 3-year-old in the country — bar none, colts included.

The next coming of Songbird, actually came from a stall just a few down from that glorious and gutty runner.  In the same barn of trainer Jerry Hollendforfer.  It was Unique Bella. She was already acclaimed and already crowned.

Well, there is a funny thing about horse racing.  Sometimes, along the way and around those simple left hand turns, life happens.  And, so it did to Unique Bella. Just when it seemed that nothing in the world could sidetrack this filly from fame and fortune, something did. Although we don’t really know for sure, some have claimed the malady to be a serious case of sore shins.

Whatever the reason, without Unique Bella — who is just now trying to make her way back to the races and appears to be her old self by way of her morning works — the world of Thoroughbred racing went hunting for its next superstar.

Little did they know, it was right there under their nose strip, tongue tie and a beautiful set of Bob Baffert blinkers.  She was right there, all along.  Yep, there is a filly on the West Coast that just may be able to beat any and all of this year’s top 3-year-old colts. And, if she wins the Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racetrack today, and finishes the year with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff — which will be no easy feet or feat — then she should be crowned as the best 3-year-old in the land.  Not, just the best 3-year-old filly, mind you.  The best 3-year-old period.

In fact, if she can get her run out and sweep the last two jewels in this year’s tiara, then I would argue that Abel Tasman should win, at the very least, two Eclipse Awards when the dust is settled and those beautiful trophies of fame are giving out.  I think she should win the championship ring for the best 3YO filly; and one for the best 3YO period. It may be a stretch as long as the stretch itself, but if both Arrogate and Gun Runner falter in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (which I truly don’t think will happen; and I surely don’t want to happen), and Abel Tasman can win out, I think a case can be made for her as the “Horse of the Year.” A case, mind you.

Those are some lofty goals, for sure.  But, then again, this year has already seen some major accomplishments for Abel Tasman, a beautifully-bred daughter of Quality Road and out of the Deputy Minister mare Vargas Girl. Yet, it has not always been an easy journey, either.

Earlier this year, on March 4 and in her first race of 2017, Abel Tasman — who is owned by the China Horse Club International Ltd. and her breeder Clearsky Farms — was entered to run in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita.  Against, you know who? Unique Bella.

With jockey Mike Smith aboard, Unique Bella set sail from the get-go and Abel Tasman settled well off the pace and near the back of the pack in a six-horse field. When the 1-mile race was over, Unique Bella had stamped herself “for real” with a 21/4-length victory.  Abel Tasman, try as she might, could only get up for second (although she was 8 lengths in front of her next opponent).

But that wasn’t the news that made the headlines. Most of the focus and the storylines about Abel Tasman were centered on the fact that she was being moved from the barn of Simon Callaghan over to the sweet digs of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. It seems that the move was precipitated by the fact that her rider in the Santa Ysabel, Joe Talamo, was supposed to be wearing the silks of the China Horse Club, and, instead, she had on the colors of Clearsky Farms.

Baffert Santa Anita

Bob Baffert with his son, Bode. Photo credit: Santa Anita

The media that covers horse racing — which has dwindled down to a few and mighty lot, these days — took exception. But Baffert, still, took possession. And, it may — nobody will truly know — be the best thing that ever happened to the filly.

It wasn’t immediate success, mind you.  In her first race being saddled by Baffert, she did have the right set of silks, and she had a new rider to wear them.  Unique Bella had gone to the sidelines, and Smith had gone to ride for Baffert. But the best they could do in the G1 Santa Anita Oaks was a distant second, beaten nearly 12 lengths, by the newest world-beater on the West Coast in the form of Paradise Woods. It didn’t seem to matter much that Abel Tasman had beaten a couple of nice fillies that day in It Tiz Well and Mopotism. All that mattered was that Paradise Woods was now the “now” horse.

Two starts into 2017, and Abel Tasman had two rather nondescript seconds, and the only thing she was truly known for, to date, was a wardrobe malfunction.  But that soon was to change.  In a hurry. And, in a huge flurry.

On May 5, Baffert saddled Abel Tasman for the second time.  In the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.  And, he gave his young pupil a set of glasses for the very first time.  It worked great. And, so did his filly.

Oaks Muddy Gate

Abel Tasman won the 143rd running of the Kentucky Oaks.

In one of the deepest and most talented fields in Kentucky Oaks history, Abel Tasman was sent off at odds of $9.20-to-1.  She stormed from last in a field of 14, on a muddy track that no horse was able to close effectively on for a week, to win by 11/4 convincing lengths. Paradise Woods, the filly that Simon Bray said “could not lose,” finished 11th.  Farrell, undefeated in three races this year leading up to the Oaks, was last. And, a swarm of other nice fillies where simply left in the wake.

The game was on. Abel Tasman hasn’t been beaten since. And, quite honestly, every time she runs, she seems to get better. All the while, the 3YO boys have taken turns beating each other; disappointing all others; and leaving horse fans to ponder if the best 3YO in this country truly is a filly.

About a month the Derby, Baffert brought Abel Tasman to New York to try the G1 Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park. She beat the well-regarded Salty — who was co-favored with the Oaks winner — that day by a length.

Another month later, Baffert shipped his filly from the West Coast to try the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.  Utilizing a totally different running style, Smith sent his filly to the front.  She never looked back. She won this day wire-to-wire, beating the rapidly-improving Elate.

Now, Baffert and Smith have Abel Tasman poised and ready to go today in the G1 Cotillion Stakes at Parx.  It figures to be her last prep before the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Del Mar.  Two wins away from championships; titles; and glory.  All of which this filly has earned.  Nothing given. Everything deserved.

As a racing fan, I would love to see this filly do just that.  Part of the reason, I have to admit, is that I touted Abel Tasman all week leading up to the Kentucky Oaks.  When all others were solidly behind Paradise Woods and Farrell, claiming that this dynamic duo were unbeatable, I watched Abel Tasman  — who worked in obscurity. I could see that she was sitting on a good one, and I had a feeling that she was going to be a good one.

But the real reason that I am rooting for her is because she has fought her way to the top of the division; to the top of the 3YO ladder.  She has run her way into the mind and into consideration. She has done it — with a little help from two of the greatest this game has ever witnessed: Baffert and Smith.  But she has done it.

I root for horses like this. I clap for the “under horse” that has risen from the title of “under dog.” I love to see these kinds of horses prove all the pundits; the Wednesday morning wannabe “clockers;” and the Monday morning “Quarterbacks” wrong. These are the horses who go out and win.

I don’t know what the plans for Abel Tasman may be after this year.  The owners very well may decide  to retire here and send her to the breeding shed.  After all, Clearsky Farms (who bred Arrogate, too) is pretty good at that game, too. But I sure would love to see Abel Tasman stay in training, and somehow make it all the way to the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs.

It was there, years ago, that the grand filly Personal Ensign overcame all obstacles and odds to beat Derby winner Winning Colors in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and stay undefeated. It was there that the great Zenyatta, with Mike Smith aboard that day, came from the skyline of downtown Louisville to nearly nip Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in a race that has truly become a classic. Still, to this day, I think the great mare thought she won that race.

It would be a perfect setting for Abel Tasman, too.

She has a ways to go before that day ever comes, if it does.  But horse fans and players love to dream, hope and wish.  And, I hope that Abel Tasman can win her last two races of this year.  I hope she wins the Eclipse Awards, in which she is entitled. And, I can dream of her running at Churchill Downs in the fall of 2018. I can dream that she walks and runs on the same hallowed dirt of two of the greatest fillies and mares to ever run. And, I can dream that she then can retire as one of the best ever.

I can dream that because I think she truly may be.