There is a good reason, or two, that jockey Mike Smith and the 3-year-old filly Abel Tasman sit atop of their trade. They are darn good. And, they are darn good together.
The latest example came on Sunday when the Hall of Fame rider and his most favorite 3-year-old filly teamed up yet again to win another Grade 1 Stakes, this time capturing the Coaching Club American Stakes at the old Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York in thrilling, exciting, exhilarating, goose bump style.
This was the third Grade 1 Stakes victory in a row for the dynamic duo of Smith and Abel Tasman, who captured the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs the day before the Kentucky Derby and the Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park in her last two races.
And, this was, undoubtedly, one of the most thrilling editions of the CCA Stakes. Ever. As in ever, ever.
“Wow, what a race. What a strangely run race, really,” said Jimmy Barnes, an assistant to trainer Bob Baffert and the man who handled the saddling duties on Sunday. He was quoted by the NYRA Press Squad after the race. “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 bump her at all. Just race riding, that’s what it looked like to me.”
Abel Tasman, who rallied six wide on the final turn and burst to the victory over an off track at Churchill Downs to win the Kentucky Oaks, is normally considered to be a late runner. And, when the gates opened, it appeared that would be the strategy again on Sunday in the CCA.
Smith and Abel Tasman slipped to the rear of the pack, just ahead of the one of her chief competitors in Salty, who was left at the gate napping. And, that’s the way they rolled into and out of the first turn.
But that is exactly when the world of racing saw a different tactic from both Smith and his steed. Instead of waiting near the back, Smith asked his filly for speed — early in the backstretch. And, she complied — ready, willing and able. Suddenly, to the surprise of nearly all, the duo was near the lead with half of the 11/8-mile race to go.
Smith, fresh off a redeye flight from California after riding last year’s Travers winner Arrogate to a disappointing fourth-place finish in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar yesterday, looked to be setting himself for all the second-guessers in the racing world to lambast his early move.
Instead, it may have been genius. The filly rolled into the turn with another power play and rolled out of the final turn in front with dead aim on the finish line. But just as he was about to whistle Dixie, here came trainer Bill Mott’s talented filly Elate on the inside. She was game, too, and seemed ready to make the Spa the “Graveyard of Champions” yet again, and ready to make Smith’s weekend a dud.
But instead of Saturday, when Arrogate pulled a “no show,” Abel Tasman pulled a “show down.” And, she was all game, too. Staring down Elate to the inside, Smith and Abel Tasman bore down in the final hundred yards to hold onto to a scintillating neck victory over Elate.
Elate’s jockey Jose Ortiz immediately cried all the way over to the phone jack by the Clerk of Scales to file a claim of foul. The stewards lit up the “inquiry sign,” as well. But after a few anxious minutes, the final decision stood. The best rider in the world and the best 3YO filly in the world stood tall, together.
“It’s just good, old fashioned race-riding, Smith said to the NYRA Press Team. “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.
“She scrambled early and got up. There was no pace in the race,” he 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.”
It would have been. But it didn’t happen on the track. And, it didn’t happen in the stewards stand either. And, rightfully so.
Even Mott, ever the sportsman, took the decision in stride.
“It was a tough call. A tough decision to make,” said Mott. “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad call, they did the right thing by Steward’s inquiry and I think he did the right thing by claiming foul. I think they needed to look at it. He said there was just enough contact maybe to get us beat. You get beat by that much and he comes from the four-path on top of us and it was tight. He was race riding and they let it stand. If they would have let it gone the other way I could understand it.
“I think she (Elate) ran a super race. That’s the filly I thought we had when we started out and it’s just taken her a while to progress. I thought when we started up the spring she was more of an Alabama type filly than a Kentucky Oaks filly and I said that in January and February. It looks like she’s coming around at the right time. After this performance we certainly wouldn’t be afraid of taking her on again at a mile and a quarter in the [Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama Saturday, August 19]. If our filly’s good we’ll be rearing to go.”
Now, Baffert and Barnes will have to make a decision of what to do next with the talented filly. After having won both the Acorn and the CCA, Abel Tasman could be the first filly to sweep the Triple Tiara with victories in both of New York’s first two stakes for 3YO fillies and the upcoming Alabama Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 19.
Yet, Baffert indicated on Sunday that he will wait on that decision and will ship his filly back to California before making any further decisions. But it could be a historic trip back, if they decide to make a race of it, again.
“It could be,” Baffert said. “I am going to bring her home… we will play it by ear… we see how she trains.”
In fact, Baffert admits that he was reluctant to ship her back to New York for Sunday’s race. But, in the end, both he and Smith make perfect trips.
“Well, I sort of called an audible,” said Baffert, when contacted by the NYRA publicity department after the race. “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 he knew he was on a good filly, you can’t do that with any horse.
“We put blinkers on her [and] 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.”