By Frank Angst
A few weeks and a change of scenery most assuredly agreed with Abel Tasman, as the Quality Road filly rallied on the outside in the stretch to score a 1 1/4-length victory May 5 in the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill Downs.
On April 8 at Santa Anita Park Abel Tasman finished second in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1), a grade 1 placing but 11 3/4 lengths behind winner Paradise Woods, who would be sent off the 6-5 favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. But after Paradise Woods hooked up in a taxing early duel with the speedy Miss Sky Warrior on the sloppy Churchill surface, China Horse Club and Clearsky Farms' Abel Tasman led home a charge of closers in Friday's Oaks.
Paradise Woods, who with choppy steps in the post parade seemed to be sizing up the surface in her first try on a sloppy track, and Miss Sky Warrior, who entered off five straight wins including three straight grade 2 triumphs, dueled through a half-mile in :46.24 and six furlongs in 1:11.41 At that point Paradise Woods would back out and Miss Sky Warrior would only lead briefly before a charge of closing fillies arrived on the scene.
Abel Tasman, last of 14 through an opening quarter-mile in :22.79, improved position through the far turn under Mike Smith and kicked into another gear in the stretch on her way to her second grade I victory following her clear score in last year's Starlet Stakes (G1) at Los Alamitos Race Course.
Trainer Bob Baffert secured his third Oaks win after Abel Tasman completed the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:51.62 on a sloppy track. Baffert won the 2011 Oaks with Plum Pretty and 1999 edition with Silverbulletday. Smith earned his second Oaks win, as he scored in 2013 with Princess of Sylmar.
"It never gets old," Baffert said. "Especially when you can sneak in there with a horse that's not one of the favorites."
She was followed home by 12-1 shot Daddys Lil Darling and 36-1 shot Lockdown. Abel Tasman returned $20.40, $9.20, and $6.40 across the board while Daddy's Lil Darling paid $11 to place and $6.60 to show.
The effort marked the second straight runner-up finish in a grade 1 race for Normandy Farm's Daddys Lil Darling, who was second in the Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1) April 8 at Keeneland.
"I like winning. I've been second in the Oaks before, second in the Derby," McPeek said. "She ran good but I really, really wanted to win. I thought we had a big chance. Bob is the luckiest guy on the planet."
Juddmonte Farms' Lockdown earned her first grade 1 placing after finishing second to Miss Sky Warrior in the Gazelle Stakes (G2) last out. Juddmonte Farms manager Garrett O'Rourke was thrilled with Lockdown's effort Friday.
"It was just excitement. I think all of our brains were coming out of our mouths at that stage. She ran her heart out," O'Rourke said. "I thought we were in here with a shot, to be honest, and I thought she gave every last ounce that she had. I have tremendous admiration for the effort she put out and she proved she is a legitimate Grade 1 horse."
Paradise Woods would finish in the bottom half of the field of 14. Trainer Richard Mandella didn't think she ever looked herself.
"It was a hot pace, the one laying on her was laying on her pretty hard. But she didn't look herself. She didn't have that pretty stride that she had last time," Mandella said. "Maybe the slop threw her a curve or maybe she ran so hard last time it left her a little empty. That happens. You couldn't tell it looking at her but it does happen."
Abel Tasman was bred in Kentucky by Clearsky Farms. In January, China Horse Club bought into the filly, who is out of the Deputy Minister mare Vargas Girl, who also has produced grade 3 winner Sky Girl, by Sky Mesa.
Originally trained by Simon Callaghan Abel Tasman earned her maiden win in her second start then followed with an allowance win at Del Mar and the Starlet victory. She opened this season with a runner-up finish to Unique Bella in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (G2) March 4 at Santa Anita. She would be transferred to Baffert after that race.
"She arrived in great shape for me," Baffert said.