Bob Baffert: “It never gets old”
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
Report: USA, Friday
Churchill Downs: Longines Kentucky Oaks (Grade 1) 1m1f | dirt | 3yo fillies
Bob Baffert may not have had a horse for this year’s Kentucky Derby but you cannot keep the west-coast legend out of the headlines and he duly claimed the Kentucky Oaks as Abel Tasman sloshed through the slop to win America’s senior race for three-year-old fillies at a filthy Churchill Downs.
Baffert’s regular sparring partner Mike Smith, the veteran 51-year-old jockey known as ‘Big Money Mike’ owing to his record on the most lucrative stages, was in the saddle as the late-running 9-1 shot benefited from a brutal pace battle up front to land a minor surprise in the $1 million contest in front of a crowd of 105,100.
“It never gets old,” Baffert said. “Especially when you can sneak in there and win one like that with a horse that’s not a heavy favourite.”
Baffert was winning his third Oaks after Silverbulletday (1999) and Plum Pretty (2011). “I have to give a lot of credit to Mike – the older he gets, the better he gets,” said the trainer. “The last thing I told him is ‘Don’t think you’re riding Arrogate here’ and sure enough I said, ‘Mike you rode her just like Arrogate!'”
Smith added: “If you surround yourself with good people, good things happen. It’s just like your mom always told you. I surround myself with Bob Baffert and other great trainers and owners and this is the outcome.”
Baffert’s Californian-based colleague Simon Callaghan, the former Newmarket-based trainer, might have been forgiven for thinking what might have been as he trained the daughter of Quality Road until two months ago, when she was removed from his barn by her part-owners the China Horse Club.
They cited a mix-up over the silks she carried on her final outing for her former handler, for whom she won three out of five starts, including the Grade 1 Starlet at two. It seemed a drastic step for what amounted to a minor mistake, but rest assured Abel Tasman was carrying the China Horse Club’s colours at Churchill Downs, where all the Oaks jockeys wore pink breeches in recognition of the event’s designated cancer charities.
Although pace had been holding up all day, a rain-soaked surface resulting in a sequence of front-running victories on the dirt, they simply went too fast in the Oaks as hot favourite Paradise Woods was pressured every step of the journey by chief market rival Miss Sky Warrior in an enervating duel.
After blazing fractions (22.79s, 46.29s, 1m11.42s), Paradise Woods – the small matter of nearly 12 lengths in front of Abel Tasman when they met a month ago at Santa Anita – was a spent force as they entered the stretch. She finished 11th, while Miss Sky Warrior also faded to eighth.
The race was completely set up for the closers and Abel Tasman, stone last in the backstretch, rallied best five wide to score by a length and a quarter over 12-1 shot Daddys Lil Darling, with longshot Lockdown taking third.
“As far back as I was, I knew they were going quick, really quick especially for this track,” reported Smith, who felt the first-time blinkers had helped. “I hit the front a little sooner than I wanted and I was afraid she’d pull herself up, but she stayed focused and galloped out even better.”
Also on Friday
Churchill Downs: Edgewood Stakes (Grade 3) 1m½f | turf | 3yo fillies
Trainer Mark Casse certainly enjoyed his trip to Royal Ascot last summer with Tepin – and now he is planning a return visit next month with La Coronel (Florent Geroux) set to run in the Coronation Stakes after getting the better of stablemate Dream Dancing inside the final furlong.
Casse had been intending to run the filly against her male counterparts in a race on Saturday’s Kentucky Derby undercard but changed his mind when she was drawn on the wide outside in that contest.
“I was all ready to run her against colts but she drew the bad post,” said Casse. “We want to take her to Ascot, so I figured maybe trying her with a little give in the ground would be a good idea. She’s a very good horse.”
So it proved as La Coronel landed the third Grade 3 success of her career by a half-length over Dream Dancing, who also carries the colours of major Casse patron John Oxley, who also owns Derby hope Classic Empire.
Coupled in the betting as even-money favourite, the Casse pair pulled away and it was a good effort from the winner, who raced four wide throughout and was facing give in the ground for the first time in her career.
“I wasn’t concerned about her handling the wet course,” added Casse. “What I was concerned about was her being wide around the first turn, wide down the backside and wide around the final turn. But she’s so good, she was able to overcome it.”
Churchill Downs: La Troienne Stakes (Grade 1) 1m½f | dirt | 4yo+ f/m
With Breeders’ Cup winner Finest City a non-runner, improving four-year-old Big World (Tom Amoss/Florent Geroux) gratefully accepted the easiest of leads and before making all in the slop.
Sent off a 7-1 shot on her Grade 1 debut, she was allowed to set soft fractions and had enough left to hold off the chasers by a length and a quarter to take her career record to seven wins from 11 starts.
Churchill Downs: Alysheba Stakes (Grade 2) 1m½f | dirt | 4yo+
Another front-running victory as owner-breeder Marylou Whitney’s Bird Song (Ian Wilkes/Julien Leparoux) won the chase to the first turn before opening up a clear advantage on the back stretch and going on to claim this $400,000 event by a length and a half from Honorable Duty. The winner’s dam Bird Town won the Kentucky Oaks on this card 14 years ago.
Churchill Downs: Eight Belles Stakes (Grade 2) 7f | dirt | 3yo fillies
The 3.4-1 favourite Benner Island (Brad Cox/Javier Castellano) held off Union Strike by a head for yet another all-the-way success, thereby completing a back-to-back Oaks day stakes double for his jockey and trainer, a Louisville native, who had teamed up earlier on the card to claim the Grade 3 turf sprint with Green Mask.
After being pressured into quick enough fractions, Benner Island was all out to claim the verdict – and also had to survive an objection from the runner-up’s jockey Brice Blanc, who claimed he had been shut off as he went for a run up the rail, breaking his momentum twice.
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