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), 11 3/4 lengths behind winner Paradise Woods, who was sent off the 6-5 favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. But after race favorite 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 before a crowd of 105,100.
Paradise Woods, who with choppy steps in the post parade seemed to be sizing up the surface in her first try on a wet 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 1:11.42. At that point, Paradise Woods backed out and Miss Sky Warrior led only briefly before a throng of late-running fillies arrived on the scene.
Abel Tasman, last of 14 through an opening quarter-mile in :22.79, improved position around the far turn under Mike Smith and kicked into another gear in the stretch on her way to her second grade 1 victory, following her clear score in last year's Starlet Stakes (G1) at Los Alamitos Race Course.
Smith thought the additon of blinkers helped the filly.
"For as far back as I was, I knew they were going quick—really quick—especially for this track," Smith said. "Once I got her out in the middle of the track ... I knew she was going to run well at that point. From there it was a matter of keeping her busy."
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 the 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.
"I have to give a lot of credit to Mike. He rode her with the confidence like he does. The older he gets, the better he gets. 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.' Mike knows I have confidence in him.
"You have to trust each other. You get a horse like this in your hands—if you're good enough you'll win. This filly is just so classy."
Abel Tasman was followed home by 12-1 longshot Daddys Lil Darling, who rallied from 11th, and 36-1 Lockdown, who rallied from eighth. Abel Tasman returned $20.40, $9.20, and $6.40 across the board, while Daddys Lil Darling paid $11 to place and $6.60 to show, with Lockdown returning $18.40.
The effort marked the second straight runner-up finish in a grade 1 race for Normandy Farm's Daddys Lil Darling, who also took place honors 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," said Daddys Lil Darling's trainer, Ken McPeek. "She ran good, but I really, really wanted to win. I thought we had a big chance. (Baffert) 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 racing manager Garrett O'Rourke was thrilled with her effort Friday.
"It was just excitement. ... 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 faded to finish 11th. 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. Vargas Girl 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 victory at Del Mar and the Starlet score. She opened this season with a runner-up finish to Unique Bella in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (G2) March 4 at Santa Anita. She was transferred to Baffert after that race.
"She arrived in great shape for me," Baffert said.
Rounding out the order of finish was Vexatious, Salty, Sailor's Valentine, Tequilita, Miss Sky Warrior, Ever So Clever, Mopotism, Paradise Woods, Jordan's Henny, Wicked Lick, and Farrell, the second choice at 9-2. Trainer Wayne Catalano said jockey Channing Hill told him Farrell didn't handle the track.