by Teresa Genaro
Though jockey Mike Smith didn’t have the easiest flight from California last night, Abel Tasman once again handled the cross-country trip with aplomb, taking her second straight Grade 1 race in New York when she won the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga on Sunday.
Racing for just the third time outside of California, and only her second try at nine furlongs, Abel Tasman had to work for this win for the first time since a half-length allowance score at Del Mar last November – and so did her jockey.
Usually a deep closer, the three-year-old bay filly started the race running sixth in the seven-horse field but, coming out of the first turn, Smith took her to the front. Running neck-and-neck with longshot Summer Luck around the far turn, Abel Tasman took a short lead into the stretch.
Heading for home in the three-path, she was challenged up the rail by Elate. That’s when Smith went to work, inside the eighth-pole crowding Elate and Jose Ortiz into the rail, dueling with them as he maintained a short lead, holding on to win by a head.
“It was good old-fashioned race riding,” Smith said. “By no means did I put him in any harm. I didn’t bump him; I made sure that I didn’t touch him. I made it tight, but there’s no rule saying you can’t make it tight.”
That was Smith’s version of the story; Ortiz obviously saw it another way, claiming foul as the stewards posted their own inquiry sign. After taking a long look, the stewards left the results as is.
“They make it tight on me every day,” Smith said. “I’m too old for that.”
“It was a tough call,” said Elate’s trainer, Bill Mott. “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad call; they did the right thing by the stewards’ inquiry and I think he did the right thing by claiming foul. He was race riding and they let it stand.”
Ortiz wasn’t the only one who cried “foul,” though trainer Mark Casse’s objection was about the start and wasn’t official. His filly Salty, the 5-2 second choice, acted up in the gate and was barely settled when the doors opened, rearing at the start and ceding significant ground to her rivals. She made an impressive late run to be third.
The Coaching Club American Oaks is Abel Tasman’s fourth Grade 1 win. Bred by Clearsky Farms, she is owned in partnership by her breeder and China Horse Club International. She’s earned just under $1.5 million.
Longshot Summer Luck set an opening quarter in :23.81, causing Smith to change his strategy for the race.
“That’s a questionable move,” he admitted. “I would have questioned myself if I’d have got beat, but I didn’t, so I liked it.”
“There was no pace in the race,” he went on. “Everyone threw the anchor out, and she got into such a pretty stride that felt so good that I couldn’t get in the way of it. Once she gets in that pretty, pretty, big, beautiful stride, that’s where you want her, and I took it. If I’d have got beat, it would have been horrible.”
And Smith knows from horrible, having been aboard Arrogate the day before at Del Mar, finishing fourth in a five-horse field, beaten 15 1/4 lengths.
“It’s funny how things turn around,” he said. “It’s still a total shock. But that’s what’s great about this sport. You come back. It felt like a 15-hour flight coming out, but man, it’s going to be sweet going home.”
Then the man who rode in New York to a Hall of Fame career started to leave the winner’s circle, pausing to add, “It’s nice to come here. I love Saratoga.”