Let’s face it, if Bob Baffert is at Churchill Downs on the first weekend in May, the famous white-haired trainer with the trademark sunglasses and the fast horses is going to win something.
Without an entry in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, Baffert instead teamed with jockey Mike Smith to pull off an upset in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks when Abel Tasman, a 9-1 shot, went from last to first to win the $1 million Grade I race for fillies before a rain-soaked crowd of 105,100.
It was the third Oaks triumph for Baffert, who won with Silverbulletday in 1999 and Plum Pretty in 2011, to go along with his four Kentucky Derby victories. It was the second Oaks win for Smith, who won aboard Princess of Sylmar in 2013.
“The first one is always great,” said the 51-year-old jockey, “but I enjoy the second ones better.”
Both men might have expected to be in the winner’s circle for the two big races this weekend, just not with this horse. Baffert trained Mastery, the undefeated colt out of California who was the potential Kentucky Derby favorite had he not been injured winning the San Felipe. In addition to Mastery, Smith was also the jockey for Unique Bella, the undefeated filly who might have been the Oaks favorite had she, too, not been knocked off the trail by injury.
“It’s crazy,” said Baffert. “It’s why I have white hair.”
Want more crazy? Baffert and Smith picked up Abel Tasman over a silks mix-up. After the China Horse Club purchased 50 percent of the filly from Bernard and Eamonn Cleary’s Clearsky Farm, the organization reportedly became upset when jockey Joe Talamo did not wear its silks, as agreed upon in the sale, for trainer Simon Callaghan during a second-place finish to Unique Bella in the Grade III Santa Ysabel Stakes.
“We haven’t commented on that previously,” Michael Wallace, racing manager for the China Horse Club, said Friday. “Simon is a very good trainer. Joe is a very good jockey. We were thankful for both of them.”
Baffert was thankful to get the filly, who then ran second to Paradise Woods in the Santa Anita Oaks on April 8. On the one hand, Abel Tasman lost by nearly 12 lengths. On the other hand, Baffert learned that the Quality Road daughter might benefit from a small set of blinkers to help her focus.
“She worked great after that,” Smith said.
Still, the betting public understandably made Paradise Woods the 6-5 favorite on Friday. In just her fourth career start, trainer Richard Mandella’s filly sprinted to an early lead on the sloppy track. This time, however, she was pressed by Gazelle Stakes winner Miss Sky Warrior. The duo, several lengths in front of the rest of the field, covered the first half-mile in a fast :46.24 seconds.
“I was watching those two battle it out up front,” said Baffert, when asked about his filly being last in the early going. “I knew there was some serious pace going on.”
“By no means did I plan on being last,” said Smith. “But she really started picking horses up and I felt confident that I was back in the race and it was just a matter of if I could run them down.”
Run them down she did. As Miss Sky Warrior faded to an eighth-place finish and Paradise Woods collapsed to 11th, Abel Tasman kicked into gear and held off the Kenny McPeek-trained Daddy’s Lil Darling by a length and a quarter for the win, paying $20.40, $9.20 and $6.40. Daddy’s Lil Darling paid $11.00 and $6.60. Lockdown paid $18.40 for third.
According to chairman Teo Ah Khing, the China Horse Club has over 100 investors who have put up $1 million each. In its fourth year of existence, the organization is trying to promote horse racing in China with success around the world.
Meanwhile, Clearsky Farm, based on Russell Cave Road in Lexington, also bred Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup champion Arrogate, also trained by Baffert.
“Clearsky, they’re making me famous,” joked Baffert.
You become famous by winning, and on Oaks/Derby weekend, Baffert has a habit of winning.
6:46 p.m.: Kentucky Derby (NBC-18)