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Abel Tasman goes from last to first to win Kentucky Oaks

Abel Tasman goes from last to first to win Kentucky Oaks
Jockey Mike Smith guides Abel Tasman down the stretch to win the 143rd running of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Bob Baffert may not have a horse in the Kentucky Derby, but he had the right one in the Kentucky Oaks.

In a storybook ending to a bizarre tale, Abel Tasman went from last to first to win the most prestigious race for 3-year-old fillies before a crowd of 105,100 on Friday.

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You have to go back to the start of the Santa Ysabel Stakes on March 4 at Santa Anita to set the stage.

Clearsky Farms had just sold 50% ownership in the horse to the China Horse Club. They kept the same trainer in Simon Callaghan and jockey in Joe Talamo.

As Talamo entered the paddock, Callaghan noticed the jockey wasn't wearing the silks of the China Horse Club. He was sent back to the jockey's room to find them, but they weren't there.

So Talamo rode the race and finished second to Unique Bella, who was being ridden by Mike Smith. Unique Bella was later pulled off the Oaks trail when she suffered a shin injury.

Within a few days, Callaghan, who nurtured the horse for her entire career, was fired and the horse was sent to Baffert's barn.

Callaghan went on a Twitter rant, saying "China Horse Club may have brought new money to the sport but that's all it seems." He blamed the entire incident on having the wrong silks.

It's never a downgrade when a horse is moved to Baffert's barn, especially when he already had American Anthem, also owned by the China Horse Club.

But Michael Wallace, China Horse Club racing manager, did little to quell the controversy after the race when asked about the trainer switch.

"We haven't commented on it until now, and we won't comment on it," Wallace said, obviously irritated by the question.

The race started with favorite Paradise Woods, ridden by Flavien Prat, and Miss Sky Warrior, with Paco Lopez aboard, getting into a speed duel turning fractions of 22.79 seconds and 46.24 in the 1 1/8-mile race.

Meanwhile Abel Tasman, with Smith in the saddle, was languishing at the back of the field.

"I didn't expect to be that far back," Smith said.

Smith tried to take the filly to the rail, which had been a good place to be on the sloppy track earlier in the day. But Abel Tasman didn't like that, so Smith moved her back to the middle of the track.

"After I got her clear on the backside I knew they were fast enough that they would come back to me," Smith said.

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At about 5/8th-mile point Abel Tasman started to pick off horses and by the top of the stretch she had moved ahead of the leaders.

Abel Tasman paid $20.40 to win, $9.20 to place and $6.40 to show. Daddy's Lil Darling, beaten by 1 1/4 lengths, paid 11.00 and 6.60 while Lockdown paid 18.40 to show.

Paradise Woods finished 11th in the 14-horse field.

"This sport, things can change overnight," Baffert said of how his best colt Mastery suffered an injury and Abel Tasman ends up in his barn. "I'm just fortunate that I got a call one day that says, 'Would you take this filly?' I go 'What? Of course.'"

Baffert plans to go back to L.A. in the morning because he doesn't have a horse in the Derby.

"I don't have anything in," Baffert said. "I don't know what I would do with myself. I need to have something to get me nervous or some challenge or whatever. We'll get back to California. It's going to be a nice trip back."

Baffert, it seems, has more of a sense of humor than others on the postrace dais.

As Smith got up to leave the news conference, Baffert yelled to him, "Don't lose those colors."

Royal Mo Out

It was 9 a.m. Friday and no additional horses had scratched, so Royal Mo was out of the Derby. The 3-year-old colt for trainer John Shirreffs and owner Jerry Moss spent most of the week in the No. 21 position. They needed one more horse to pull out of the race for them to be in.

Royal Mo started the week at No. 23 and moved up when Todd Pletcher scratched two of his horses. Shirreffs had indicated that Royal Mo might go to Baltimore to run in the Preakness in two weeks. Gormley may also go if he comes out of the Derby in good shape.

Weather update

After a horrendous weather day Friday, things will improve for Saturday's big race. The showers were expected to subside overnight. However, according to weather.com, the rain will restart around 7 a.m. but be done by 2 p.m. That should give the track superintendent more than four hours to get the track ready for the Kentucky Derby.

Four from the Juvenile

A lot can happen between the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November and the Kentucky Derby in May. Most of the horses stumble or don't measure up along the way. But this year, four horses that ran in the Juvenile are in the Derby.

Juvenile winner Classic Empire is the morning-line favorite. Other horses in both races are Practical Joke, who finished third, Lookin At Lee, who finished fourth, and Gormley, who was seventh.

Twitter: @jcherwa

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