LOUISVILLE, Ky.--If this is what the National Weather Service calls a shower, I would hate to see what its idea of rain is.
Welcome back to Churchill Downs, where a fast track for Friday’s Kentucky Oaks claimed by upset winner Abel Tasman was a pipe dream. And that pipe was flooded – thanks to an inch of rain that fell between midnight and midday.
The sealed main track was sloppy all day. The forecast was for more “showers” until 2 a.m. and then again from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Kentucky Derby beckons Saturday – rain or shine – at 6:51 p.m. EDT.
Throw in the fact that half the field has never raced on a wet track, and voilà, it is a handicapper’s nightmare. Trainers, too, won’t have very sure footing on an off track.
For Graham Motion it could bring back bad memories of Irish War Cry’s only defeat – a seventh-place finish two months ago in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on what was technically a fast Gulfstream Park track despite a midday thunderstorm.
“It was a perfect storm and an odd track that day,” Motion said. “It was really windy and the track dried out. I hate to make too many excuses, but I honestly think he was a little too close on a cuppy track.”
Irish War Cry is not the only horse that raced on a subpar surface but did not get credit for it on the past-performance charts. Thunder Snow won the UAE Derby on what Equibase called a “fast” track in Dubai, but the British-based Racing Post more accurately labeled it as muddy.
“He’s never run on this before,” trainer Saeed Bin Suroor said of the Churchill Downs slop after Thunder Snow had a gallop on it Friday morning. “It seems he handled it well. This is a good experience for him to see it before the race.”
Then there is the quandary facing trainer Joe Sharp with Girvin. He said that he moved the Louisiana Derby winner to Keeneland last weekend to let him work on the surer footing of an all-weather track. Then it came out that Sharp was not being forthright about a quarter crack that he discovered on Girvin’s left-front hoof. Special bar shoes apparently prevented any further trouble, and Girvin now has glue-on shoes in time for the Derby.
But what if Girvin just cannot avoid facing a quagmire on Saturday?
“I don’t think the slop would be his preferred surface,” Sharp said. “It’s hard to say, though, because I know he’ll run his race across asphalt. We’ve been on eggshells for two weeks with the quarter crack being thrown at us and dealing with the media. But honestly at the end of the day I think that we – the owners and the horse – handled it well.”
One man who ought to feel confident is Steve Asmussen, who trains wise-guy long shot Hence. The Sunland Derby winner was sired by Curlin – famously the winner of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic in what looked more like a regatta at rain-soaked Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
When asked how gallops in the rain for Hence and stable mates Lookin At Lee and Untrapped went Friday, Asmussen merely said “super.”
But there is at least one trainer who seems to want more rain. Mike Maker will be searching for his first Derby win with Fast And Accurate, a front-running colt that has run all but once on turf and all-weather tracks – and never on a wet, dirt track.
Asked about the rain that continued to fall outside Barn 27 Friday morning, Maker said, “I don’t mind. I think it may help us.”
Early betting favors Always Dreaming
A second choice on the morning line and in Las Vegas betting, Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming was the firm, 9-to-2 favorite in first-day betting at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby. The colt is trained by Todd Pletcher, who is 1-for-45 in the Derby but has never trained the post-time favorite.
There are $814,450 in a Win pool that will eventually be worth more than $20 million at the track and close to $200 million across North America.
Following were the odds at 8 p.m. EDT on all the Derby horses:
1 Lookin At Lee 25/1
2 Thunder Snow 17/1
3 Fast And Accurate 33/1
4 Untrapped 60/1
5 Always Dreaming 9/2
6 State of Honor 46/1
7 Girvin 21/1
8 Hence 17/1
9 Irap 35/1
10 Gunnevera 9/1
11 Battle Of Midway 38/1
12 Sonneteer 36/1
13 J Boys Echo 42/1
14 Classic Empire 7/1
15 McCraken 6/1
16 Tapwrit 30/1
17 Irish War Cry 5/1
18 Gormley 24/1
19 Practical Joke 33/1
20 Patch 13/1
Abel Tasman wore it well in the Oaks
A simple mistake involving jockey silks two months ago changed the course of Abel Tasman’s career – a course that led her to a victory Friday in the $1 million Kentucky Oaks.
The filly that was only recently handed over to trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith charged from dead last midway through the race to run home the winner Friday. In only his second time on board, Smith took his 9-to-1 shot down the middle of the sloppy track, ran past the favored pace-setters Paradise Woods and Miss Sky Warrior and delivered the victory 1¼ lengths ahead of 12-to-1 Daddys Little Darling.
“She wasn’t happy and she wasn’t handling it for whatever reason,” Smith said when he was asked about taking Abel Tasman back from the middle of the pack. “I don’t know if it was the kickback and the mud hitting her at the same time. She’s real tall, a lot of legs to her. I thought this ain’t working out too good. Once I was able to get her out she just started to pick them off one by one.”
Lockdown, a 36-to-1 long shot, finished third and 40-to-1 Vexatious was fourth. The $2 exacta paid $203, the 50 cent trifecta $1,431.90 and the $1 Superfecta $85,555.10.
After their speed duel carried them to the front of the field, Paradise Woods and Miss Sky Warrior faded badly in the last three furlongs of the 1 1/8-mile race. Miss Sky Warrior (6-to-1) finished eighth; the heavy favorite Paradise Woods (6-to-5) wound up 11th, 20½ lengths adrift of the winner.
A 3-year-old filly by Quality Road, Abel Tasman was transferred from Simon Callaghan to Baffert only two months ago. Her co-owner, Malaysian billionaire Teo Ah Khing and his China Horse Club, was reported by the Daily Racing Form to be upset that her jockey was wearing the wrong silks for the Santa Ysabel Stakes in which she finished second.
That led to the firing of trainer Simon Callaghan. In came Baffert, who then called on Smith to replace Joe Talamo and ride Abel Tasman in last month’s Santa Anita Oaks, in which she finished second to Paradise Woods – by 11 lengths.
Teo and his racing manager Michael Wallace were asked about this after the race Friday, but they refused to confirm the story or discuss the reasons for the transfer. For Abel Tasman’s new Hall of Fame connections, it was Baffert’s third Oaks win and Smith’s second.