Sunday’s $300,345 Zenyatta (G1) was supposed to be a straightforward assignment for champion Abel Tasman on the way to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), but the “Win & You’re In” at Santa Anita produced a stunning plot twist for the Bob Baffert barn.
The 1-10 favorite was never involved, beaten 10 1/2 lengths in fifth, while her 11-1 stablemate Vale Dori orchestrated a form turnaround with the addition of blinkers.
Abel Tasman wasn’t in a mind to load, and took a stutter-step at the break before loping at the rear of the six-horse field. On the backstretch, there was a brief suggestion that she could commence one of her patented early moves.
That proved a mirage.
As Mike Smith tried to cajole her into the bit on the far turn, Abel Tasman found nothing, and the Hall of Fame rider treated her tenderly the rest of the way.
“I’m just really not sure what happened with her today,” Smith said. “I’m kind of at a loss for words. The good thing is that she didn’t run a get-out run, she didn’t run, period. For whatever reason she was lethargic loading and she was slow into stride and never wanted to pick it up.
“There’s been a bit of the flu going around the backside with some of these horses so hopefully it’s not hitting her, but it certainly could have. She kind of made a middle move down the backside to get herself into some sort of position to maybe make a run and I thought she could probably still win anyway. But then she just decided that was enough.
“This was a little reminiscent of her run at Churchill coming off the layoff (fourth in the May 4 La Troienne [G1]) but more so today,” Smith continued. “She can break slow at times but it doesn’t take her more than three or four jumps to get her big body moving forward. Once she does, she gets into the bridle and takes you places, as we’ve all seen many times. Today, it just wasn’t there and I didn’t want to get after her anymore. She was letting me know that she wanted no part of it. We’ll just throw this one out and hopefully we’ll be fine.
“She’s been working tremendous. We got her home safe and sound so we’ll go back to the drawing board and if a temperature or something comes up it’ll pop up pretty soon.”
Baffert likewise voiced concern about an illness possibly affecting Abel Tasman.
“I’m worried about that mare because Mike (Smith) said she was lethargic, and she’s up there where all these sick horse are, so I hope she’s not getting sick.
“She was never interested today all. I’m about as shocked as everybody else, but they’ll do that.
“When I saw Abel break horrible like that, it looked like shades of Arrogate at Del Mar in the (2017) San Diego (G2). Mike said after that she wasn’t interested and he didn’t push her, but that’s not the Abel that we know. She’s never run a bad one. He said she felt sound and all that but she was just completely lethargic . . . My main concern is that Abel’s OK and not getting sick on me.”
In contrast, Vale Dori was enjoying a positive reversal of fortune. Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum’s import had loads of back class that she had not called upon all year. An Argentine Group 1 winner at two, runner-up in the 2016 UAE Oaks (G3) and fourth in the UAE Derby (G2), she developed into a major player in the Southern California distaff ranks.
At one point Vale Dori had won seven of eight, including a six-race winning spree featuring the 2016 Bayakoa (G2) and 2017 La Canada (G2), Santa Maria (G2), Santa Margarita (G1), and Adoration (G3). It took hard-fought efforts by champion Stellar Wind to deny her by a neck in last summer’s Beholder Mile (G1) and Clement L. Hirsch (G1).
That’s not the Vale Dori we saw resurfacing from a nine-month layoff this season. Fifth as the defending champion in her Adoration comeback May 6, she was a distant fourth behind Unique Bella in the June 2 Beholder Mile, third on the class drop in the June 22 Santa Lucia, and a well-beaten second to Shenandoah Queen in the August 24 Tranquility Lake, a stakes she’d bossed back in 2016.
Now a six-year-old mare, Vale Dori appeared to be on the form decline to retirement – until the Zenyatta revealed a renewed zest for the game. With blinkers on and new rider Joe Talamo aboard, the daughter of Asiatic Boy advanced to press Shenandoah Queen after the opening quarter in :23.98. Vale Dori increased the pressure through splits of :48.02 and 1:12.35, then took command on the far turn. La Force rallied, but Vale Dori had three-quarters of a length to spare at the wire, upping her scorecard to 21-10-6-2, $1,365,567.
By finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.88, Vale Dori earned her ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and paid her loyalists $24.60, $13.20, and $40.60 – the show prices reflective of Abel Tasman’s flop. Shenandoah Queen checked in third, and Lemoona rounded out the superfecta. Abel Tasman beat only one home, the 60-1 Fool’s Paradise.
“She’d been working well,” Baffert said of the blinkers-on move for Vale Dori, “but she hadn’t been getting away from the gate, and if she doesn’t get away well, she doesn’t run well.”
Talamo echoed the message about getting off to a strong start.
“Bob said to try and get her out, whether she’s first or second, and just get her into a real smooth rhythm,” Talamo said of his instructions.
“She was laying perfect right off of Tyler’s filly there (Baze on Shenandoah Queen) and I had a lot of horse around the turn. I was just biding my time, just waiting for anyone to come before I let her loose and when I did, she really took off very nicely. I really thought Abel Tasman was going to come running but that’s horse racing for you.”
The plot twist for the ensuing $200,345 John Henry Turf Championship (G2) took place pre-race, with the injury-forced scratch of smashing Del Mar H (G2) winner Fashion Business.
In his absence, Madaket Stables’ Liam the Charmer inherited favoritism, and the 5-2 shot scored a poignant victory that might lead to a Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) bid. Bred by John Henry’s Hall of Fame trainer, Ron McAnally, and wife Deborah, he shares the same groom as the turf legend, Jose Mercado. Track announcer Michael Wrona emphasized the connection as Liam the Charmer swept from last to first in a breakout performance.
Trained by Michael McCarthy and piloted by Tyler Gaffalione, Liam the Charmer bided his time while Ashleyluvssugar, the 2016 John Henry hero, set fractions of :23.43, :47.61, 1:11.42, and 1:34.48 on the firm turf. No other closer was able to catch the leader, but Liam the Charmer rolled late to prevail by a half-length.
Ashleyluvssugar’s rider, Gary Stevens, paid tribute to the winner.
“He ran a winning race,” the Hall of Famer said of his mount. “I couldn’t believe we were getting passed, because my horse was running. The winner’s a nice horse, no question.”
Liam the Charmer, who clocked 1 1/4 miles in a sprightly 1:58.01, has now won both starts since returning from a year-long layoff. Successful in a photo in an August 16 allowance/optional claimer at Del Mar, the Smart Strike gelding has compiled a record of 14-5-1-1, $319,571.
“He’s pretty easy to fall in love with,” McCarthy said. “He’s always been a nice horse. This graded stake is probably a year and a half overdue.
“He’s just hitting his best stride now that he’s five. He’s like molasses. He just goes through the motions every day. He’s a horse that doesn’t give a whole lot of inclination that he’s real good, that he’s real bad, he just sort of goes about his job and obviously does it quite well, as we saw today.
“I’ll go ahead and talk to Sol Kumin (of Madaket) and everybody else and who knows, maybe he bought himself a ticket to the Breeders’ Cup. I can’t say enough about this horse. He’s like the furniture. Everybody loves him, everybody loves riding him.”