Breeders’ Cup Friday: Title bout in Distaff

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Friday’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff is the featured event on the opening card of the two-day World Championships at Del Mar and as always it carries much more significance than the $2 million purse and Grade 1 status.

Two championships are likely on the line in the 1 1/8-mile Distaff – the Eclipse Awards for 3-year-old filly and older female in the balance and nearly all of the players in those divisions in the field of eight that entered Monday night. The exception is the well-hyped 3-year-old filly Unique Bella, who might lay claim to the divisional crown with a win or even a strong performance in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

The chase for the 3-year-old filly title is especially competitive in the Distaff, with leading contenders Abel Tasman and Elate meeting for the first time since the Coaching Club American Oaks and Paradise Woods looking to redeem herself on the big stage after a disastrous effort in the slop in the Kentucky Oaks. 

Two of the top members of the older female division – Stellar Wind and Forever Unbridled – are also in the field, making for an excellent mix of top females that hopefully will deliver a Distaff close to the excitement of last year’s running that featured a blanket finish with Beholder besting Songbird.

The Saratoga Special covered Abel Tasman’s narrow victory over Elate in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks and Elate’s subsequent win in the Grade 1 Alabama and we figured what better time to relive the magic than before they meet again in the Distaff.

The two feature recaps below appeared in print and digital editions of The Special – Abel Tasman in July 24 and Elate in Aug. 20. We’ve also included a look back at Forever Unbridled’s victory in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign – a win that came at the expense of the subsequently retired Songbird. Check out the coverage below.


Master Piece

Smith, Abel Tasman paint picture in Grade 1

By Joe Clancy

With Abel Tasman 4-5 and on the track for Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks, Jimmy Barnes needed a place to sit down. Bob Baffert’s assistant found a lone chair by the back door of the Curlin Bar in the clubhouse. The spot was cozy, away from the scene, with a view of a television and – if he strained – the starting gate for the 1 1/8-mile Grade 1.

Then a guy parked an oversized trash bin in front of Barnes, whose view of the race somehow got worse from there despite standing up and walking over to a television.

“They’re going to send the seven,” he said as the horses loaded into the gate for the $300,000 feature. On cue, the doors popped and the seven (second choice Salty) leapt like a bad show jumper at an oxer, landed in a heap and spotted the field 10 lengths.

“Oh well,” Barnes said.

Abel Tasman didn’t break much faster, but that’s her style as she set up sixth of seven going into the first turn behind early leader Summer Luck.

“That’s the way our filly runs, you kind of just have to let her do it that way,” said Barnes. “She likes it in the clear, that’s all I know.”

Abel Tasman dropped 3 lengths off the fifth horse and Barnes said the only thing he could, “Well, she’s in the clear . . .”

And then she was on the move, advancing outside horses off the first turn and to the front for jockey Mike Smith. She went from sixth to first in about three-sixteenths of a mile – erasing 7 lengths like it was 1 and putting instant pressure on her rivals.

Smith said it was only half by design all Abel Tasman putting her long legs to good use.

“It was so pretty, there was no way I could have gotten in the way, I almost did, I said, ‘What are you doing you idiot? Stay out of the way, man, you’re always getting in the way,’ ” the Hall of Fame jockey said. “That’s the way I ride, I’m better if just don’t ride, just stay out of their way, they run better. Middle of the first turn, she got into a stride that was pretty, it felt so freaking good. She’s fast, she’s versatile, she can close.”

Back in the clubhouse, Barnes watched with dismay.

“What are you doing?” he asked his horse, his jockey, the world. “What kind of move was that?”

Smith summoned an all-timer to describe it.

“Skip Away, it was the Skip Away move,” he said. “She got into such a big, beautiful stride that I couldn’t get in the way of, I felt like I was going to hurt her more than I was going to help her and they threw the anchor out, man, when they throw the anchor out I’m not going to swing on her just to make everybody else happy, I was going to go with it.

“Hey, I been riding long enough that if it works it’s a genius move and if didn’t, I can take it, because it’s a dumb-ass move if it wouldn’t have worked. But it worked.”

Abel Tasman came back to Smith and settled on the lead, though the peace didn’t last. With 3 furlongs to go, Summer Luck ranged alongside from the rail only to be matched by Abel Tasman as Barnes let out a, “She’s moving again?” Abel Tasman was indeed, answering a challenge with a challenge.

She led to the quarter pole, while behind her fillies went every which way. Summer Luck backed up, Salty ranged up on the outside, pulling Berned into the race. Down on the rail, Elate unfurled the best run to reach even terms with Abel Tasman at the three-sixteenths pole. Abel Tasman responded and went up by a neck while moving in to the two path. There she stayed, walking the line between tight and too tight. Elate fought back, Abel Tasman answered once more and hung on by a head. Salty finished third, 3 1/4 lengths behind the top two after 1:51.74.

Barnes leaned through every inch of the stretch run, and finished like a tired horse.

 “I hated that race,” he said, with a hand slap and a wobbly walk to the winner’s circle. Barnes had to sweat a bit more as the stewards deliberated the foul claim by Jose Ortiz aboard Elate before letting the result stand.

Bred in Kentucky by Clearsky Farm, Abel Tasman collected her third consecutive Grade 1 win – adding the Coaching Club to the Kentucky Oaks in May and the Acorn in June. The daughter of Quality Road has finished worse than second once, when fifth in her debut last summer, in nine starts. The daughter of Quality Road raced for Clearsky through four starts as a 2-year-old including a season-ending win in the Grade 1 Starlet at Del Mar in December before China Horse Club bought 50 percent. The long-striding filly finished second in the Santa Ysabel in March, after which the owners moved her to Baffert from Simon Callaghan. Second in the Santa Anita Oaks in April, Abel Tasman won her next three to move to the head of the 3-year-old filly division.

“You love to acquire fillies like this,” said Michael Wallace of China Horse Club. “Finding them, getting it right, then being able to acquire them and then being able to afford them . . . there are a bunch of steps you’ve got to step through. Looking at her physically, she looked like a filly who would go on and do things. Hopefully something like this, but you never know. She looked like she would go long and not just be a good 2-year-old.”

Like Barnes, Wallace watched the race unfold and winced a bit.

“It’s a track that in the first week is playing a little interesting and down the backstretch he takes her out of her pattern but that’s why you put him on,” Wallace said of Smith. “He knows what he’s doing. It was an inspired move, and a winning move. He understands how quick he’s going and he understands that we haven’t seen a lot (of horses) dig in and make up the ground from the corner.

“I was stressing out, he wasn’t. That’s why he’s Mike Smith.”


Happy Day

Elate romps in Grade 1 stakes for Claiborne, Dilschneider, Mott

By Joe Clancy

Dell Hancock walked toward the Saratoga Race Course winner’s circle after Saturday’s Alabama Stakes, let out a satisfied sigh, smiled and spoke of another milestone to her family’s lifetime of Thoroughbred involvement at Kentucky’s Claiborne Farm.

“I’ve always wanted to win this race,” she said. “It’s just a filly race that’s always been very close to my heart.”

And one run 136 times without a Claiborne-owned winner until Elate stormed home by 5 1/2 lengths Saturday. First run in 1872, three years before the first Kentucky Derby, the Alabama counts among its roster of winners racing’s biggest names – Beldame, Maskette, Top Flight, Vagrancy, Busanda, Gamely, Shuvee, Summer Guest, Our Mims, Love Sign, Go For Wand and so on. Elate, owned and bred by Claiborne and Adele Dilschneider, joined the honor roll by throttling eight other 3-year-old fillies.

The dark bay/brown filly paid no attention to a rammy Mopotism one stall to her right and broke well from post seven for Jose Ortiz. It Tiz Well and Unchained Melody went to the front and Ortiz set up four wide while making sure he held his spot going into the first turn with a look to his right. Wide around the turn, Elate trailed It Tiz Well, Unchained Melody, New Money Honey, Holy Helena and Mopotism through a first quarter in :23.46. California shipper It Tiz Well built a clear lead up the backstretch, and was followed by two sets of three horses. Elate was in the second flight, between Salty on the rail and Mopotism.  Fifth after a half in :46.96, the winner advanced to fourth after 6 furlongs in 1:10.92 and set sail.

Exiting the final turn, It Tiz Well clung to her lead. Unchained Melody backed up on the inside, Queen’s Plate winner Holy Helena ranged up like she might do something. All the while, Elate churned toward the front. Given some rein by Ortiz, she advanced to second like a racing sloop bearing down on a Sunfish and struck for real at the quarter pole.

“On the backside, I was very confident,” said Ortiz. “She was ready 110 percent today. It’s taken a little while to mature, but she did, and you see what she can do. When she won her maiden (at Aqueduct in November), I thought she was going to be a really good filly, I breezed her from the gate before the race and I thought she was going to be this kind.”

Mott was convinced even before that 12 1/2-length debut win.

“We liked her before she ran,” he said. “I told the Claiborne guys, ‘Get your coat and tie,’ when she was a 2-year-old in the summer. She had some sore shins so she missed Saratoga and actually got her started a little later than I wanted, I was going to try to get her started in September but she wound up with a little fever, I didn’t get her started until the end of November, that put us behind from where I was planning to be, then she broke her maiden.”

Early this year, Mott backed off some early thoughts of trying the Kentucky Oaks.

“I took her down to Payson and turned her out in a paddock, I started her back and she kind of let down on me a bit,” the trainer said. “We cranked her up, everybody was thinking Kentucky Oaks, I thought, ‘You know what, she’s really more of an Alabama filly than the Kentucky Oaks.’ ”

She proved it as the Alabama reached its crescendo Saturday.

Elate ran past It Tiz Well when shaken up by Ortiz coming off the turn, drifted in slightly while clear and widened once she got to the rail to complete 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.19. It Tiz Well hung on for second by a head over Salty. Trained by Bill Mott, Elate won for the third time in eight starts, adding the Grade 1 to a stakes victory in the Light Hearted at Delaware Park in June and avenging a game defeat to Abel Tasman here in the Coaching Club American Oaks July 23.

The Californian and Hall of Famer Mike Smith won the battle, crowding Elate on the rail in deep stretch and scoring by a head. Ortiz said things could have been different.

“She was ready to win the Coaching Club and then what happened happened,” Ortiz said. “Mike gave a great ride, I thought she should have won. Mike was in the middle of the track on the turn, I had five paths to go, I went, Mike had to take his whole repertoire out to beat me that day and he did, he did it good. But that’s done, you have to deal with it, if you were only going to win one of them, this is the one.”

The victory in the $600,000 stakes also erased any lingering questions about the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, who was pulled up as the favorite in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland in April. Ortiz thought she took a bad step. The rest of the team wondered, worried and thought about Saratoga.

“At the Ashland when Jose pulled her up we went back to the barn and we were all befuddled,” said Hancock. “What happened? Adele and Bill and I were there and I thought, ‘I’ll trade the Alabama for this.’ ”

Will she ever. Hancock’s grandfather, Arthur B. Hancock Sr., started Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. in 1910 and turned it into the country’s leading Thoroughbred farm. A list of Claiborne-based stallions and homebreds would make a formidable Hall of Fame all by itself with Sir Gallahad III (sire of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox), Blenheim II (sire of Triple Crown winner Whirlaway), leading sires Princequillo, Double Jay, Round Table, Nasrullah, Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Danzig, Mr. Prospector, Swale, Forty Niner and right on up to the current roster led by War Front. Twenty-two actual Hall of Famers were foaled or raised at Claiborne. Much of that history came under the direction of Arthur “Bull” Hancock Jr., Dell Hancock’s father, who succeeded his father at the helm. Bull Hancock’s son Seth (Dell’s brother) assumed the leadership in 1972 and in turn handed the management to his son Walker in 2015. 

Saturday, Dell, Seth and Walker were in the winner’s circle after the Alabama, along with longtime partner Dilschneider (who took off her shoes and led in the filly barefoot). Bull Hancock would have loved it.

“He’d be so proud of Seth and Walker and all of us and the filly too, he’d be tickled to death,” said Dell. “It’s just a great thing to be part of.”

The path to Elate began with the $1.025 million purchase by Seth Hancock and Dilschneider of broodmare Wild Applause at Keeneland November in 1992. The daughter of Northern Dancer and the star Graustark mare Glowing Tribute won graded stakes for her breeder Paul Mellon. Carrying a foal by Forty Niner, Wild Applause became a link to excellence:

• Her half-brother, Sea Hero, won the 1993 Kentucky Derby.

• The Forty Niner foal of 1993 was Roar, who earned $487,507.

• Her 1994 foal, Praise, produced Congrats and Flatter.

• Her 2000 foal, Yell, earned $598,903 and produced stakes winner Cheery, who (in 2014) delivered Elate.

And that’s the Cliff’s Notes version. Cheery is at Claiborne, so is Yell.

The latest star of the family looks the part. She strolled into the paddock Saturday with dapples for days, the buckle of the long leather reins placed on her withers as if painted by Munnings. She strolled around the paddock trees, surveyed the scene while getting tacked, went back to the walking ring as Mott saddled stablemate Lockdown. Across the way, the Alabama blanket of flowers hung on a fence near the paddock bar. If Elate noticed, she didn’t let on. A half-hour later, they were on her shoulders.

“All those fillies looked well,” said Dell Hancock of the Alabama field, which included five graded stakes winners and a Canadian classic winner. “She’s got a look about her though that’s old time and says, ‘I’ve got it under control.’ ”

Like all those Alabama winners before her.

Additional reporting by Sean Clancy.


Timing Is Everything

Forever Unbridled catches Songbird in Grade 1

By Joe Clancy

Seven months . . . 10 weeks . . . a Grade 1 takedown . . . and a serious comparison.

In November, Forever Unbridled emerged from a third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with a chip in her left front ankle. Surgery and rehabilitation delayed her return, but she jumped off the bench like Rudy and won the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs in June. Dallas Stewart knew the next goal – Saratoga Race Course’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign on the Travers Day undercard.

“You never know with fillies, sometimes they go home and forget all about running,” the trainer said. “She came back just like she always was, exactly the same.”

Good, fast, tough and competitive.

Chuck Fipke’s homebred spent the 10 weeks between races with Stewart’s string at Churchill Downs, arrived in Saratoga for Saturday’s $700,000 race and handed champion Songbird just the second defeat of her career. Forever Unbridled and Joel Rosario broke sharply from post three in a four-horse race, dropped back to last and waited as Songbird loped on the lead.

A two-time Saratoga Grade 1 winner last year, Songbird covered the first quarter-mile in :24.14 and was still alone after a half in :47.91. Behind her, Going For Broke and Eskenformoney were side-by-side in second and third. Forever Unbridled inched closer, but was still fourth through 6 furlongs in 1:12.29. Rolling off the turn, Forever Unbridled swarmed the two in front of her and charged four wide as Mike Smith asked Songbird for more. Last year’s champion 3-year-old filly responded to that pressure, and a brief challenge from Eskenformoney on the rail. Still three paths to Songbird’s right, Forever Unbridled chopped into the margin for real at the eighth pole and was a half-length down and rallying with a sixteenth to go. Rosario never lifted his whip, but got plenty of push from his mare, who swept past three strides before the line to win by a neck in 1:49.16 for 1 1/8 miles. Eskenformoney stayed for third.

The winner collected $375,000 to push her career bankroll to $2,086,880 and won for the seventh time in 16 starts. The victory assured her a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff this fall, and confirmed her trainer’s already lofty opinion of the now 5-year-old.

“She’s like Winning Colors,” said Stewart, who worked with the future Hall of Famer while assisting D. Wayne Lukas in the 1980s. “She’s big and strong. She makes a point in her races. She makes a point, like she’s going to DO something. She lays it on the line.”

Stewart came into the Personal Ensign with confidence, but knew Songbird (whose only other defeat in 14 prior starts came when caught in the final step by Beholder at the 2016 Breeders’ Cup) would take plenty of beating.

“You don’t know if you’re going to beat a horse like Songbird, you just got to go try,” Stewart said. “You just go to go try. You just go to go try. She ran her ass off and she could have done that and gotten beat to. You don’t know.”

The winner has deep roots with Fipke and Stewart. In 2004, the trainer purchased a yearling filly by Lemon Drop Kid for $140,000. Named Lemons Forever, and owned by Stewart in partnership with Terry, Willis and Leon Horton, she upset the 2006 Kentucky Oaks, placed in the Alabama and earned $648,940. At Keeneland November 2007, Fipke paid $2.5 million to buy the broodmare prospect. She’s repaid him with Grade 1-winning full-sisters Unbridled Forever (who won the 2015 Ballerina for Stewart here) and Forever Unbridled.

“How about that?” said Stewart, who used the sale of Lemons Forever to lobby Fipke to send some racehorses his way. “I don’t think there’s a stronger family in the world. And Mr. Fipke has put it all together.”

The owner studies pedigrees, with an eye toward producing classic Thoroughbreds, though the first couple he sent Stewart included one unraced 5-year-old and one who wouldn’t work without going to the gate. When Stewart handled that assignment, Fipke sent some others.

Fipke’s homebreds, who race with Stewart, Barclay Tagg and others, also include Grade 1 winners Perfect Soul, Perfect Shirl, Tale Of Ekati, Jersey Town and Java’s War among varying branches and generations.

In addition, Golden Soul finished second in the 2013 Kentucky Derby and Tale Of Verve was second in the 2015 Preakness for Stewart.

“Just about all my horses are homebreds,” he said Saturday. “I like the breeding. I like the research. I do a lot of research on it. You still have to have a lot of luck and a good horse. And today we had both.”

Fipke and Stewart paid credit to Songbird, who won the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama here last summer as part of 11 consecutive wins to launch her career for Fox Hill Farm and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. The California-based filly just missed making it 12 when champion Beholder caught her in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff last year, and opened 2017 with Grade 1 wins in the Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park in June and last month’s Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park. Saturday, she received a classy Saratoga ovation walking up the stretch after settling for second.

“Songbird is such a great horse, she’s unbelievable,” said Fipke. “I love Songbird too, you know? You’re a fan if you’re in this game. It’s too bad we have to be the ones to bring her down a little bit, but that’s the racing game. Our mare is pretty good, too.”

 Forever Unbridled won her second start at Fair Grounds in 2014, became a stakes winner in the Grade 3 Comely at Aqueduct the next year and won the Grade 1 Apple Blossom and Beldame last year. In her only other Saratoga start, she’d chased Cavorting and Curalina home in last year’s Personal Ensign. Stewart credited his mare’s constitution – which also comes with an independent streak.

“She lays it out there every morning, comes home bouncing, eats, does everything you want them to do,” he said. “But this is a freak, here. She’ll hurt you. She don’t stand still. Instead of going this way, she goes that way. She almost dropped the rider here yesterday. She bucked for a sixteenth-of-a mile out here. You’re talking about the morning before a Grade 1. She’s not easy at all. But I love her.”

Equibase entries for Friday’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff