If one just looked at the scene playing out on the Saratoga Race Course main track Aug. 25 and shielded their eyes from any references to time and space, one could have easily watched the Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) and thought—depending on which camp they were in—they were reliving either a brilliant moment or lingering nightmare from last July.
There was trainer Bill Mott standing in the dirt trying to digest a result and subsequent steward’s ruling that didn’t do his filly’s effort justice. There was jockey Jose Ortiz trying to explain, in vain, why the actions of Mike Smith’s mount had cost him the race. And, ultimately, there stood Hall of Famer Bob Baffert in the winner’s circle talking about why the daughter of Quality Road who had just departed back to the barn held such a special place in his heart.
A particularly eerie case of déjà vu washed over the Saratoga faithful Saturday afternoon as champion Abel Tasman and rival Elate re-enacted their first meeting to a freakish T. In a virtual replay of their memorable clash in the 2017 Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), it was Abel Tasman making a bold move on the backstretch, hooking up with the Mott-trained Elate in a stretch battle, prevailing by a short margin, and then surviving an inquiry after contact between the two to capture the $700,000 Personal Ensign Stakes by a neck.
Aside from the fact it was Abel Tasman on the inside of Elate during their latest throwdown, they pretty much stuck to the script. As she did last year when she came in off a win in the Acorn Stakes (G1), Abel Tasman headed into the Personal Ensign fresh off a top-level triumph at Belmont Park having captured the Ogden Phipps Stakes (G1) in brilliant fashion June 9. Similarly, Elate was once again trekking to Saratoga having just scored a handy triumph at Delaware Park, this one being a 3 1/4-length win during her season debut in the Delaware Handicap (G2).
Where their outing at the Spa last year confirmed the duo as the two best sophomore fillies in training, Saturday’s showcase was a declaration that the honors for older female this season is likely going through this pair. After sitting third as She Takes Heart took the field through an opening quarter-mile in :23.31, Abel Tasman quickened when let out a notch by her Hall of Fame pilot Smith to lead the half-mile in :46.62 while Elate rated in fourth.
With Abel Tasman continuing to show the way around the far turn, Elate loomed up on the outside and took dead aim at her nemesis with a furlong to run in the 1 1/8-mile test. As Smith went to the left-handed whip, both fillies appeared to shift paths, coming together at the sixteenth pole with Abel Tasman holding on to win by a neck.
Ortiz aboard Elate lodged an objection, but, as they did a year ago when the two came together in the Coaching Club American Oaks, the stewards ruled no change to the order of finish.
“Down the stretch, we came together. (That was) the reason for the foul, but we didn’t knock each other outside,” Smith said. “We just came together nice and easy and then after that, we actually did the same thing again when she came down. It didn’t cost either filly anything, and the best filly won today. What a gallant race she ran today. It was a really big race she won today.”
Countered Ortiz, “You couldn’t miss it. (Smith) clearly came out and knocked my filly off balance, knocked me off balance, and beat me by a neck. I think (Abel Tasman) should have come down, 100%. I think (Elate) ran a great race. Both fillies did, but c’mon. Last year he bumped me, this year he bumped me again, and I should have won both of them.”
A statement released by the New York State Gaming Commission said that “Elate drifts in some as Abel Tasman drifts out some” and that “with regard to interference, New York is a ‘Category 2′ state, meaning that Commission rules provide that if the interferer is guilty of causing interference and such interference in the judgment of the stewards has altered the finish of the race, then the interferer is placed behind the offended horse.”
Where Mott was able to reconcile last year’s result, the Hall of Fame conditioner was effusive in his disappointment following Saturday’s decision.
“Last year, (the contact) was questionable. This year, I don’t know, it’s the wild, wild west, I guess,” Mott said. “The rider almost came off. Mike came out two paths, we came down a half path, and he rammed us pretty good.
“I try to be objective, and being objective, I don’t like the call. The head-on looks like it was a no-brainer. Very disappointing. Very disappointing. I don’t understand it, I can’t understand it.”
What is beyond dispute is the fact Abel Tasman continues to build a résumé that stands her among the most exceptional distaffers to come out of her legendary trainer’s program. The bay filly, a $65,000 RNA from the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, can beat rivals in various ways, be it rallying from last as she did when she won last year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1), or running foes off their feet like her 7 1/2-length Odgen Phipps score.
“She’s just phenomenal. She’s just getting better with age, and she’s brought us so much satisfaction,” Baffert said. “I could have easily run her at Del Mar, but I wanted to come to Saratoga. It doesn’t get any bigger than this, when you can win here in front of all these people on Travers Day.
“Elate, we knew it was a two-horse race, and she ran big. She’s an incredible mare. She was a champion, and she’s one of the best I’ve ever trained, and she just keeps showing it.”
Sent off as the 4-5 favorite in the field of six Saturday, Abel Tasman covered the distance in 1:47.19 over a fast track to earn her sixth grade 1 win and improve her record to eight wins from 14 starts with $2,787,385 in earnings.
Wow Cat was third, 9 3/4 lengths behind the top two.
“We wish that all the horses were like her. She’s quite a horse,” said Teo Ah Khing of China Horse Club, which owns Abel Tasman along with breeder Clearsky Farms. “We bring visitors to visit her in California, and she’s like an ambassador for the industry here. To win like this was incredible.”