Horse racing coverage debuts at The Sporting Tribune

The Sporting Tribune's Louie Rabaut makes his debut before the Kentucky Derby. He will be covering the storied event in Louisville.

LOUISVILLE — I’m sitting on my back porch.  It’s 70 degrees and sunny here in Louisville.  Spring and autumn around here are the absolute best.  

On May 5, 2017, it was anything but.  It topped out south of 40 degrees.  I threw on a winter jacket, fastened my bow tie, and headed to Churchill Downs for Kentucky Oaks 143. 

The Oaks is the filly version of the Derby. It’s restricted to three-year-old fillies who follow a set of races to qualify for a spot in the starting gate.

As is customary, our friend group was putting together a bet for the Oaks race itself.  $20 a head, the normal stuff, the fun stuff.  “What about Abel Tasman?” my friend Rich, new-ish to horse racing at the time, asked.

“No way.  Paradise Woods just dusted her in the Santa Anita Oaks.  She’s got no shot.”

As with all great gambling stories, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Abel Tasman made her move from last to first, under the skillful ride of veteran jockey Mike Smith. 

I couldn’t even turn around in our box as Rich tapped me on the shoulder, playfully demanding answers for my terrible handicapping.

Abel Tasman went on to win four more Grade 1 races — the highest level of race in North America — before the moment that changed how I felt about horse racing forever.

Fast forward 18 months to Nov. 3, 2018.  It’s Breeder’s Cup Classic Day — the Saturday of the world championships.  Abel Tasman is back at Churchill Downs for the Distaff — the Filly and Mare championship at the Breeder’s Cup.

She had won back-to-back Grade 1s in New York State that summer and was coming in ready for her coronation as the top filly in America. That was after finishing a good second in the same race a year earlier at Del Mar.

As the race unfolded, she was in a great spot: mid-pack, ready to pounce.  I was sure she was going to get there.  I couldn’t look away — she’s about to make her move, I know it.

But she never did.  At the top of the stretch, she quit running.  She settled into a slow jog, eventually finishing last.  Veteran jockey Mike Smith simply stopped pressing and leaned over to comfort her. 

I watched Smith pet her, talk to her.  He knew what the rest of us were about to learn: She decided she was done racing.

After the race, her trainer Bob Baffert said, “I thought she was in a good spot, [Smith] got aggressive with her, but she just doesn’t want to run anymore, it looks like.” 

He was right.  She never raced again.

I didn’t grow up around horse racing, unlike many of my contemporaries.  I got into it for all the public reasons: the wagers, the drinking, the party.  

But it was Abel Tasman, and her simple protest, that made me respect the equine athlete.

And with that — welcome to horse racing here at The Sporting Tribune.  We’ll feature two pieces per week, one previewing the weekend’s biggest races, and one reacting to them. 

I’m also hopeful we’ll get a monthly mailbag together so readers can ask questions and share their thoughts.  We’ll always hit the Southern California feature, but we’ll bounce around nationally to the biggest races, as well.

Up next: We’ve reached the end of the major Derby and Oaks preps, so it’s time to get our rankings together.  The next three weeks are Derby-heavy, but we’ll keep up on the stakes at Santa Anita and Keeneland as well.

Now, where did I set my Julep?