SARATOGA SPRINGS — She’s 5-for-5 this season, all graded stakes.
She has won at four different tracks in 2019, and weathered the brutally hot conditions in New Jersey on July 20, a day when most tracks in the northeast, including Saratoga Race Course, canceled their cards.
She’s also 0-for-0 at a mile and an eighth, which is her next assignment.
One little sixteenth of a mile may not seem like much, but against a stiff field, Midnight Bisou will have to find that extra bit of ground to her liking if she is to win the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga on Travers Day this Saturday.
At a mile and a sixteenth, she is a remarkable 9-for-9 in her career — which includes the Cotillion at Parx last year when Monomoy Girl was disqualified from first place. All of Midnight Bisou’s races this year have been at that distance, most recently the Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park, where the card was delayed and reworked because of the intense heat index that shut down just about every other track.
In four career races longer than a mile and a sixteenth, Midnight Bisou is 0-for-4, so it’s reasonable to question whether the Personal Ensign might be a little on the long side, especially when you throw in a top-notch rival like Elate. Trainer Steve Asmussen said her form on paper at the longer distances could be a little misleading, so he’s confident coming into the Personal Ensign.
“She’s an amazingly consistent mare that has maintained a very high level for an extended period of time,” Asmussen told the New York Racing Association. “We’re expecting and want more of the same.”
Midnight Bisou-Elate is perhaps the most intriguing matchup on Saturday’s blockbuster Travers card, which also includes four other Grade I stakes, the Forego, Ballerina, Allen Jerkens and Sword Dancer, as well as the Grade II Ballston Spa.
Elate has had some adventures at Saratoga, losing by a head to Abel Tasman in the 2017 Coaching Club American Oaks and again last year by a neck in the Personal Ensign. In both cases, there was some controversy over bumping in the stretch, with Mike Smith aboard Abel Tasman, and in both cases, the result stood after a stewards inquiry.
Smith also rides Midnight Bisou, who benefited from the disqualification of Monomoy Girl in the Cotillion last year.
Midnight Bisou’s record going longer than a mile and a sixteenth — all during a busy 2018 campaign — includes a third to Monomoy Girl in the Kentucky Oaks, a second to her in the CCA Oaks, a third behind Eskimo Kisses in the Alabama and a third to Monomoy Girl in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
“It is unique, her record at 1 1/16 miles,” Asmussen said. “Her Kentucky Oaks, it looked like she needed more ground. Third last year in the Distaff, it looked like she needed more ground. It isn’t a situation where she got there and couldn’t finish it off. I think it’s just the circumstances. I don’t think her races last year at Saratoga were her best, either. So I think that is a bigger obstacle to overcome than the 1 1/8 miles.”
Asmussen did have some concern about what the Molly Pitcher on that hot day at Monmouth may have taken out of her, but she appeared to shake off that experience without difficulty.
She finished a length in front of Coach Rocks, co-owned by Roddy Valente of Loudonville and Rick Pitino.
“I was really happy with her when she came for her winner’s picture, she was really comfortable and she cooled out very easily,” Asmussen said. “And her training has been very impressive.
“Right now, the rhythm that she’s in, the success that she’s had, how she has responded to Mike, that has made the difference.”
The field for the Personal Ensign, in post-position order from the rail out, will be: Midnight Bisou, Coach Rocks, She’s a Julie, Elate, Wow Cat, Golden Award.
Asmussen also trains She’s a Julie, and trainer Bill Mott also has a 1-2 punch, with Elate and Golden Award, who is coming off a win by 2 1/4 lengths over Wow Cat in the Grade III Shuvee at Saratoga on July 21.
Elate has lost to Midnight Bisou twice this year, in the Azeri and Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, then came back with solid wins in the mile-and-an-eighth Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs and mile-and-a-quarter Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park.
“I think she’s been unlucky maybe not to win a championship,” Mott said. “Maybe her career has been a little shortened. If she won the Personal Ensign last year, she could have been champion. We’ve run big races with her off the shelf before. Last year, we won the Delaware Handicap off an eight- or nine-month layoff, so six weeks I don’t think is a big deal for her. It’s a nice amount of time.”
“She exploded and put in the kind of run that she’s capable of [at Delaware Park]. We’ve been able to get a little racing in her this year and a little seasoning. She’s fit and ready to go, so hopefully that will carry on to the Personal Ensign.”
In five career starts at a mile and an eighth, Elate has finished first twice and second twice.
Midnight Bisou’s record at that distance may not stack up to that, but she hasn’t done anything wrong in assembling an undefeated 2019 season.
“I feel like she’s sitting on the best race of her year,” Asmussen said.