SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Fans at Saratoga Race Course have been treated to some spectacular stretch duels in the big races for fillies in the last four years.
They had to watch this one remotely, but Saratoga did its part nonetheless, as Vexatious fought off champion Midnight Bisou by a neck, then survived a stewards inquiry in the Grade I Personal Ensign on Saturday.
The 2019 Eclipse Award-winning older dirt female, 5-year-old Midnight Bisou ran her record to 13-6-3, never having finished off the board in 22 starts, but fell just short in attempting to become the first back-to-back winner of the Personal Ensign since Beautiful Pleasure in 1999-2000.
"This game, the highs and lows are so many," Midnight Bisou's co-owner Jeff Bloom said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. I wish this one had gone our way, it didn't, it was close, and ... we're not over. This filly is just an amazing, remarkable filly, and she's got a lot of fun stuff ahead of her."
“Tough defeat,” Midnight Bisou trainer Steve Asmussen said. “But when you see the final time [1:48.82] is the same as the Whitney [1:48.65], the credit needs to go to the other mare. We have an unexplained loss on the year, I’m glad it’s out of the way here instead of in the Breeders’ Cup. She looked good back at the barn after the race, and hopefully we get back on track.”
Ridden by Jose Lezcano, Vexatious won for just the fourth time in 23 career starts, most of them in graded stakes since April of 2017.
She got this one by stalking front-runner Motion Emotion and getting the jump on her just before Midnight Bisou, ridden by Ricardo Santana in place of Mike Smith because of the New York jockey lockdown, started building momentum on the second turn.
Midnight Bisou caught up just outside the eighth pole, at which point Vexatious moved a few paths wider to get a closer look at the champ to her outside.
They ran on equal terms for the rest of the stretch, bumping again a few strides before the wire as Vexatious battled on for by far the biggest victory of her career.
"It's a great win whether at Belterra or Saratoga," trainer Jack Sisterson told the New York Racing Association by phone. "It's our first win at Saratoga, so it's cool that it's a Grade I with the history behind the race."
Shortly after the finish, the steward's lodged an inquiry into the two bumping episodes in the stretch.
After several minutes, the result stood.
Bloom didn't agree with the decision.
"The other filly came out, he was hitting her left-handed, and it looked like it stopped our filly's momentum enough at that point," he said. "And then they hooked up again one more time, and it didn't look like it was massive, but, to me, it did look like it was a momentum shift at a crucial point of the race.
"The more I watched it, the more I thought we had a chance. The fillies are battling at that point in the race, and if you watch the head-on, there's no question that horse came over and bumped her, and she got bumped at a point where a horse is just really starting to dig in and collect themself. So I was hopeful that it would [come down], and it didn't."
"It's always a worrisome time when the inquiry sign comes up, but if it wasn't meant to be, we would still be proud of our horse's game effort," Sisterson said. "She ran terrific."
The Personal Ensign history to which Sisterson, a former assistant to Doug O'Neill, referred includes Midnight Bisou's victory by a nose over Elate last year and a stretch duel won by Abel Tasman over Elate in 2018, a sour result for many fans, who booed after Abel Tasman banged into Elate but wasn't taken down.
The year before, Abel Tasman beat Elate in the Coaching Club American Oaks and survived a stewards inquiry and a claim of foul by jockey Jose Ortiz.
Vexatious was coming off a two-length loss to Monomoy Girl in the Grade II Ruffian at Belmont Park three weeks ago.
"We always thought she had a big win in her, and all credit to the filly," Sisterson said. "We started off the year in allowance races and allowed her to improve, and she deserves it."
Bloom took nothing away from his mare Midnight Bisou, who was coming off an 8 1/4-length win in the Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs.
"She ran a huge race, she barely lost the race, she's a remarkable race mare," he said. "And I think what happened in the race definitely caused a shift in momentum. Is it disappointing to lose? Of course it is. You want to win all of them. They don't give Grade I races away; you've got to go out there and do it. The filly that beat us is a really nice filly. She ran a huge race last out and is on the upswing, so that's what happens.
"I don't see how it taints her legacy at all. Look at her resume. She's never been out of the money once, and every win has come in a graded stake.
"And she just missed winning this one."