SARATOGA SPRINGS — Steve Asmussen’s son Keith won his first career race as a jockey at Lone Star Park in Texas on Sunday.
His mount was bet down to 3-5 odds, and when it was suggested on Friday morning to the father, a Hall of Fame trainer, that the horse was well-spotted, he said, “This sport isn’t giving anybody anything.”
That naturally led to mention of Midnight Bisou’s 2-5 morning-line odds in the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, to which Asmussen said, “Same thing.”
“They’re there to be competitive, and we need to run well.”
If the champion builds off her most recent race, her six rivals in the Personal Ensign will need to be more than competitive.
You don’t see 2-5 favorites in Grade I races too often, but the 5-year-old Midnight Bisou is deserving of that standing, based on her resume and race schedule, which was jam-packed last year and has been much less busy in 2020, but no less lustrous. She’s 13-5-3 for $7,371,520 and has never finished off the board in 21 career starts.
Facing males for the first time in her career, Midnight Bisou opened the season by nearly winning the $20 million Saudi Cup in February, then romped by 8 1/4 lengths in the Grade II Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs on June 27.
For months, she has been No. 1 among Thoroughbreds regardless of age, gender and preferred surface in the NTRA national poll, and has handled the circumstances of the trip to Saudi Arabia and then the COVID-19 pandemic to reinforce her status as the Eclipse Award-winning older dirt female in 2019.
“She’s been remarkable from the get-go, and it’s just amazing that she continues to show that,” co-owner Jeff Bloom told the New York Racing Association “She actually has more to show us.”
She almost didn’t.
Bloom and fellow owners Allen Racing and Madaket Stable put Midnight Bisou in the catalogue for the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, then pulled her from consideration at the last minute, the morning of the Breeders’ Cup, where she finished second to Blue Prize in the BC Distaff.
Once they made that call, an ambitious next target was the inaugural Saudi Cup, and Midnight Bisou battled all the way to the wire, but finished three-quarters of a length behind Maximum Security.
“We talked about it a lot, but we had made the decision prior to the Breeders’ Cup that we would go ahead and campaign her another year and enjoy the ride,” Bloom said. “Fortunately, it’s worked out well and she’s already rewarded us substantially.”
“When Jeff Bloom and the Allens and Madaket decided to take her out of the sale and run her this year, it was to run in the Saudi Cup,” Asmussen said. “That was the plan after the Breeders’ Cup, and I thought she ran a solid race there. Then she was quarantined for a bit when we came back, and the break was longer than expected because of the pandemic and no schedule out there whatsoever.
“Then when they did throw out a schedule, you were kind of surprised by it, so to speak. Nobody had a road map in June. There was no racing at the level we wanted to run.”
So Midnight Bisou had an uncharacteristic gap in racing.
She ran eight times from January to November in 2019, including a nose victory over Elate in the Personal Ensign, after having run nine times as a 3-year-old in 2018.
If she wins on Saturday, she’ll be the first to win back-to-back Personal Ensigns since Beautiful Pleasure in 1999-2000.
As dominating as Midnight Bisou’s performance was in the Fleur de Lis — Asmussen called it “brilliant” and “breathtaking” — she may have stamped her greatness even more firmly in defeat in the Saudi Cup.
Besides Maximum Security, the 14-horse international field included Pegasus World Cup winner Mucho Gusto, 2019 Whitney winner McKinzie and Tacitus.
“She is extremely special,” Asmussen said. “It was a wonderful field and a tremendous setting. The racetrack was pristine, and for her to compete like that in a full field, with all the variables, I mean, it was pageantry on pageantry … it takes an inner strength that she has to perform under those circumstances. I thought she made a great run at it and ran well. She beat some extremely impressive horses, minus one.”
“She’s been incredibly consistent throughout her entire career, and she’s showing us that she’s improving,” Bloom said. “It’s hard to come up with enough adjectives to describe what kind of a racehorse she is and what she’s meant to our family.”
What’s been missing for the last year and a half is a resurrection of Midnight Bisou’s rivalry with Monomoy Girl.
During their 3-year-old season in 2018, Monomoy Girl finished ahead of Midnight Bisou four times, usually by short margins, with Midnight Bisou getting a reversal of their Cotillion result at Parx when Monomoy Girl was disqualified.
Monomoy Girl missed 2019 with a minor bout with colic and a pulled muscle, and didn’t get back to the races until May, with an allowance win at Churchill Downs. She won the Grade II Ruffian at Belmont Park on July 11, and her schedule isn’t likely to dovetail with Midnight Bisou’s until the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland.
Monomoy Girl likely will run in the Grade I La Troienne at Churchill on Kentucky Oaks Day Sept. 4, and Asmussen said Midnight Bisou would get another start before the Breeders’ Cup without specifying anything.
“It’ll be great to have the Monomoy Girl-Midnight Bisou showdown, which is what we’re all looking forward to,” said Michael Dubb, one of Monomoy Girl’s co-owners. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Asmussen chose not to compare Midnight Bisou with another of his female champions who have won big races at Saratoga, Rachel Alexandra.
“We’ve been blessed with great horses, and what makes them great is how they perform against what they’re put up against,” he said. “Who they are on the racetrack … comparing horses, that’s for workouts in the morning.
“Races is how they separate themselves.”