Bloom Racing Stable, Madaket Stables and Allen Racing's Midnight Bisou, undefeated in five starts this season, looks to keep her perfect record intact while seeking her first career victory at Saratoga Race Course in Saturday's Grade 1, $700,000 Personal Ensign presented by Lia Infiniti.
The 70th running of the 1 1/8-mile Personal Ensign for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up on the main track is among seven stakes, six of them Grade 1s, worth $4.8 million in purses on a blockbuster 13-race program highlighted by the 150th renewal of the $1.25 million Runhappy Travers.
Saturday's card in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., will be televised nationally from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern on FS2 as part of a special Travers Day edition of Saratoga Live, with regional coverage available on MSG+, FOX Sports Prime Ticket and Altitude.
The Travers will be shown live on FOX from 5 to 6 p.m. Eastern. First race post time Saturday is 11:35 a.m., while the Personal Ensign – a 'Win and You're In' qualifier for the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Distaff – is carded as Race 9 scheduled to go off at 4:12 p.m.
Never worse than third, with $2.87 million in purse earnings from 16 lifetime starts, all 10 of Midnight Bisou's wins have come in graded stakes. Four of those victories were at Grade 1 caliber, including the Apple Blossom April 19 at Oaklawn Park and the Ogden Phipps June 8 at Belmont Park in back-to-back outings. Most recently, she was a one-length winner of the Grade 3 Molly Pitcher July 20 at Monmouth Park.
“She's an amazingly consistent mare that has maintained a very high level for an extended period of time,” Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said. “We're expecting and want more of the same.”
Midnight Bisou kicked off her 4-year-old season with a workmanlike three-quarter-length triumph in the Grade 3 Houston Ladies Classic Jan. 27 under regular Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith. She similarly won the Grade 2 Azeri by a length March 16 at Oaklawn prior to her nose triumph in the Apple Blossom.
“She gave herself a lot do off the bench in the Ladies at Sam Houston. Since then she has been very sharp,” Asmussen said. “I think examples [of her adjustments] are very subtle within the individual races. It's almost like Mike will think, 'I want to be there,' and she gets there without a lot of obvious visual adjustment. Those are the things you really admire, especially at this level.”
Midnight Bisou raced twice at Saratoga last summer, finishing second to champion 3-year-old filly Monomoy Girl in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks before returning to be third as the favorite in the Grade 1 Alabama behind Eskimo Kisses and Asmussen-trained stablemate She's a Julie.
“Her talent goes without question, but she's obviously very intelligent. Her relationship with Mike, you can see the evolution of it, where they're at now and how responsive she is to him,” Asmussen said. “You get into some of these older races, and the number of horses in them has so much to do with how the race shapes up. She and Mike have been making beautiful adjustments, regardless of who she is in with, for where she needs to be in a race.”
Madaket Stables also has an ownership stake in 4-year-old She's a Julie, herself a five-time graded-stakes winner $73,120 shy of the $1 million mark for career purse earnings. A relentless half-length winner of the Grade 1 La Troienne May 3 at Churchill Downs, She's a Julie ran third in each of her past two starts – the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis June 15, also at Churchill, and the Grade 3 Shuvee July 21 at Saratoga, also run at 1 1/8 miles.
“I feel like she's sitting on the best race of her year,” Asmussen said.
Smith and Midnight Bisou will depart from post 1 as the 124-pound highweight, while Ricardo Santana Jr. rides She's a Julie from post 3 carrying 122 pounds.
A threat to Midnight Bisou's streak is Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm's Elate, one of two contenders entered by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who is seeking his fourth Personal Ensign victory. Mott won the 1994 edition with Link River, then took back-to-back runnings with Royal Delta in 2013 and 2014 with Close Hatches.
Elate also enters the Personal Ensign on a roll, having won her last two starts in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis and a second straight triumph in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap, contested at 1 ¼ miles, on July 13.
“She's done well since the Delaware race and I'm very happy with her,” Mott said. “She put in a very good run in that race. She exploded and put in the kind of run that she's capable of. 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.”
Elate's two losses came this year to Midnight Bisou, finishing second in the Azeri and third in the Apple Blossom. The Azeri was Elate's first race since being beaten a neck by arch-rival Abel Tasman in last year's Personal Ensign; a margin that stood up following a stewards' inquiry following contact between the two in deep stretch.
“I think she's been unlucky maybe not to win a championship. Maybe her career has been a little shortened. If she won the Personal Ensign last year, she could have been champion,' Mott said. “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.”
Mott will also send out Summer Wind Equine's Golden Award in the Personal Ensign off a decisive victory over Wow Cat and She's a Julie in the Grade 3 Shuvee July 21 at Saratoga. The stablemates are the only horses in the field with a win over the main track, with Elate's coming in the 2017 Grade 1 Alabama.
“She's doing well and there's nowhere else to run. It's a major race and it's an opportunity to pick up for her to pick up some black type in a Grade 1 race,” Mott said of Golden Award. “It's not something I like to do. I don't really like running against myself, but by the same token I've got to do what's right for both horses and both owners.
“Her last race was very good. She really stepped up. She took it to them and put them away. She really moved forward in that last race. It was very good,” he added. “I think Golden Award seems to have a bit more early speed, so I don't think it's going to hurt Elate.”
Jose Ortiz returns to ride Elate from post 4 at 120 pounds, with Golden Award carrying 120 pounds including Tyler Gaffalione from far outside post 6.
Peter Brant and Stud Vendaval's Wow Cat, a three-time Group 1 winner in her native Chile, ran third in last year's Personal Ensign in her second North American trip. Second in her debut last summer in the Shuvee, she left Saratoga and won the Grade 1 Beldame Oct. 6 at Belmont Park and was second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, a length behind Monomoy Girl and a half-length ahead of Midnight Bisou.
Wow Cat didn't run again until returning in the Shuvee, racing three-wide on both turns and being outfinished by Golden Award. Since then, the 5-year-old daughter of two-time champion Lookin At Lucky has breezed three times at Saratoga for trainer Chad Brown, the most recent a five-furlong move in 1:00.50 August 17.
“She got a lot out of that last race. Hopefully she's going to move forward. She's going to need to to run against Elate, but I really liked the way she came out of the race. Her last breeze in particular was very strong,” Brown said. “The key to her is the pace in front of her. She prefers some pace in front of her and to sit back a little bit and make one run.”
Hall of Famer John Velazquez, aboard for both Saratoga starts last summer, has the return call from post position 5 at 122 pounds.
Completing the field is Roddy Valente, RAP Racing and West Point Thoroughbreds' Coach Rocks. By 2013 Grade 1 Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow, Coach Rocks went winless from her victory in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks last March until a commanding five-length optional claiming allowance triumph June 23 at Churchill Downs. She followed up with another solid effort in the Molly Pitcher, setting the pace before being caught late by Midnight Bisou on a day where several racetracks in the East cancelled racing due to extreme heat.
“She's doing super. This filly is training just as good as she possibly can,” trainer Dale Romans said. “It was a great win for her at Churchill. The race the other day at Monmouth, there were a lot of odd circumstances that she stood up to, so she's mentally tough right now, too. This is a good race. [There's] some good fillies and some good mares, so you've got to come out of there running. It's one of the best fields on a great day.”
Luis Saez will ride Coach Rocks from post 2 carrying the low weight of 118 pounds.
Run as the Firenze from 1948-85 and the John A. Morris from 1986-97, the Personal Ensign was renamed in honor of the undefeated champion filly owned and bred by Ogden Phipps. Her dramatic victory in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff capped a 13-0 career, making her the first major horse in more than 80 years to accomplish the feat. Personal Ensign was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1993, followed 11 years later by her trainer, Shug McGaughey.
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