Breeders’ Cup Saturday: Spa heroes dot the Distaff

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The 2019 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, arguably the best race of the two-day World Championships, features a significant Saratoga flavor with six of the 11 runners racing in upstate New York before making their way to Santa Anita Park.

Midnight Bisou leads the six and looks to make it a clean 8-for-8 in 2019, a record that includes a victory in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign over Elate. Dunbar Road, winner of the Grade 1 Alabama for 3-year-old fillies, also figures prominently in the Distaff along with Summer Colony and Grade 1 Spinster winner Blue Prize. The other Saratoga stars in the Distaff field are Street Band, Wow Cat and Serengeti Empress.

Striking 12. Midnight Bisou catches Elate in last stride of Grade 1. Written for the Aug. 25 Saratoga Special by Joe Clancy.

Seated in a corner box in the back row next to the steps in the Saratoga Race Course clubhouse, Jeff Bloom was just another guy at the races as the horses loaded into the gate for the Personal Ensign Stakes Saturday. Composed and comfortable in a blue suit, he held binoculars and a program and waited for the race to start. Only a camera crew one box over hinted at something big.

Then the race happened. Bloom’s Midnight Bisou hooked up with Elate in the stretch of the $700,000 Grade 1 and they traded punches like two old-school hockey players with a grudge to settle. Midnight Bisou threw a haymaker. Elate shook it off and landed a right cross. Midnight Bisou reached back. Elate did not duck.

Upstairs, Bloom’s composure was gone like Saratoga humidity. He stepped out of the box to the aisle, slapped the rolled program into his left hand at the top of the stretch . . . took a couple steps to his left, then a few to his right, went back to the program – slap – at the eighth pole . . . then three more times . . . slap, slap, slap . . . and finished with a leaning, twisting grimace of uncertainty.

“Is it us? Is it us?” he asked himself, nobody, anybody.

Like everyone at Saratoga for a blockbuster Travers Day card, Bloom couldn’t tell who won. Not for sure.

“I dunno,” he said. “I dunno. I dunno.”

When the slow-motion replay came up on the infield screen, he rooted for his horse as if he might help her get to the finish line first.

“Come on mama, come on,” he said with another lean, another grimace.

Bloom and most of the other participants were out on the track by the time the photo-finish result came. Midnight Bisou ran her record to 6-for-6 this year with wins in the Houston Ladies Classic, Azeri, Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps, Molly Pitcher and now Personal Ensign in a campaign that began in January. The streak might guarantee an Eclipse Award as champion older female, not that details like that mattered much Saturday.

“It’s a dream ride she’s taken us on,” said Bloom. “I’ve been around a lot of good horses, but there’s something so unique and special about this filly, just her personality, her demeanor, her ability to just take care of herself, her will to win. At the end of the day, if they don’t have that will to win they’re not going to win these kinds of races.”

Not even close.

From the inside post in a field of six, 8-5 second choice Midnight Bisou and Mike Smith broke a step behind the others and let them go into the first turn. Coach Rocks made the lead, followed by She’s A Julie and 4-5 favorite Elate third to the outside. Golden Award and Wow Cat raced together in fourth and fifth, with Midnight Bisou still last but off the rail and in touch after a first quarter-mile in :23.46. The order didn’t change as the half-mile went up in :47.88, though Midnight Bisou was soon on the move three wide. Elate advanced to second after three-quarters in 1:11.58. Wow Cat tried to keep pace, but came up empty. Fourth with work to do, Midnight Bisou revved up.

With a glance through his legs for competition, Jose Ortiz let Elate roll off the turn as Midnight Bisou swept wide past Coach Rocks into second. Elate, beaten a neck in last year’s Personal Ensign while trying to catch Abel Tasman, lengthened stride and got a few yards on Midnight Bisou, who responded to Smith and matched the move. She drew even – finally – inside the sixteenth pole and they finished seven synchronized strides.

Bloom saw the match-up develop. So did Steve Asmussen.

“When I saw them coming around the turn, I thought ‘All right, the fans are going to get what they thought they were going to get,’ ” said the owner. “I just really wanted to end up on the right side of that equation . . . Our filly showed them what she’s made of. What a great matchup between those two. It’s great for the game and it ended up in a good way for us.”

“I love to watch races, especially like this, up the stretch and they both came into the stretch with a lot of horse,” said the trainer, who typically watches from up the stretch near the eighth pole. “You could tell how confident Jose was when he came into the stretch and Mike is Mike, you knew it was going to lock up and it was so exciting from there.”

Midnight Bisou collected her first win at 1 1/8 miles (in 1:47.92) and pushed her career earnings to $3,245,000 while winning for the 11th time in 17 starts. Behind the top two came the Asmussen-trained She’s A Julie, 8 3/4 lengths back in third.

Bred in Kentucky by Woodford Thoroughbreds, Midnight Bisou failed to sell as a yearling at Keeneland September in 2016. Bloom spent $80,000 to buy the daughter of Midnight Lute and the Repent mare Diva Delite at the OBS April 2-year-old sale in 2017. Trained by Bill Spawr, she finished second in two starts for Bloom and Allen Racing that year and opened 2018 with three graded wins. Third in the Kentucky Oaks, she moved to Asmussen’s care – and added Madaket Stable to the ownership grouping – and won the Mother Goose. She capped last year with a third in the Alabama here, a win via disqualification in the Cotillion and a third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

She’s done nothing but win in 2019, and Smith notices a difference in more than the results.

“She’s stronger than last year, a little more to her, I don’t know if she grew up height wise but she’s filled out in her neck,” said the jockey. “Last year, she struggled over this track a lot. Last year, she bobbled and I like to lost the reins a couple times. She just couldn’t get over it for whatever reason, well she couldn’t get over it like she did today. She’s about 75 to 100 pounds more mare than she was last year.”

She needed to be.

Argentine Tango. Grade 1 winner Blue Prize wins Sunday stakes duel for Correas. Written for Aug. 22 Saratoga Special by Ben Gowans.

It’s not hard to tell the level at which a trainer is admired by his peers at the racetrack. Especially when those peers are the people the trainer just beat.

Ignacio Correas was that trainer after Blue Prize won Sunday’s Summer Colony Stakes.

A hug from Sarah Arnold, a handshake from Tristan Barry among others and even sincere congratulations from Jack Sisterson and Mark O’Dwyer, the team responsible for Vexatious, who was run down by Blue Prize in the $100,000 stakes.

Correas breathed a sigh of relief after Blue Prize got the better of Vexatious by a neck. The native of Argentina wasn’t feeling as relaxed as Blue Prize traveled around the first turn in the 1 1/8-mile race.

“I guess he had a bump here on the first turn,” Correas said of jockey Jose Ortiz on the way to the winner’s circle. “He had to do it that way. She made up a lot of ground.”

It wasn’t a bump, but it might as well have been. Blue Prize’s rival Breaking Bread carried the eventual winner out two paths going into the turn. The loss of forward momentum caused Ortiz to relegate the 3-5 favorite to last and made the generally difficult to agree with Argentinian-bred mare to get even more rank.

Having ridden her before, Ortiz knew what buttons to push – or not push – and Blue Prize relaxed as she started her run down the backstretch. While the lost position around the turn wasn’t in Ortiz’s original plans, he stayed patient, instead of worrying aboard the heavy favorite who usually races much closer to the pace.

“Jose knows her, he won with her a couple of times,” Correas said Friday before the race. “He knows what to do and will take care of that. It’s up to him.”

While Blue Prize raced at the rear of the field, Alberobello set strong fractions of :22.96 and :47.28. Vexatious traveled kindly in third, handling the dirt just fine in her first start over the surface in more than a year. Blue Prize moved up one spot from last, bounding along on the outside in sixth.

As the three-eighths pole and bend for home loomed, Joel Rosario asked Vexatious to attack Alberobello. At the five-sixteenths pole, Vexatious took the lead while still traveling well, but Ortiz wasn’t asleep at the wheel.

Blue Prize went from sixth to third in less than a half-furlong and Ortiz knew he just had one horse to beat. Well out into the middle of the track, Blue Prize ranged up outside of Vexatious.

Ortiz went to his stick just as his mount switched over to the correct lead. Rosario started to ask Vexatious, who had a 1-length advantage at the top of the stretch. Blue Prize started to claw away at that margin and it was a good, old-fashioned duel from there on as the two fillies extended themselves to the finish.

Blue Prize stuck her blinkered head in front just a few strides before the wire. It was 14 1/2 lengths back to Alberobello in third.

“The trip wasn’t like the way I expected, but she had the class,” Correas said. “I’m happy she’s back in the winner’s circle. We’ll keep working to see what we can do to go to the next level but she needed to come here for this win.”

Although Blue Prize’s early trouble was not self-inflicted, the 6-year-old mare has been a puzzle for Correas to figure out when it comes to what makes her tick.

“She’s very tricky what you do with her. I thought I might take the blinkers off but she had run so good with them,” Correas said. “We adjusted the blinkers a little for this race, it’s tough to make big changes with her. We put blinkers on her with a hole in behind.

“Usually when she doesn’t have nothing to chase, she loses focus. That’s what we were looking to try to fix. These are the blinkers that we put on after the Spinster. Last time, I opened them a little bit more, now we went back to what they were. They made her run so well in the Breeders’ Cup. That’s it, you can’t overthink it. She has the talent.”

Talent has never been a question with the mare brought to the U.S. by owner Merriebelle Stable after a win in Argentina’s Group 1 Seleccion in October 2016. The daughter of Pure Prize went winless in her first five starts in America but won Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Falls City by 8 1/4 lengths to close out her first year in the U.S.

Blue Prize won four times in 2018, capped by a win in the Grade 1 Spinster at Keeneland before a fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. After a second and two thids to start 2019, Correas targeted the Summer Colony to get Blue Prize back in the winner’s circle rather than running her in this weekend’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign.

“That was a very easy choice. I had no intention of going to Personal Ensign,” Correas said. “If I wasn’t coming here for this race, I wasn’t going anywhere. The owners, managers, everybody trusts me and do what I think is good for her.”

Just like on the racetrack, Correas and his team better understand how to handle Blue Prize at the barn after a few years getting to know each other.

“Now, she’s getting better but she was pretty mean,” Correas said. “Not mean, complicated, very complicated. But now with age, she has gotten better. We have worked a lot with her. “

Blue Prize shipped backed to Keeneland following the win and Correas plans on another run at the Spinster.

“That’s home for her. I look forward to that.”

High Road. Favorite rallies in mud to capture Grade 1 stakes. Written for Aug. 18 Saratoga Special by Sean Clancy.

Jose Ortiz pulled off the rain-soaked green-on-green silks, slipped off his green hat cover and held his helmet in his hands, the one with “I love my Family” in white ink on the back.

“The colors are light,” Ortiz said, tossing the silks on the table outside the jocks’ room. “But they’re heavy.”

Riding the favorite in the Grade 1 Alabama for the high-profile team of Peter Brant and Chad Brown can be heavy with pressure. Saturday afternoon, Dunbar Road took the pressure off, answering Ortiz’s audibles like a Saturday Night Live sidekick to score by 2 3/4 lengths over Point Of Honor and Street Band. The daughter of Quality Road, bred by Jeffery Drown, finished 1 1/4 miles over a sloppy, sealed track in 2:04.07.

Sopping wet and mud-splattered, Ortiz explained what it takes to be leading jockey at Saratoga, what it takes to win iconic races like the Alabama. It starts with the trainer, most importantly his instructions. It includes the horse, her adaptability and ability. And it hinges on the jockey, his instincts.

“Don’t give me one instruction. When they give you one instruction it makes it harder if it doesn’t go that way,” Ortiz said. “Most of the time, the race changes, somebody breaks bad, somebody stumbles, somebody thinks like you. When they give you confidence, it makes a big difference.”

In the paddock before the Alabama, Brown gave Ortiz freedom, which delivered confidence.

“You know the filly, ride her however you want,” Brown said. “If they give you the lead, take it. If you’re there and you’re comfortable, take it.”

Ortiz loved the flexibility.

“He gave me confidence,” Ortiz said. “I feel like I can do what I want, what I know to do, ride horses.”

Dunbar Road broke well from the rail and Ortiz allowed her speed to take her forward, inside Lady Apple, Champagne Anyone and Ulele. Ortiz hovered, waited and realized there was plenty of pace pressure and Dunbar Road wasn’t going to win that war. Setting the pace slid off the playbook.

“I wasn’t there and comfortable so I didn’t take it,” Ortiz explained. “Plan A was going to the lead but that changed when the gates opened. I changed it in seconds.”

Dunbar Road slid out of her pressured inside slot and all the way back to seventh, ahead of only 36-1 Afleet Destiny as the field ganged up in a scrum of indecision.

Champagne Anyone and Ulele led but without conviction, posting the first quarter-mile in :24.14. Lady Apple and Off Topic tracked the leading duo. Street Band found a sweet spot in fifth. Point Of Honor set up on the outside of Dunbar Road. Afleet Destiny lagged.

“Just make the horse comfortable, let me ride the filly the way it comes up, I like that,” Ortiz said. “If the horse is good on the lead, fine. If the horse is good sitting in the back of the pack, fine. Whatever is comfortable, wherever she’s happy, I’m happy, then start working my way from the half-mile pole to the wire.”

Champagne Anyone and Ulele led past the half-mile pole. Off Topic moved into third but started to come under pressure from Manny Franco. Sophie Doyle slid Street Band into fourth, rolling past Lady Apple along the rail. Javier Castellano and Point Of Honor aimed outside. This is where thoughts became instincts for Ortiz.

“Sophie was in a great spot the whole way, she gave it a great ride, but I can’t follow her any more because there was going to be room for one horse and that was her because she’s in front of me,” Ortiz said. “Manny was kind of dying, I can’t go there, because Javier is outside him. If I go there, he’s got enough horse to pinch me, so I decide to give him one or two strides and come around her. I did it because I knew what kind of filly I had under me.”

Midway on the turn, Ortiz flipped down a pair of goggles and eased back without pulling back, keeping Dunbar Road light on her feet and within touch of the five-horse peloton. That’s what Ortiz does best, he keeps his foot on the gas while shimmying like an air-hockey puck, waiting for the passing lane, inside, through or outside. This time it was outside, following Point Of Honor around Ulele and Champagne Anyone and a bottled-up Street Band.

“In a blink. Everything is happening in fractional seconds, you have to be light, you have to be sharp, you have to be on your game, especially here,” Ortiz said. “Your confidence is up, you don’t think twice. When you think twice, you mess it up. When you got the confidence level up, you don’t think twice, you say, ‘OK, that’s my spot.’ You think twice, somebody take it.”

Passing the quarter pole, Champagne Anyone found nothing along the rail while Ulele plummeted four wide. Street Band pounced between them, Point Of Honor swung into her best stride and Dunbar Road joined them from her overland route, Ortiz throwing crosses and slapping right-handed, under-handed. Nearing the eighth pole, three Grade 2 stakes-winning fillies clashed, at the cusp of a Grade 1 stakes win. And then it was gone for Point Of Honor and Street Band, the only thing left to fight for was the $48,000 difference between second and third. Dunbar Road lengthened her stride and her lead to win with authority. Ortiz standing tall in his irons and pumping his white gloved-hand to the crowd strides before the wire, his third consecutive Alabama Stakes win in the books.

Purchased for $350,000 at Keeneland September in 2017, Dunbar Road won her debut by 8 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream Park in March. Twenty-seven days later, she leapt into Grade 2 stakes territory with a second behind Champagne Anyone in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. Two months later she won a penalty kick against four allowance foes at Belmont Park. A month after that, she trounced five rivals in the Grade 2 Mother Goose. Shipped to Saratoga, she breezed four times in preparation for her Grade 1 stakes debut.

“I grew up watching these silks winning big races, just dreaming to ride these kinds of horses,” Ortiz said. “There is a lot of pressure in the game, but I try not to put pressure on me. If I have the horse, I know I have the ability. If the horse is 100 percent, you always have a shot. We have great horses, they’re 100 percent. That’s the beauty of the business, if you think you have a good horse, somebody else has a good horse and somebody else has a good horse, they face up. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”

With Dunbar Road, they always win.

High Note. Jones hopes Street Band bucks her recent trend in Grade 1 stakes. Written for Aug. 17 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.

Street Band walked out into a slight chill and a light rain Friday morning at Saratoga Race Course, and looked a bit like the filly Larry Jones often sees after a victory.

The 3-year-old daughter of Istan bounced on her short walk from the end of trainer Stan Hough’s barn at about the three-eighths pole to the gap near the quarter pole. Decked out in full cup blinkers and draw reins with Jones in the saddle, she galloped an easy quarter-mile or so before a couple turns around the empty paddock with just a few onlookers nearby.

Jones, the trainer and co-owner of the filly with his wife Cindy, Ray Francis, Medallion Racing and MyRaceHorse Stable, took her to the starting gate from there before a light gallop down the backstretch, around the turn and to the quarter-pole gap.

Street Band, one of nine 3-year-old fillies entered in today’s featured Grade 1 Alabama Stakes, looked every bit as fresh coming off the track a little before 9:10 a.m. as she did 25 minutes before. Winner of the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks and Grade 3 Indiana Oaks sandwiched around a seventh in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, Street Band is 10-1 for the 1 1/4-mile Alabama.

“You may have noticed on numbers she’s a bounce-and-bounce-back horse,” Jones said, in direct reference to those three races and even a fourth in the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra that preceded the Fair Grounds Oaks. “Just look. Every. Other. Race. It’s like, man, she gets high on herself after she wins. She gets so high and mighty and then they kick her ass and it brings her back to reality. That’s her races and her numbers, every time.”

Jones hopes Street Band sheds that on-again, off-again syndrome, especially considering she comes into the Alabama off a career-best performance in her 3 1/2-length victory in the Indiana Oaks.

Street Band won that race off a more than two-month break after her overland journey and subsequent seventh (sixth via disqualification) in the Kentucky Oaks. Street Band, whose jockey Sophie Doyle makes her Saratoga debut in the Alabama, was forced wide on both turns in the Kentucky Oaks after leaving from post 12 and never seriously threatening eventual winner Serengeti Empress.

Jones, who won the Alabama in 2008 with eventual champion 3-year-old filly Proud Spell, also hopes Street Band can handle the distance and settle off what could be an honest pace in the 139th renewal of one of Saratoga’s signature events.

“It’s a very competitive bunch of horses,” he said. “They look pretty evenly matched. It’s still going to be a little of who gets the trip and who can get the mile-and-a-quarter. Nobody’s tried this yet. We like our breeding with Street Cry, he was a mile-and-a-quarter horse and her mother was from The Minstrel family, so it was all stamina. Istan, he was a sprinter but he comes from the old Rokeby Stable, so breeding is there to go this far.

“We think she will go that far if she’ll settle. That’s been our problem her whole career, getting her just to calm down and relax. It looks like it’s finally starting to work. She sat nice in the Indiana race. The pace wasn’t extremely fast to get tucked in behind but she tucked in behind a legitimate pace. There’s a little speed there to the inside, so hopefully there’s something to get tucked in behind.”

Jones and partners bred Street Band, the winner of four of 10 starts and $434,425, out of the Street Cry mare Street Minstrel. He also trained Street Minstrel, a $30,000 purchase at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling sale, for Michael Pressley’s Oasis Racing Stables. She won two of five starts before retiring in 2007.

“We really loved her mother,” Jones said. “She was from the first crop of Street Cry. And of course his first crop was crap. He only came up with Zenyatta and Street Sense. I’ll be honest, she was the same crop as Hard Spun and while we had her going we weren’t all that impressed with Hard Spun.

“She could drill him leaving out of the gates. Getting them gate trained she was much further along. We thought he was going to be a turf horse. We weren’t expecting a lot in the morning so when she could outwork him going a quarter-mile, three-eighths from the gate, that sort of stuff, we were like, ‘OK, he’s going to need the turf.’ We didn’t realize how well she was training him.”

Hard Spun went on to win four graded stakes and finish second in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic for Jones.

The Joneses and Francis kept Street Minstrel with their other broodmares at Brereton Jones’ Airdrie Stud in Midway, Ky., and her second career got off to a somewhat slow start. She produced winners, none that made a significant impression and a few lost via the claim box, before Street Band showed talent as a 2-year-old.

She lost her debut in a late July maiden race at Delaware Park by 28 3/4 lengths before bouncing back to win at Ellis Park in her next start by 7 1/4 lengths. She followed up with decent but not spectacular runs in optional claimers in Kentucky and New Orleans to end her 2018 campaign.

“The problem was she never was throwing anything,” Jones said of Street Minstrel’s produce record. “I’ll show you how good I am as an owner and breeder. We always keep our stuff at Airdrie Stud and that’s why we breed to most of the Airdrie stallions. After the next foal, I’ve got a 2-year-old full-sister to her (named Street Missy), I asked Brere, the mare had gotten real crooked with age. I said, ‘Do you know anybody that would take this mare?’ He said, ‘Larry, what do you want for her?’ I just wanted her off the books and he said he’d take her.”

Jones joked that if he knew that would be the trick to making Street Minstel a successful broodmare he would have given her away after she produced South Street, a son of Southern Image he trained to a win from three starts.

“If I’d have known that, I would have given her to him after the first foal. Where the first one could have been a star. We could have enjoyed it a little while,” Jones said. “I guess the best way to get something out of your mare is to give her away. One of the guys at Calumet told me that, too, they said if you want a sure-fire way of making a stallion take an unraced 3-year-old well-bred colt and breed all your mares to him and castrate him at the end of the year, you’ll have 50 percent stakes winners.”

All jokes aside, Jones concedes Street Band faces a stern challenge in the Alabama. First run in 1872, the race often factors in the battle for the champion 3-year-old filly honors.

The race’s two top contenders – 8-5 morning-line favorite Dunbar Road and 5-2 second choice Point Of Honor – are in this year’s mix and look to boost their credentials with a victory.

Dunbar Road carries a bit more edge with three wins in four starts, including the Grade 2 Mother Goose in her last start. Trained by Chad Brown, the daughter of Quality Road was entered in the Kentucky Oaks but didn’t earn sufficient points for one of the 14 spots in the gate. She won an allowance race May 30 at Belmont and the Mother Goose June 29 to merit the favorite’s role.

Point Of Honor also didn’t qualify for the Oaks, and trainer George Weaver re-routed her to the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course. The daughter of Curlin won the 9-furlong Black-Eyed Susan by a half-length over Alabama starter Ulele.

Owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Stetson Racing, Point Of Honor finished second behind Dunbar Road’s stablemate Guarana in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga July 21. Weaver looks forward to the added furlong of the Alabama and the possibility of some pace.

“Not a problem. I love it. It helps her. No doubt in my mind about that,” he said. “At least they have some numbers in it, last time (in the CCA Oaks) it was a five-horse field. I’m thinking there might be a little more pace this time.”

The third- and fourth-place finishers from the CCA Oaks, Off Topic and Champagne Anyone, are back for the Alabama and both are 10-1 on the morning line. Lady Apple is the 6-1 third choice on the line off a half-length victory over Ulele in the Grade 3 Iowa Oaks at Prairie Meadows July 5 for Steve Asmussen. Longshots Afleet Destiny and Kelsey’s Cross complete the field.