Drs. Bill Wilmot and Joan Taylor stopped by Linda Rice’s barn the morning of last Saturday’s Busher Stakes at Aqueduct and Midnight Disguise, a multi-generational homebred they initially planned to sell but kept, couldn’t get enough of the husband and wife team from Stepwise Farm in Saratoga Springs.

“She’s always been competitive, had the big stride, she’s fairly easy on herself, but what impresses us the most is she loves what she’s doing,” Joan Taylor said. “She’s totally chill. I could show you a picture of us visiting her that morning at Aqueduct and she’s literally smooching with Bill. She’s kissing him, so happy to see him.”

Wilmot and Taylor were happy to see Midnight Disguise, too, and even more so after she collected her second consecutive stakes victory in the $200,000 Busher. Midnight Disguise’s opponents haven’t been all that thrilled with her presence – literally and figuratively – as she’s won four of five starts in her career that didn’t start until mid-December.

“When you have one like this you’re walking around with your fingers crossed, knocking on wood,” Taylor said. “They’re wonderful creatures but they’re fragile creatures. We just enjoying it at the moment. All we can do is be thankful, be grateful.”

How Wilmot and Taylor, and Midnight Disguise, got to the point where races like the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama are mentioned as short- and long-term goals for the filly is quite a story.

Midnight Disguise, a massive specimen at 17.2 hands, is the fifth foal produced by Thin Disguise, a daughter of Yes It’s True Wilmot and Taylor bred out of their Known Fact mare Naughty Natisha. Thin Disguise is a half-sister to New York-bred Horse of the Year and millionaire Naughty New Yorker, also bred by Wilmot and Taylor. Midnight Disguise was cataloged to sell as a weanling at the 2015 Keeneland November breeding stock sale but was scratched about a month before the auction.

The decision to not sell came while Wilmot and Taylor were in Lexington for that year’s Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling sale, where they were trying to sell a Creative Cause colt who later became multiple New York-bred stakes winner Twisted Tom. Feeling there were some issues that “would preclude Midnight Disguise from being well received” at Keeneland November, Wilmot and Taylor opted to instead to keep the filly in Kentucky for an extended stay before coming home to Stepwise.

“Dr. Larry Bramlage, he and his team did a wonderful job, and from there we decided to bring her back to our farm in Saratoga where we could continue to work with her and TLC her,” Taylor said. “She wound up having a long residence at our farm, with our wonderful staff working with her to build her confidence and also to give her time. She’s got a big frame, had some issues and needed to grow into herself. We really took our time.”

Close to a year later, in January 2017, Midnight Disguise was cleared to be broken and Wilmot and Taylor sent her to Mike Schrader at In Front Farm in Ghent, N.Y., to get started. The decision to go to Ghent came on a recommendation from Mallory Mort at Gallagher’s Stud, which is also in Ghent and where Midnight Disguise was foaled.

“Mallory is a close friend of ours and he recommended we use Mike to break her,” Wilmot said. “He’s done that with a number of Gallagher horses and was pleased with him. We went down and met Mike, checked out his operation.

“It’s the old Sunny View and it’s leased to Mike. Here’s the key – they have an indoor track. Weather is no issue and they can train all year. I think during the real cold snaps maybe the riders’ fingers might fall off, but for the most part they can use it all winter. The surface is impervious and he’s got a number of horses there, layups and this and that.

Midnight Disguise stayed in Ghent until the summer, when she shipped roughly 60 miles north to begin the second phase of her career with Rice at Saratoga Race Course.

While they admit they didn’t know Rice well prior to sending Midnight Disguise to her care, Wilmot and Taylor said they were longtime admirers of the veteran horsewoman who won the 2009 Saratoga training title and three others on the NYRA circuit. They also knew Rice was successful with Midnight Disguise’s older half-sister, Holiday Disguise, who she bought at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred sale for Sheila Rosenblum’s Lady Sheila Stable.

“Linda bought her for $220,000, liked her and turned her into a stakes winner,” Wilmot said of Holiday Disguise, who was sold by Stepwise as a weanling for $70,000 at the 2014 Keeneland November sale. “We thought, ‘Gee, that would make sense. The other filly did well with Linda.’

“The other thought that went into it was we had admired Linda for a long time, we don’t know her real well, but we know she and Rudy Rodriguez rule Aqueduct. She is the queen of Aqueduct in the winter. This filly was later getting started, we knew that, and winter was probably going to be when she was ready to race.”

Midnight Disguise made her debut for a $50,000 tag in New York-bred company Dec. 15, won going a mile by 6 1/2 lengths and wasn’t claimed. Rice ran her back six days later, this time at 6 furlongs in a starter allowance, and she won again.

Midnight Disguise made her stakes debut in her next start, the Jan. 14 East View again at a mile against New York-breds, and finished second. The filly became a stakes winner – against open company and at 9 furlongs – 11 days later in the $100,000 Busanda. The Busher victory, against a field that included runners from Godolphin Racing, Courtlandt Farm and Gary Barber, came off a more than five-week break.

Midnight Disguise and Trevor McCarthy won the Busher by 1 3/4 lengths from Godolphin’s Sara Street, who did the work chasing California shipper War Heroine on the lead and hung on well to finish second. My Miss Lilly, a daughter of Tapit who cost $670,000 as a yearling and shipped in from Florida for Courtlandt Farm and trainer Mark Hennig, finished third.

“She’s progressed each race and gotten more professional. She raced kind of green at first, but this last race it was like she’s got it,” Wilmot said. “I have to give a lot of credit to Linda and Trevor McCarthy, he rode a very smart race. He’s figured out not to rush her, and drafted in behind horses when there was a hell of a headwind that day at Aqueduct.

“The key move, other than not hustling her and trying to make her run, let her gather herself, was he got the jump on that nice Tapit filly of Mark Hennig’s. He kind of surprised Manny Franco a little. He got the jump. That filly never got a chance to run until it was too late. That was great race-riding by Trevor and great planning by Linda and Trevor.”

Once the Busher was in the books talk immediately started about the Kentucky Oaks, rightfully so considering Midnight Disguise earned 50 points toward a spot in the starting gate for the May 4 race at Churchill Downs.

“We’re pointing towards the Gazelle (April 7 at Aqueduct) and that would be the natural stepping stone to the Oaks. I’ve never run in the Oaks, and the possibility is very exciting,” said Rice, who was later quoted saying she’d really like to win the Alabama for her Saratoga-based owners.

“We feel the same way,” Taylor said. “And I’m glad Linda is excited enough to say something like that.”

They both acknowledge it’s a long way from early March to early May, never mind late August, but aren’t about to temper their enthusiasm.

“Hey, you get to dream a little,” Wilmot said. “If you can’t dream in the winner’s circle after the Busher then you should get out of the game.”