Odds-on favorites got the job done in both Grade 3 events during Sunday’s Houston Racing Festival. The 1-5 Midnight Bisou cut it a lot closer in the $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic (G3), however, than the 3-5 Bigger Picture did in his $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup (G3) three-peat.
Bloom Racing Stable, Madaket Stables, and Allen Racing’s Midnight Bisou was the class of the field in Sam Houston’s richest event. Technically the only horse to “beat” champion Monomoy Girl last year when awarded the Cotillion (G1) via disqualification, Midnight Bisou was coming off a third to her familiar foe in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs. But circumstances conspired here to make her four-year-old debut a little trickier than thought.
Breaking from the far outside post 6, the Steve Asmussen pupil covered extra ground going into the first turn. Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith got her settled near the back of the compact group, but without much pace help in the 1 1/16-mile test.
Up front, the 31-1 Heavenhasmynikki dictated fractions of :24.68, :49.29, and 1:13.38 on the fast track. Prado’s Sweet Ride initially accompanied the pacesetter, only to retreat. The 19-1 Moonlit Garden took over the pressing role and threw down a stiff challenge. Heavenhasmynikki was all heart on the inside as they dueled down the lane.
By that point, favorite backers had cause to grow anxious. Although Midnight Bisou progressed on the far turn, she still had two lengths to make up in midstretch, as the 123-pound co-highweight. And the leaders, carrying five pounds fewer, were not stopping.
Inside the final sixteenth, though, Midnight Bisou kicked into gear and surged past them. Smith gave off a confident vibe as she was along in time by three-quarters of a length, in a final time of 1:44.52.
Moonlit Garden ultimately wore down Heavenhasmynikki by a neck for runner-up honors. Remedy, the 7-2 second choice, did not factor in fourth. Prado’s Sweet Ride, the other co-highweight, retreated to a distant fifth, and Viva Forever trailed virtually the whole way.
Midnight Bisou increased her bankroll to $1,745,000 while improving her record to 12-6-3-3. For original trainer Bill Spawr, she dropped two photos to Dream Tree before breaking her maiden resoundingly in the 2018 Santa Ynez (G2). Midnight Bisou then dominated the Santa Ysabel (G3) and Santa Anita Oaks (G1), earning favoritism in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), where she was third to Monomoy Girl. Subsequently transferred to Asmussen, she routed the Mother Goose (G2) and placed in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) and Alabama (G1) en route to the Cotillion.
Asmussen indicated that Midnight Bisou would likely get in another prep, to be determined later, ahead of the April 14 Apple Blossom (G1). That could produce another clash with Monomoy Girl, who is eyeing the same Oaklawn Park prize as a possible 2019 debut.
By Midnight Lute and out of the Grade 3-winning Repent mare Diva Delite, Midnight Bisou was bred in Kentucky by Woodford Thoroughbreds. She RNA’d for $19,000 as a Keeneland September yearling and sold to Jeff Bloom for $80,000 as a two-year-old at OBS April.
Earlier, Three Diamonds Farm’s Bigger Picture imposed his authority in the Connally, joining Candid Glen (2001-03) as a three-time winner of the track’s signature turf race. Bigger Picture was giving trainer Mike Maker his sixth consecutive Connally trophy, and seventh in the past eight years.
The eight-year-old veteran also capped a productive weekend in the division for Maker, whose Zulu Alpha and Soglio fought out the finish in Saturday’s W.L. McKnight (G3) at Gulfstream Park. Maker cross-entered another Three Diamonds runner, Markitoff, to the McKnight, but opted to dispatch him to Houston along with Bigger Picture.
Markitoff, the 3-1 second choice, inserted himself into the pace scenario passing the stands for the first time. After 79-1 longshot Lawless West carved out an opening quarter in :24.04, Markitoff advanced to match strides through the half in :51.10, gained control through six furlongs in 1:16.83, and continued in front passing the mile in 1:43.79.
Meanwhile, Bigger Picture and Some in Tieme, together at the rear of the field early, began to improve their positions approaching the final turn. Some in Tieme played his hand first to collar Markitoff, but Bigger Picture was rolling into contention wider out.
Straightening for home, Bigger Picture put Some in Tieme away and opened up at will by 3 1/2 lengths, a significantly bigger margin than in his prior Connally wins. Jose Ortiz, aboard for all three, guided him through 1 1/2 miles in 2:30.60.
The 15-1 Zapperini closed for second. Some in Tieme, last year’s runner-up, wound up third. Markitoff faded to fourth, and his early pace foe, Lawless West, brought up the rear. Sadly, only eight of the original nine crossed the wire. Team Colors went wrong on the clubhouse turn. Jockey Adam Beschizza pulled him up, and it was announced that veterinary staff attended to him before he was vanned off.
Bigger Picture’s scorecard stands at 38-12-7-5, $1,494,135. Bred by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, the Badge of Silver gelding started out with Maker but was lost via the claim box. Maker eventually claimed him back, and as an older horse he proved graded stakes-caliber. Bigger Picture earned his signature win in the 2017 United Nations (G1) in course-record time, and he was third in the Monmouth fixture last summer. His other highlights include a victory in the 2016 Red Smith (G3) and eight graded placings in such races as the 2017 Sword Dancer (G1) and the November 23 Hollywood Turf Cup (G2) when last seen at Del Mar.