June 23, 2024

Vexatious fends off Midnight Bisou to upset Personal Ensign

Vexatious wins by a neck over Midnight Bisou in the Personal Ensign Stakes (NYRA/Joe Labozzetta)

When defending champion Midnight Bisou accosted the 9-1 Vexatious in Saturday’s $485,000 Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) at Saratoga, fans might have had a flashback to her wearing down the highly regarded Elate here a year ago. But Vexatious proved a more vexing opponent than expected, and she rebuffed the 3-10 favorite to edge away by a neck.

The first Grade 1, and Saratoga, winner for trainer Jack Sisterson, Vexatious booked her spot in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) under the “Win and You’re In” provision. The full sister to Grade 1-winning millionaire Creative Cause and Destin, the 2016 Belmont S. (G1) near-misser, was also adding to her broodmare value for owner Brad Kelley’s Calumet Farm.

Although the third choice behind superstar Midnight Bisou, who was coming off a romp in the Fleur de Lis (G2) at Churchill Downs, and the 7-2 Point of Honor, just nipped in the Ogden Phipps (G1), Vexatious brought some nifty form of her own. In her only previous appearance at the Spa last summer, she was denied a neck by Blue Prize, the future Breeders’ Cup Distaff heroine. And in her latest start in the July 11 Ruffian (G2) at Belmont, Vexatious was a clear second to champion Monomoy Girl, earning a career-best 108 Brisnet Speed rating.

Carrying that form forward, Vexatious worked out the right trip under a crafty Jose Lezcano. Motion Emotion was the controlling speed in the small field, so Lezcano made sure to use his mount’s tactical foot to sit second through splits of :24.15 and :48.36 on the fast track.

Midnight Bisou was perched in a stalking fourth by Ricardo Santana, who was subbing since regular pilot Mike Smith had to stay at Del Mar. But Santana is well familiar with the champion in her morning works, and he had her in position turning for home.

Vexatious made her move on the far turn, overtaking Motion Emotion after the 6-furlong mark in 1:12.20, and braced for the impending Midnight Bisou. As the odds-on favorite rolled up wider out on the track, Lezcano steered Vexatious over a few paths to eyeball her, and arguably herd a bit.

Memorable stretch battles are becoming customary in the Personal Ensign, and Saturday’s renewal continued the trend. Midnight Bisou still appeared as though she might get the upper hand, but Vexatious kept finding more, in the spirit of her great sire Giant’s Causeway. The two brushed in their scrimmage to the wire, and Midnight Bisou could not reel in the determined winner.

In light of Lezcano’s stretch maneuver and the late contact, Santana lodged an objection, and the stewards flashed the inquiry sign. But the incidents did not rise to the level warranting a disqualification.

Vexatious kept her hard-fought trophy, accomplished in 1:48.82 for 1 1/8 miles, and she sparked a $21 win payout.

“I had a perfect trip,” Lezcano recapped. “My filly broke well. She was relaxed the whole way and just sitting behind the leader. I could feel the other filly (Midnight Bisou) coming and I started asking my filly. Every time the other filly came close to her, my filly dug in. I showed her to the other filly and she kept going. She kept running. We could have gone around one more time and I still would have been in front with my filly.”

Midnight Bisou, who was spotting her rivals four pounds as the 124-pound highweight, was 6 1/4 lengths best of the rest.

Co-owner Jeff Bloom obviously wanted the stewards to demote the winner, but paid tribute to the effort turned in by his champion mare:

“When the other filly (Vexatious) came out and he (Lezcano) was still hitting her left-handed, it looked like it stopped our filly’s momentum enough at that point. Then they came out one more time and it wasn’t massive but, to me, it looked like it was a momentum shift in a crucial point of the race.

“She ran a huge race. She barely lost the race. She’s just a remarkable race mare. I think what happened in the race definitely caused a shift in momentum. Is it disappointing to lose? Of course it is. You want to win all of them. They don’t give Grade 1 races away. You’ve got to go out there and do it. The filly that beat us is a really nice filly. She ran a huge race last out and is on the upswing, and that’s what happens.

“Ricardo rode her (Midnight Bisou) well and he had her in a great spot. He talked to Mike (Smith) a couple of times about how she wants to be ridden and it just didn’t work out.

“The more I watched (the replay) the more I thought we had a chance because, again, when fillies are battling at that point in the race, if you watch the head-on there’s no question that horse came over and bumped her. And, she got bumped at a point where a horse is just really starting to dig in and collect themselves. I was hopeful they would (make a change), but they didn’t.”

Point of Honor, last early, got up for third over Motion Emotion and the trailing Abounding Joy. Bossy Bride, cross-entered to Wednesday’s Summer Colony, was scratched.

Vexatious improved her scorecard to 23-4-3-7, $723,985. Initially trained by Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale, the bay placed third in the 2017 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and Fantasy (G3) and finished fourth to Abel Tasman in the Kentucky Oaks (G1). She later switched to turf and collected a pair of stakes wins in 2018, the CTT at Del Mar and the Dowager (G3) at Keeneland, where she was beaten a neck before being promoted via disqualification. Vexatious concluded her 4-year-old season with a third in the Red Carpet (G3) at Del Mar.

Joining Sisterson last year, Vexatious was runner-up in the Modesty (G3) at Arlington, then reverted to dirt in her aforementioned near-miss to Blue Prize in the 2019 Summer Colony. She wound up fifth in her next two on the main track, last fall’s Spinster (G1) and an April 30 allowance in her Oaklawn comeback. After a third back on turf in a Churchill Downs allowance June 6, the 6-year-old mare took a leap forward to chase Monomoy Girl home in the Ruffian.

“We always thought she had a big win in her,” Sisterson said, “and all credit to the filly. I want to say thank you to Calumet Farm, and my employees for getting her in the best shape possible. We started off the year in allowance races and allowed her to improve, and she deserves it. It’s a whole team effort and I have a lot of people to thank.

“I think this means a lot to the farm. She’s had a successful racing career and she’ll go on to have a good broodmare career now. She trains very hard and puts 110 percent in her training very day. Mark O’Dwyer (assistant trainer) has done a great job with her. The staff at Keeneland has done a great job. People don’t see what goes on behind the scenes.”

Bred by James C. Weigel and the Giant’s Causeway Syndicate in Kentucky, Vexatious sold for $150,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. Her dam, millionaire Dream of Summer by Siberian Summer, scored her signature win in the 2005 Apple Blossom (G1) before her prolific broodmare career.