Off a step slow in a Grade 1 race, Midnight Bisou was right on time when it mattered.
And for a third time, in a third time zone, under North American racing's brightest lights.
The Apple Blossom Handicap lost a major player when trainer Brad Cox chose not to make it the champion filly's 4-year-old debut. But, Sunday's Grade 1 $750,000 race at Oaklawn Park will be remembered for all the right reasons.
Midnight Bisou, whose ability to win the close ones elevates her to elite status, nosed out upset-minded Escape Clause after a six-horse race with surprises but a favored winner.
Getting two right-handed whacks in deep stretch, Midnight Bisou finished off her Canadian-based adversary in a finish that thrilled a day-after-Derby crowd estimated at 5,500.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, winning the race for a seventh time, completed a bookend sweep for the decade dating back to mighty Zenyatta, a relative unknown when she won the race in 2008. Smith, also the 1994 winner on Nine Keys, rode Azeri (a future Horse of the Year for whom Oaklawn renamed the Apple Blossom prep) to a record three straight victories from 2002-2004.
Midnight Bisou, he said, "ranks up there with the great ones. She finds a way to win."
It was the first Apple Blossom decided by a nose since Sefa's Beauty stunned defending champion Heatherten in 1985, both trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Midnight Bisou, carrying 122 pounds through a good-rated mile and sixteenth in 1:43.88 and paying $3.80 to win, had Steve Asmussen, a Hall of Fame trainer with more than 8,000 victories, singing her praises.
"What an unbelievable filly," said Asmussen, a two-time Apple Blossom winner (previously with champion Untapable in 2015). "We were talking about how special a filly she is, how much confidence she has this year. She really seems to be enjoying her job. We're just blessed to have her."
By the narrowest of margins, Escape Clause was denied her 21st victory from 31 starts and first in a Grade 1 race. Owner and trainer Don Schnell gave the 5-year-old mare her moment on stage and almost was rewarded at 8-1.
"I was slightly disappointed when the photo came up," Schnell said, "but we said if we could run third in there, I'd be the happiest man in the world, so I'm going to stick with that."
Jockey Tyler Baze "knew I got beat at the wire," the margin by which he missed a stakes sweep after winning the $150,000 Fifth Season on Fight On for Doug O'Neill two races earlier.
"She vanned all the way here (from Arizona) and she'll van all the way back," Baze said. "She's really and truly probably one of the best horses I've been on in my life. She gives it her all."
Smith tipped his cap to the Manitoba-born runner in second. "Escape Clause ran huge," he said, "but you know, the great ones seem to pull it off, no matter what."
Escape Clause, from post three, stalked Canadian champion Wonder Gadot down the backstretch, inheriting the lead after three quarters in 1:12.12. "If I hadn't had to send her at the 4 1/2 (furlong) pole, I might have won the race," Baze said.
Escape Clause gamely held on through a mile in 1:37.12 before the by-now standard stretch kick of Midnight Bisou.
Refusing to lose made the Midnight Lute filly a winner in the Grade 3 Houston Ladies Classic in January and the Grade 2 Azeri in March, both by margins less than one length. Her last defeat came when third to Monomoy Girl in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs after being placed first through disqualification when beaten a neck by that rival in the Grade 1 Cotillion at Parx Racing.
Smith bided his time on the backstretch in company with Azeri runner-up Elate, herself a multiple Grade 1 winner. Jose Ortiz swung Elate off the fence for the serious running but was about three lengths back at the wire while nine in front of fourth-place finisher Viva Forever.
"I thought (Ortiz) was really loaded going into the turn," said trainer Mott, denied a fifth Apple Blossom victory. "He had to wait a little until Midnight Bisou went past him and then he came out and around. I don't know if that cost any momentum or not.
"She may be more of a nine- or 10-furlong filly," Mott said. "I thought if she moved forward a length or two off her last race (her first in more than 200 days) she'd be right there."
Midnight Bisou earned $450,000, boosting past $2 million the career bankroll of a dark bay or brown filly who brought $80,000 at an April 2017 Florida sale of 2-year-olds in training.
"I'm really happy with the way she ran today, but she had to run," Smith said. "Sometimes you have to do that."Sports on 04/15/2019
Print Headline: Midnight Bisou, in full flower, wins thriller