At the Spa: Handful of Millionaires for Whitney; Midnight Bisou Odds-On in Personal Ensign
By Mike Farrell
Now we reach the heart of the Saratoga meet with a pair of Grade 1 stakes on Saturday: the $750,000 Whitney and the $500,000 Personal Ensign.
The Travers (G1) is only a week away, and then the Alabama (G1) on Aug. 15.
Not that the Spa season hasn’t been entertaining so far. The Ortiz brothers are again setting the pace in the jockey standings. In a somewhat surprising development, Christophe Clement is the early leader among the trainers.
While the stakes races have been interesting, it is time, to quote Emeril Lagasse, to “Kick it up a notch.” And we do, with the Whitney and the Personal Ensign, Saratoga’s most important dirt races for older stars.
Racing publicists and promoters often label a race with few entrants as a “small but select” event. That’s certainly true of the Whitney.
The 1 1/8 miles stakes drew only five but it is a mighty quintet. Every runner has won over $1 million, topped by Code of Honor who has banked $2.4 million.
The 4-year-old trained by Shug McGaughey is 2-for-2 at Saratoga. He won his debut here in 2018 and returned last year to capture the Travers.
This will be his third start of the year and he should be sitting on a big effort after rallying into an insanely fast 22.95 final quarter to be third in the Met Mile (G1) on July 4 at Belmont Park.
“It won’t be easy but I just hope Code of Honor runs a monster race,” McGaughey said. “He’s always liked it up here and liked training over the track.”
Code of Honor is the co-second choice with Improbable at 5-2.
Improbable comes East for trainer Bob Baffert following a career-best victory in the Gold Cup (G1) at Santa Anita last month.
Baffert won this race last year with McKinzie and likes his chances once again.
“The only problem with shipping him is that he has issues with the starting gate, for some reason,” Baffert said. “He doesn’t have those issues in California. But he’s doing really well.”
Irad Ortiz Jr. will be back aboard for the first time since guiding Improbable to a fifth-place finish (elevated to fourth) in last year’s Kentucky Derby (G1).
Baffert was originally pointing Improbable to the Pacific Classic (G1) on Aug. 22 at Del Mar but shifted gears after Maximum Security captured the San Diego Handicap (G2) in his debut for Baffert.
The successful return by Maximum Security gives Baffert the flexibility to maneuver his high-powered pieces around the stakes chess board.
Maximum Security will likely turn up in the Pacific Classic while McKinzie might return to Saratoga for the Woodward (G1) on closing weekend.
The depth of this compact field allows us the luxury of discussing Code of Honor and Improbable, two outstanding contenders, before mentioning Tom’s d’Etat, the deserving 6-5 favorite.
The 7-year-old trained by Al Stall Jr. has never been better. He has won four straight stakes, including the Stephen Foster (G2) most recently at Churchill Downs.
Stall is a fan of training veteran runners.
“I am just as happy to run him in the Whitney as I would be to run in the Louisiana Derby (G2),” Stall said. “I’ve never run in the Kentucky Derby but I have no problem with waiting around for nice older horse stakes races.”
Stall is best known for winning the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) with Blame, the 4-year-old who pinned the first, and only defeat, on the champion mare Zenyatta.
Tom’s d’Etat is 3-for-4 at Saratoga. The lone loss came in last year’s Woodward when he finished fourth.
By My Standards (9-2) saw his three-race winning streak snapped by Tom’s d’Etat in the Stephen Foster while Mr. Buff (12-1), a very tough customer in the New York-bred ranks, tries open company again following a fifth-place finish in the Suburban (G2).
In the co-feature, Midnight Bisou returns to defend her title in the Personal Ensign, also at nine furlongs. She attempts to become the first mare to post back-to-back wins in the stakes since Beautiful Pleasure in 1999-2000.
We made earlier reference to the fact that the five runners in the Whitney have each earned more than $1 million. Compared to Midnight Bisou, they are all pikers. The combined earnings of the Whitney field are $7,693,558. International champion Midnight Bisou has already banked $7,371,520.
And that figure could balloon, based on the final determination of the purse distribution for the $20 million Saudi Cup in late February. She finished second in the world’s richest race only to have the outcome muddied when Jason Servis, the trainer of race winner Maximum Security, was indicted for horse doping. If Maximum Security is ultimately disqualified, add another $6.5 million to Midnight Bisou’s bankroll.
By any standard, Midnight Bisou stands head and withers above her five rivals. She is a five-time Grade 1 winner, each taking place at a different track. Now she gets to backtrack and do it again in the Personal Ensign for trainer Steve Asmussen. Ricardo Santana Jr. will be aboard the 2-5 favorite from post 3.
Both the Whitney and the Personal Ensign are Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” races. The Whitney winner gets a berth in the Classic; the Personal Ensign winner earns a spot in the Distaff (G1).
It’s far down the road but it would not be shocking to see the Whitney winner square off against Midnight Bisou in the Classic.
The 12-race card at the Spa starts at 1:10 p.m. ET.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.