Midnight Bisou won seven straight during her championship campaign in 2019 (NYRA/Coglianese Photos/Joe Labozzetta)
Serengeti Empress is trying to turn a rare Kentucky Oaks-Fleur de Lis double (Horsephotos.com/Cecilia Gustavsson)
As if the match-up between champion Midnight Bisou and 2019 Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Serengeti Empress weren’t compelling enough, history is also on the line as they square off in Saturday’s $200,000 Fleur de Lis (G2) at Churchill Downs.
If Serengeti Empress can use her brilliant early speed to hold off Midnight Bisou, she would become just the second Kentucky Oaks winner to add the Fleur de Lis as an older distaffer. The only one to turn the double so far is Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra.
During her Horse of the Year campaign in 2009, Rachel Alexandra crushed the Kentucky Oaks by a record 20 1/4 lengths, beat the boys in the Preakness
(G1) and Haskell Invitational (G1), and defeated older males in the Woodward (G1). Rachel’s 4-year-old season was muted in comparison, but her biggest win of 2010 came in the Fleur de Lis – a 10 1/2-length romp back at the same track and trip as the Kentucky Oaks.
Rachel Alexandra was trained by Steve Asmussen (from the Preakness on). Thus it would be ironic if his current stable star, Midnight Bisou, foils Serengeti Empress’ bid to emulate Rachel Alexandra.
Serengeti Empress’ trainer, Tom Amoss, adds another historical twist. In the 2000 Fleur de Lis, Amoss sent out Heritage of Gold to dispatch Hall of Famer Silverbulletday, the 1999 Kentucky Oaks heroine. That wasn’t an upset, however, since Silverbulletday had been beaten by Heritage of Gold in their previous start.
Secret Status, the 2000 Kentucky Oaks victress, also finished second in the Fleur de Lis as a 4-year-old. Like Silverbulletday, Secret Status was coming off an unplaced effort in the local prep, the Louisville Breeders’ Cup H. (G3) (now known as the La Troienne [G1]), behind the same rival – in her case, Saudi Poetry.
It’s more common for fillies who lost the Kentucky Oaks to come back and land the Fleur de Lis. That’s another point in favor of Midnight Bisou, who was third in the 2018 Oaks before developing into a champion at the age of four. The same angle works in principle for Chocolate Kisses and Motion Emotion, both unplaced behind Serengeti Empress last year, although they don't compare to Midnight Bisou.
, just denied by a neck in the 1996 Kentucky Oaks, wired the 1998 Fleur de Lis by six lengths. Later that fall at Churchill, Escena prevailed in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff
(G1) photo over Banshee Breeze
and became champion older mare.
Banshee Breeze, who had also suffered a narrow loss in the 1998 Oaks, went on to win the 1999 Fleur de Lis. But she had to settle for second again in the Distaff at Gulfstream Park.
Spain, seventh in the 2000 Oaks and shock winner of that year’s Distaff, took the 2002 Fleur de Lis in the twilight of her career. You, fourth in the 2002 Oaks, captured the next season’s Fleur de Lis.
Forever Unbridled, 11th in the 2015 Oaks, scored in the 2017 Fleur de Lis to kick off a perfect 3-for-3 campaign culminating in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Voted champion older dirt female, Forever Unbridled is the third Fleur de Lis winner to take the Distaff in the same year, after Escena and Hall of Famer Royal Delta (2012).
Aside from Spain, two others (not Oaks alumnae) have won the Distaff and Fleur de Lis in different years. Adoration won the 2003 Distaff and 2004 Fleur de Lis. Most recently, Blue Prize garnered the 2018 Fleur de Lis, and finished second as the defending champion at Churchill in 2019, before upsetting Midnight Bisou in last fall’s Distaff.
Given its connections with the Distaff, it’s right that the Fleur de Lis serves as a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In.”
But it would not be right to omit one of the greatest Fleur de Lis winners – Hall of Famer Serena’s Song
(1996). Serena’s Song did not contest the 1995 Kentucky Oaks because she had a bolder agenda, taking on the boys in the Kentucky Derby
(G1). Although that didn’t work out for her, the tough bay bounced right back, later earned a marquee win over males in the Haskell, and reigned as champion 3-year-old filly.
The 1996 Fleur de Lis was just one of 17 graded stakes victories in the course of her prolific career, but it still speaks to her quality. Serena’s Song gave seven pounds to Halo America, herself on the way to becoming a Grade 1-winning millionaire, and up to 15 pounds to the rest, and was still unstoppable.
An outstanding broodmare as well, Serena’s Song produced six stakes winners, four of them graded including Royal Ascot
Group 1 vixen Sophisticat. She is also the ancestress of several major winners, chief among them champion and emerging young sire Honor Code.
This historical perspective gives us a sense of the stakes involved for Midnight Bisou and Serengeti Empress – and a reminder that one day we’ll be looking back upon the 2020 Fleur de Lis as a memorable renewal.