HOT SPRINGS, Ark — Midnight Bisou charged to the lead in midstretch and held off Elate by a length to win the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares Saturday afternoon at Oaklawn.

Under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Midnight Bisou ran 1 1/16 miles over a fast track in 1:42.72 and paid $4.40 as the 6-5 favorite in the five-horse field.

A finalist for an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly of 2018, Midnight Bisou was coming off a three-quarter length victory in the $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic (G3) Jan. 27 at Sam Houston in her 2019 debut.

“It’s all Midnight Bisou,” Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said after his first Azeri victory. “She’s a very special mare. She’s been training incredibly well all winter. Scott (Blasi) has had her in New Orleans and Angel (Garcia) has been getting on her. She’s been spot on and looked beautiful. I thought she proved her quality today. Today’s Azeri had four Grade 1 winners in it and for her to come on top is very special.”

Elate finished a length ahead of Shamrock Rose, with pacesetter Tapa Tapa Tapa and Eskimo Kisses completing the order of finish. Summer’s Indy was a late scratch. Elate was making her first start since finishing second in the $750,000 Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) Aug. 25 at Saratoga.

“That will be helpful when she gets that (1 1/8 miles), for sure,” Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said. “She ran very well. She was coming a layoff of over 200 days.”

Midnight Bisou increased her earnings to $1,955,000 following her seventh victory from 13 lifetime starts. The daughter of sprint champion Midnight Lute races for Bloom Racing LLC (Jeff Bloom), Madaket Stables LLC (Jason Monteleone & Sol Kumin) & Allen Racing LLC (Charles and Lori Allen).

The Azeri was the final major local prep for the $750,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) April 14.

“I’ll have to talk to owner (Jeff Bloom) and see how she comes out of the race, but that would be the plan,” Asmussen said.

Two races after the Azeri, Crystal Racing Enterprises and Contreras Stable Inc.’s Rated R Superstar pulled an upset in the $350,000 Essex Handicap at odds of 14-1, finishing a head in front of Snapper Sinclair. Giant Expectations, the 8-5 favorite, finished third.

Rated R Superstar, who claimed for $62,500 by trainer Cipriano Contreras, paid $31.20. $10.80 and $5.20.

Azeri Stakes Quotes:

Winning trainer Steve Asmussen – “It’s all Midnight Bisou. She’s a very special mare. She’s been training incredibly well all winter. Scott (Blasi) has had her in New Orleans and Angel (Garcia) has been getting on her. She’s been spot on and looked beautiful. I thought she proved her quality today. Today’s Azeri had four Grade 1 winners in it and for her to come out on top is very special.”

On moving on to the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap on April 14: “I’ll have to talk to (owner) Jeff (Bloom) and see how she comes out of the race, but that would be the plan.”

Winning jockey Mike Smith – “She was loaded. I basically placed her and she the rest. She’s doing really well today.”

Essex Handicap: 

 

Cipriano Contreras, who claimed the gelding for $62,500 Nov. 22 at Churchill Downs.

“He's just a good old horse. He made a half a million dollars before I got him. You don't make a half a million dollars by being a ... he's a nice old horse. He still has something left in the tank, hopefully, a little better than this."

Contreras said Rated R Superstar will be pointed for the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 13.

Peter Eurton, trainer beaten favorite Giant Expectations

 

“Gets away a little bad. I don't know if it cost him too much. Went a little wide. Getting over this track, they say it’s a funny track if you're not training on it a little, too.”