The Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff historically has been one of the most formful races at the World Championships with favorites winning 42% of the time since the race’s inception in 1984. Likewise, the older dirt female division typically features accomplished Grade 1-quality runners at the top who consistently run well, and while that often leads to terrific showdowns between elite racemares, it rarely produces big surprises in the division’s summer and fall marquee races. Take last weekend’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, which had not had a winner at 7-2 odds or higher since Love and Pride upset Royal Delta and paid $22 to win in 2012.
Apparently, nobody bothered to tell Vexatious. Sent off at 9.50-1 odds in the 2020 Personal Ensign, Vexatious held off last year’s winner, champion Midnight Bisou, by a neck to prevail and punch her ticket to the Longines Distaff Nov. 7 at Keeneland.
Let’s take a closer look at Vexatious and evaluate her chances to be a major factor in this year’s Distaff.
A $150,000 purchase by BBA Ireland on behalf of Calumet Farm at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale, Vexatious showed promise as a 2-year-old when running third in her debut and then winning a maiden race by a head in November 2016 at Del Mar.
Vexatious placed in a pair of graded stakes on the 2017 Longines Kentucky Oaks trail and then held her own in the $1 million race for 3-year-old fillies. She briefly challenged for the lead inside the quarter pole but faded to finish fourth by 2 ¾ lengths at odds of 40.70-1 for former trainer Neil Drysdale.
Since then, Vexatious has run fairly well on both grass and dirt, making nine of 10 starts on turf during one stretch and winning the CTT and TOC Stakes at 1 3/8 miles on grass and the Grade 3 Rood and Riddle Dowager Stakes via disqualification at 1 ½ miles on the turf.
Yet while Vexatious had proved capable of competing against elite opponents, she had not really distinguished herself on one surface until her two most recent starts. She had amassed a record of two wins, one second, and three thirds on turf with two stakes wins and four stakes placings, and on dirt she had one win, one second, and four thirds with four stakes placings prior to the Grade 2 Ruffian Stakes July 11 at Belmont Park.
Current trainer Jack Sisterson appears to have found the sweet spot for Vexatious as she has produced her two-best career Equibase Speed Figures while cutting back slightly in distance and racing on the dirt main track.
First, she ran second to champion Monomoy Girl in the Ruffian at one mile, which earned her a career best 112 Equibase Speed Figure. She followed Aug. 1 with a career-defining Grade 1 win over Midnight Bisou in the 1 1/8-mile Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga, good for a 111 Equibase Speed Figure.
Vexatious does not have an explosive burst of speed, but she’s fast enough and she has an abundance of stamina and determination, which she put on display when fighting back after Midnight Bisou drew even with her in the Saratoga stretch.
Other speed-figure makers also viewed the Personal Ensign as a strong effort. She earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, a 103 BrisNet speed rating, and an impressive 125 TimeForm US speed rating.
“We always thought she had a big win in her,” said Sisterson, who took over conditioning Vexatious eight starts ago from Drysdale in May 2019.
Options for the next start for Vexatious include the Grade 1 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keeneland and the Grade 2 Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park in late September or early October. Keeneland will host the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 6-7 in Lexington.
“She’ll stay at Saratoga for the time being,” Sisterson said. “Keeneland is home for her, but she really blossoms up at Saratoga. We didn’t want to be tough on her at the beginning of the year so we ran her in some allowance races. I didn’t want to disappoint her too early in the year to ultimately have her peaking at Saratoga mid-summer and that’s worked. She did so well here last year. She put on weight, her coat looked good, and she did great.”
Vexatious is in career-best form now and just defeated the best older female dirt horse in training. It’s also a positive that Keeneland serves as Sisterson’s home base.
But to date, consistency has not been Vexatious’s strength. I think it’s fair to wait for her to duplicate the performance she turned in Aug. 1 in the Personal Ensign in her final prep for the Longines Distaff in order to consider her a serious threat to win what is, as noted above, usually one of the most high-quality races at the World Championships.
Is she a threat to finish in the top three? Absolutely, but at this point there are other older females I trust more as Distaff win candidates.
By European Horse of the Year and two-time leading sire Giant’s Causeway, Vexatious benefits from a healthy dose of both class and stamina from her sire (father), who died in April 2018 at age 21. It's fairly easy to see why she has enjoyed success on both grass and dirt as Giant’s Causeway was elite on the grass in Europe and ran second on dirt in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic. At stud, the “Iron Horse” sired elite runners on all surfaces.
Vexatious’ dam (mother), Dream of Summer, also boasts a sparkling résumé with a Grade 1 win at 1 1/16 miles on the dirt to her credit among six stakes wins and four graded stakes victories. In addition to Vexatious, Dream of Summer also produced Grade 1 winner Creative Cause, who was third in the 2012 Preakness Stakes, and 2016 Belmont Stakes runner-up Destin, a multiple graded stakes winner around two turns.