Can Improving Midnight Bourbon Make Major Impact on Derby Trail?

Midnight Bourbon won his 3-year-old debut by a length on Jan. 16, taking the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds with Joe Talamo in the irons. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2021 Triple Crown races, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.

This week we profile Midnight Bourbon, winner of the $200,000 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 16 at Fair Grounds.

midnight bourbon

Bay Colt

Sire (Father): Tiznow

Dam (Mother): Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Owner: Winchell Thoroughbreds

Breeder: Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings (Ky.)

Breakout performances are not uncommon among 3-year-olds as racehorses progress individually and often the mind catches up with the body or vice-versa. Midnight Bourbon will try to follow in the footsteps of horses like 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who put it all together as a 3-year-old. Does Midnight Bourbon have what it takes? Let’s explore.

Ability: A $525,000 purchase at the 2019 Keeneland September yearling sale, Midnight Bourbon finished in the top three in each of his four races as a 2-year-old last year, winning once in his second career start. He also proved a level of class by running second in the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes Presented by Ford in September 2020 at Churchill Downs and then third in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in October.

Midnight Bourbon was well-beaten in both of his graded stakes races as a juvenile, coming 2 ½ lengths short of Sittin on Go in the Iroquois after taking the lead in early stretch, and then finishing 14 ¼ lengths behind winner Jackie’s Warrior in the Champagne.

It was clear that Midnight Bourbon boasted significant ability, as demonstrated by holding his own at the graded stakes level, but with a career-best 91 Equibase Speed Figure improvement was needed to emerge as a true contender on the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve trail.

Making his season debut in the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds, Midnight Bourbon delivered that type of breakthrough performance.

He seized command from the start in his first race around two turns, set an uncontested pace, and had plenty left for the stretch run where he put away Proxy, who had stalked from second throughout. Midnight Bourbon led by two lengths in early stretch and held on to win by a length in 1:44.41.

With a final sixteenth of a mile in 6.32 seconds and his final five-sixteenths in :30.84, the Tiznow colt finished well, although that surely was aided by being allowed to dictate the pace through an easy half-mile in :48.99 and three-quarters of a mile in 1:13.57.

The speed figures – a career-best 98 Equibase Speed Figure and new top 91 Beyer Speed Figure – indicate Midnight Bourbon took a significant step forward in his development. He still has some work to do to catch up with the fastest of this year’s 3-year-old crop, but Midnight Bourbon got off to a good start and he has plenty of time to develop with the Derby 14 ½ weeks away and probably two more prep races to make that jump.

Midnight Bourbon’s sire, Tiznow, was a late developer who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic as a 3-year-old in 2000 and as a 4-year-old in 2001, so perhaps we could see sustained growth from Midnight Bourbon this season.

I have to admit, though, I’m a bit skeptical of the quality of the Lecomte field overall, and I wonder how much Midnight Bourbon was aided by the easy pace set while unchallenged early.

This Lecomte was a move in the right direction from Midnight Bourbon, but I want to see him duplicate that effort in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 13 at Fair Grounds before elevating him into the top tier of 2021 Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

Running style: Midnight Bourbon won the Lecomte Stakes leading from start to finish, but that was the first time in his career that he had set the pace. In four starts as a 2-year-old, Midnight Bourbon either stalked or pressed the pace from within a few lengths. Sure, he looked really strong with the different tactics in the Lecomte. However, it’s unlikely he will be permitted to set such an easy pace in the Risen Star, much less the Kentucky Derby with 19 other runners. Most likely, we’ll see him return to stalking/pressing tactics in future races, a style that has been effective on the Road to the Derby as well as in the first jewel of the Triple Crown in recent years.

Connections: Joan Winchell and her son, Ron, are partners in Winchell Thoroughbreds, continuing the family’s prominent racing and breeding operation started by the late Verne Winchell, Joan's husband and Ron's father.

Verne Winchell, who died in 2002 at the age of 87, founded the doughnut company Winchell’s and later was the CEO and chairman of the Denny's restaurant chain.

Winning connections. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Winchells have raced, through the years, champions Mira Femme and Tight Spot, and more recently, homebred 2014 champion 3-year-old filly Untapable. Winchell Thoroughbreds also raced, in partnership with Three Chimneys Farm, 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, who finished third in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. Through the decades, the Winchell family has raced many notable runners and racetrack standouts, but perhaps none has made quite the impression of breed-shaping sire Tapit, whom the family raced in partnership and has gone on to be leading sire in the U.S. three times.

Two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen trains Midnight Bourbon for the Winchells and also trained the aforementioned champions Gun Runner and Untapable for them. Asmussen was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016 and has trained three Horse of the Year winners in Gun Runner, Rachel Alexandra, and Curlin. Asmussen earned his first win in a Triple Crown race with Curlin in the 2007 Preakness Stakes, added a second Preakness with Rachel Alexandra in 2009, and won the Belmont Stakes in 2016 with Creator. Asmussen has finished second twice in the Kentucky Derby.

Joe Talamo is the fourth jockey to ride Midnight Bourbon after pairing with him for the first time in the Lecomte. Talamo was the Eclipse Award winner as outstanding apprentice in 2007 and two years later won the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint on California Flag.

Pedigree: Midnight Bourbon is from the 16th crop of two-time Horse of the Year Tiznow, who was pensioned in 2020. Tiznow has been a very good sire with 92 stakes winners and 53 group or graded stakes winners to his credit, and he typically gives his runners a nice boost of stamina.

Tiznow still has a few crops yet to hit the racetrack, but he does not have an obvious candidate to carry on his line, which happens to be the very important and rapidly fading Godolphin Arabian sire line. The Godolphin Arabian is one of the three foundation sires of Thoroughbred racing. A former colleague of mine, Joe Nevills, took an interesting deeper dive into the future of the Godolphin Arabian line, with a focus on Tiznow. Needless to say, just about every male graded stakes winner (non-gelded division) by Tiznow in the coming years will carry a bit of extra weight.

Tiznow was a true 1 ¼-mile horse and trainer Asmussen told Daily Racing Form he believes the farther the better for Midnight Bourbon going forward.

Midnight Bourbon also gets a nice dose of class from the bottom half of his pedigree. He is one of four stakes winners produced by the unraced Malibu Moon mare Catch the Moon, whose other stakes winners are 2017 Haskell Invitational Stakes and Louisiana Derby winner Girvin along with graded stakes winners Cocked and Loaded and Pirate’s Punch.

Midnight Bourbon’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Catch My Fancy, by Yes It’s True, was a multiple stakes-winning sprinter on the racetrack and a multiple stakes producer in the breeding shed. This family also is responsible for the aforementioned Yes It’s True, a Grade 1-winning sprinter and sire, Grade 1 winner Silver Max, and Canadian champion Kiss a Native.

Asmussen seems confident added distance will help not hinder Midnight Bourbon, and as a son of Tiznow that makes sense. The bottom half of the pedigree slants a bit more toward speed, however, so while I think Midnight Bourbon should be fine stretching out to 1 1/8 miles and, possibly, 1 3/16 miles for the Louisiana Derby, I don’t think it’s an absolute slam dunk that he’ll excel at the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance.

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