New York's final Grade 1 stakes of 2020, the Cigar Mile, anchors a fantastic stakes card at Aqueduct that includes the G3 Go For Wand and the G2 juvenile showcases of the Demoiselle and Remsen. The Cigar Mile goes as Race 10 at the Big A. What a super Saturday it should be nationally with Gulfstream Park's opening weekend Claiming Crown series sharing the marquee.
Five millionaire earners are in the cast, including G1 winners MIND CONTROL and FIRENZE FIRE, as well as two-time Cigar Mile-placed TRUE TIMBER. SNAPPER SINCLAIR and MR. BUFF have topped the million-dollar plateau. KING GUILLERMO is G1-placed and a G2 winner this year.
You'd expect a bit more early speed in this lineup than there appears to be. MR. BUFF dedicates himself to the front, regardless of distance, and he's the only pure speedball entered. Rail-drawn PERFORMER likely will be near the pace, as will FIRENZE FIRE and KING GUILLERMO. The midpackers and closers will have their work cut out for them trying to reel in the aforementioned group.
Favorites have won the Cigar Mile 3 of the last 4 years, and we haven't seen a winner in this race above 6-1 since Jersey Town stunned the 2010 cast at 34-1. It's been a race pretty close to the vest, and that's how I see this one as well.
FIRENZE FIRE carries top weight at 123 pounds, has won 40% of his career races and half of his 6 attempts at the mile distance. The classy sprinter won the G1 Champagne at Belmont as a 2-year-old back in 2017, notable in its 1-turn mile configuration like this race. Last year he won the Gravesend over the Aqueduct track around this time of year, taking an easier pre-winter path since then-trainer Jason Servis had his stable star Maximum Security pointed to the Cigar Mile, a race he won. FIRENZE FIRE is 2-6 this year with Kelly Breen, winning a softer-than-usual edition of the G2 Vosburgh, and finishing third in a similarly under-par renewal of the Breeders' Cup Classic. His form looks a lot better in the stakes-name column than perhaps is true, and that could make him an underlay with the betting public. Respect him, but giving 2-7 pounds at shorter-than-likely-fair odds is more than enough reason to shop. He's run poorly on wet tracks twice this year, so eye the conditions.
PERFORMER has won 5 in a row and gets his class test while making the key second-off-the-layoff start. He returned from an 11-month absence to prep beautifully Oct. 17 at Belmont. Trainer Shug McGaughey won the Cigar Mile back in 1996 with Gold Fever. In his 5-race win streak, he faced short fields 4 times (meeting just 4,6,5 and 5 rivals). Can he negotiate the rail trip vs. 8 rivals? If the answer is yes, Joel Rosario should have a big threat underneath.
KING GUILLERMO will try to become the third sophomore to win the Cigar Mile in the last 5 years. Connect pulled the trick in 2016, while Maximum Security followed suit last year. He's been oddly campaigned this year, aimed at the Kentucky Derby off a May layoff by design, only to scratch in Louisville after a reported fever. His workout tab since October in Florida flashes 6 works, mostly on pattern, but with a slight, 11-day break in early November. Any question to this placement seems fair at first blush, but the presence of leading NYRA pilot Jose Ortiz in the saddle underscores the Tampa Bay Derby winner and Arkansas Derby runner-up as live to this eye. He should get a great trip, possibly just behind MR. BUFF. At 117 pounds, the sophomore gets a 6-pound break from FIRENZE FIRE.
MIND CONTROL appears off form in 5 defeats since winning Aqueduct's Toboggan and Tom Fool earlier this year. The return to Aqueduct could be the elixir for a horse 5: 4-1-0 here all-time. Regular rider John Velazquez, a 2-time Cigar Mile victor ('01 Left Bank, '15 Tonalist), sticks in the saddle. Demand a fair price given his recent foibles, but a 10-1 proposition on this kind of horse-for-course would strike some interest. The same goes for Big A success MR. BUFF. It's possible he gets loose on the lead over his favorite track. But his lack of prowess at the higher-level races also dictates you get a fair price around 10-1.
SNAPPER SINCLAIR has been primarily a 2-turn runner. He'll benefit if this race goes in a slow pace and he can stay in contention early. Steve Asmussen trained '09 Cigar Mile winner Kodiak Kowboy.
Most Certain Exotics Contender: There's no lead-pipe type in this spot. On a fast track, FIRENZE FIRE would seem the most comfortable to place on the ticket somewhere.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender: TRUE TIMBER was runner-up in the Cigar Mile in 2018 and third last year at 32-1, which is at odds with his 0-6 career record at the mile distance. But this is a runner 14 times second or third from 28 starts lifetime, more apt for the bottom of the exotics after 13 consecutive losses. He's yet to win a stakes, remarkably, but has bagged a million bucks nonetheless.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll): I'm on KING GUILLERMO and PERFORMER, and will try to connect to them in daily doubles from logical Race 9 contender MALATHAAT. $60 double MALATHAAT to KING GUILLERMO. $40 double MALATHAAT to PERFORMER.
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