There are plenty of big things that Aidan O’Brien has accomplished in his training career and Ryan Moore in his riding career. But one of the few cracks in their armor could be put aside by a speck of dirt success this weekend.
The $750,000 Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap at Aqueduct, New York, provides a rare opportunity for both of them to have the favorite in a race on their Kryptonite – U.S. dirt. Breaking from the rail, Mendelssohn (2-1 on the morning line) is expected to attract most of the money as he cuts back from 10-furlong races to try and break through Saturday at 3:45 p.m. EST.
“We always thought a mile would not be a problem to him,” O’Brien told the New York Racing Association. “He has usually been a good breaker and a good strong traveler in his races.”
Mendelssohn actually has won at a mile over here – but that was in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. With an eye on getting his first win in the Kentucky Derby, O’Brien sent the Scat Daddy 3-year-old into the UAE Derby last spring for a jaw-dropping, 18¼-length victory, albeit on a speed-favoring track.
He has not won in five dirt races since, shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and the Ballydoyle farm in Ireland. That included a very physical, last-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, a fade to second in the Travers and this month’s fifth-place finish after setting a hot pace in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“We were delighted with his run in the Classic, and we’re very happy with his work since,” O’Brien said, perhaps grading him on a generous curve.
This will be the 57th horse that O’Brien has sent into a U.S. dirt race. Of the previous 56, only one – Johannesburg – came back to the winner’s circle. That was in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park, back in the days when the Breeders’ Cup was not the exclusive domain of California and Kentucky.
O’Brien and Moore have also had the favorite only once on American dirt. This will look familiar. It was over a one-turn mile on a New York track back in July with ... Mendelssohn. Set off at odds of 3-2 in the Grade 3 Dwyer at Belmont, he held lead on the backstretch. Moore gave him some urging going two-wide into the turn. Mendelssohn offered very little in response, but the third-place finish to Firenze Fire marked the first time that Moore hit the board in a U.S. dirt race. The following month Mendelssohn was second to Catholic Boy in the Travers, the closest that Moore has come to victory in 20 tries on our true soil. Saturday’s Cigar Mile will be his first time riding at Aqueduct.
Bettors will have the tough choice of weighing the O’Brien and Moore statistics and Mendelssohn’s disappointing results over here against the fact that the other seven horses in the Cigar Mile may comprise the easiest field he has faced all year. The eight are either speed horses or pace-chasers that have never won a U.S. Grade 1 on dirt.
Mendelssohn and two others – Patternrecognition (7-2) on the outside and Sunny Ridge (9-2) in gate 2 – carry top weight at 118 pounds. Trained by Chad Brown and ridden by José Ortiz, his fourth jockey in as many races, Patternrecognition won his last time out two months ago in the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap over a mile at Belmont. He led the whole way and prevailed by a length over Sunny Ridge, a 5-year-old gray gelding sired by Holy Bull and trained by Jason Servis. This time, though, regular rider Írad Ortiz Jr. will be back aboard, and he will not be giving up two pounds as he had in the Kelso.
Starting from post 5, Copper Town (5-2) is second on the morning line for trainer Todd Pletcher. Carrying 116 pounds including two-time reigning Cigar Mile winner Javier Castellano, this is only the fifth race for the front-running 4-year-old by Speightstown. His five-length allowance win in October at Keeneland came after a one-year injury layoff but also extended his winning streak to three. This is his first stakes of any kind.
Third to Patternrecognition and Sunny Ridge in the Kelso, Timeline (10-1) – the “other” Brown – gets post 7 and 117 pounds, his lowest weight of the year. Although world-record earner John Velázquez rides him for the first time, bettors will be repelled by the fact that this son of Hard Spun was beaten four of the last five times he was a favorite.
Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, True Timber (12-1) has had a sprint-heavy year including a distant second early this month in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap at Aqueduct. Despite a stumbling start three races ago, the 4-year-old colt by Mineshaft got home a winner by a length over Patternrecognition in an allowance at Belmont the day after Justify won the Triple Crown. With Joe Bravo riding from post 6 and carrying 116 pounds, True Timber might be one to crash the party.
Pat On The Back (15-1) won a couple stakes at Belmont, and he lost by only a nose to Diversify in the Commentator Stakes in May, so he, too, could be worth a look.
Stan The Man (30-1) has been decent in allowance company, but he looks over his head here.
So my ticket will prominently include Patternrecognition and Sunny Ridge with True Timber and Pat On The Back looped in. Sorry, Aidan and Ryan. I just don’t see you two having any reason to kiss the dirt this weekend in Ozone Park.
Racing notes and opinions
The Cigar Mile card also includes the $250,000 Grade 2 Remsen Stakes, a nine-furlong points prep for the Kentucky Derby that lost a lot of sizzle when Shug McGaughey decided not to enter Champagne Stakes runner-up Code Of Honor. Now it is shaping up to be a two-horse race between the front-running Maximus Mischief (6-5) and the stalking Network Effect (7-5). Trained by Butch Reid and ridden by Frankie Pennington, Maximus Mischief is an Into Mischief colt that is 2-for-2 with wins by a total of 14¾ lengths at Parx. He closed at 26-1 last weekend in the first pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Network Effect comes in for Brown off a second-place finish to Vekoma early this month in the Grade 3 Nashua at Aqueduct. He was 59-1 in the KDFW. Both should be on horizontal bets that include this race. Getting Lasix for the first time, Tax (15-1) may be worth a look. Breaking from outside in the field of seven, the gelding by Arch was claimed after a two-length win at Keeneland. Transferred to trainer Danny Gargan, he fired a bullet Monday on a busy morning of workouts at Belmont. Manny Franco gets the ride on Tax in the Remsen, scheduled for Saturday at 3:12 p.m. EST.
Showers are in the forecast on a breezy, 46-degree Saturday at Aqueduct, but they are not expected to arrive until at least mid-afternoon. The presumption is that they would not change the track from anything but fast. But it is the east, so you have been warned.
As expected, “all other colts and geldings” closed as the 6-5 favorite after the first pool of the nationwide Kentucky Derby Future Wager last weekend. The favored individual horse of the 22 available to bet was Game Winner at 5-1. Following are the final odds from the first KDFW with current William Hill U.S. odds alongside: Game Winner (5-1 KDFW, 6-1 William Hill), Coliseum (10-1, 12-1), Instagrand (10-1, 10-1), Improbable (17-1, 15-1), Code Of Honor (18-1, 20-1), Maximus Mischief (26-1, 20-1), Signalman (30-1, 40-1), Roadster (32-1, 30-1), Vekoma (36-1, 50-1), Mucho (44-1, 35-1), Knicks Go (44-1, 60-1), Magic On Tap (43-1, 45-1), Tale Of The Union (46-1, 25-1), Mucho Gusto (47-1, 75-1), King For A Day (53-1, 75-1), Uncle Benny (53-1, none), Network Effect (59-1, none), Cairo Cat (59-1, 60-1), Dunph (72-1, 100-1), Gunmetal Gray (76-1, 60-1), Epic Dreamer (88-1, 100-1) and Preamble (117-1, 200-1). All fillies closed at 66-1 in the KDFW.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and after big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition includes The Daily Racing Form’s David Grening previewing Saturday’s Cigar Mile card at Aqueduct, and Duane Colucci of the Rampart Race and Sports Book in Las Vegas, talking about Kentucky Derby futures. Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse with a name starting with “D.” The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.