New date for Cigar Mile succeeds in drawing talent

By Ron Flatter  ( 

Sharp Azteca is shown winning the Kelso Handicap in September at Belmont Park. Jockey Paco López will be replaced by Javier Castellano on Saturday, when Sharp Azteca figures to be the favorite in the Cigar Mile Handicap at Aqueduct.
© Photo courtesy of NYRA

LAS VEGAS--Usually the horses racing on Cigar Mile day compete for attention with the ones that know the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow. That was when they used to run the race on Thanksgiving weekend.


That was so last year. For the first time the New York Racing Association has moved the final big day of its calendar back a week – the better, it hopes, to lure horses that were in the Breeders’ Cup.


Although horsemen did not exactly beat a cross-country path to Aqueduct for this new December date, the feature race itself was the exception. Three horses that finished in the top four of their races at Del Mar are lined up to start in the $750,000 Cigar Mile Handicap at 4:16 p.m. EST Saturday. They include the favorite that is somehow still without a top level victory.


“I want to get a Grade 1 for him,” trainer Jorge Navarro said about Sharp Azteca (2-1 morning line), a pace-setting 4-year-old that lost a thrilling duel to Battle Of Midway in last month’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. It was his third time finishing second in as many Grade 1 starts. “With the seconds, the track wasn’t playing to our advantage or we had bad positions or guys being on top of him, but I know we have a good horse, and now we’ve got a top rider, too.”


That would be Javier Castellano, winner of the last four Eclipse Awards as the best jockey in the America. Carrying the top weight of 125 pounds, he replaces Paco López, who rode Sharp Azteca’s last four races, including wins in the Monmouth Cup and Kelso Handicap.


“I don’t know what Paco’s done wrong with this horse,” NYRA handicapper and TV host Andy Serling said. “You’re not going wrong picking up Javier. On the other hand I don’t know that he’s going to do a better job than Paco did. Paco seems to have ridden this horse perfectly.”


Three-time Grade 1 winner Practical Joke (7-2) finished fourth in the Dirt Mile, and he carries 120 pounds in the Cigar Mile. Ridden by Joel Rosario for 2016 U.S. training champion Chad Brown, the 3-year-old is likely to be in mid-pack early as he returns to the one-turn comfort zone that brought him all five of his wins.


“He’s undefeated around one turn, and we’re hoping he ends his career that way,” said Brown, referring to the fact that Practical Joke is being retired to stud next year with Coolmore in Kentucky. “We’re sad to see him leave our barn. He’s been a rock of consistency for us.”


Among the four pure closers looking to pounce late will be Mind Your Biscuits (5-1), the 4-year-old that finished third in the last two Breeders’ Cup Sprints to bookend a victory eight months ago in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Carrying the second-highest weight of 122 pounds, he stretches out to a mile for the first time since he was a maiden.


“To come up short (at the Breeders’ Cup) it was a little tough to swallow,” Mind Your Biscuits’s trainer Chad Summers said. “He was a little too far back. Del Mar I believe is the shortest stretch in the country, and it hindered a lot of runners. Hopefully we’ll get a little payback on Saturday.”


Closers like Mind Your Biscuits and Hall of Famer Mike Smith’s ride Tom’s Ready (8-1) will be chasing a pace that may or may not be set by Sharp Azteca. He is certain to be challenged on the early lead by the 4-year-old gelding Americanize (12-1) and 4-year-old ridgling Seymourdini (6-1).


“Sharp Azteca set a pace in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile than was slower than the pace in the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Serling said. “His races this year have been extremely slow paces for this quality of horse in these kind of races. With the addition of Americanize and Seymourdini drawing inside of him here, it’s likely the pace is going to be much hotter than any of his races this year. I think that makes him vulnerable.”


One thing that will not be hot is the weather. It will be sunny Saturday at Aqueduct, but the National Weather Service predicted that the high will be only 46, about 20 degrees less than it was at Del Mar – and at least 30 degrees colder than Sharp Azteca’s home base in south Florida


“He’s liking the cooler weather,” Navarro said. “He’s looked great. I can’t ask for more.”


Avery Island is early favorite in Remsen Stakes


One of the top 15 choices in Kentucky Derby futures betting is favored to win $250,000 Grade 2 Remsen Stakes, a nine-furlong Derby prep on Aqueduct’s main track at 3:45 p.m. EST Saturday.


Avery Island (3-1) has won his last two races by an average of five lengths including the Grade 2 Nashua over a mile last month on the same track. Kiaran McLaughlin trains and Joe Bravo rides the front-running Godolphin colt that was assigned 122 pounds, the most for any of the 10 entries in this field.


Avery Island was 29-1 in the first pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, in which Bolt d’Oro was the 7-1 individual choice and “all others” the 6-5 favorite. Avery Island was 45-1 this week at Wynn Las Vegas and 60-1 at William Hill.


Chad Brown-trained maiden closer Alkhaatam (7-2), Grade 3 winner Catholic Boy (5-1), another maiden closer Triple Dog Dare (6-1) and the speed horse Vouch (6-1) also carry shorter prices on the morning line.


Racing notes: Eight names are in Pegasus mix


  • While there are still questions about whether the $16 million Pegasus World Cup will attract the maximum 12 stakeholders contributing $1 million apiece, there are no fewer than eight horses that are being talked about for the Gulfstream Park feature Jan. 27, including Cigar Mile favorite Sharp Azteca. Trainer Jim Cassidy told The Daily Racing Form that Grade 3 winner Prime Attraction may be entered if a deal can be made with an investor who has already bought into the race. Both Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Forever Unbridled and Clark Handicap victor Seeking The Soul could represent owner Charles Fipke if he is able to make deals for two places in the gate. Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Gun Runner is the biggest name that has been committed so far. Two Bob Baffert colts – Collected and West Coast – are also in the mix as is three-time graded-stakes winner Gunnevera.
  • Hall of Fame jockey Alex Solís, who has not ridden in seven months, announced his retirement last weekend at Del Mar. The 53-year-old native of Panamá had hip surgery in August. Best known for riding Pleasantly Perfect to wins in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2004 Dubai World Cup, Solís had 5,035 winners out of 33,966 races with earnings of $238,405,472.
  • Toast Of New York, the 12-1 runner-up to Bayern in the controversial 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic, is being taken out of an unsuccessful stud career to return to racing Wednesday in England. Owned by Al Shaqab, the 6-year-old has been entered into a black-type stakes race at Lingfield. Jamie Osborne will again train Toast Of New York, last seen finishing a nose behind Bayern at Santa Anita Park. The horse sired by Thewayyouare was being aimed to race in the 2015 Dubai World Cup before he was retired due to an injury.
  • Remember when Churchill Downs bought an e-gaming business three years ago? It got out this week, selling Big Fish Games for $990 million to an Australian company and an apparent 12 percent profit over the total purchase price of $885 million. Big Fish revenue has flattened; its earning report last month reported a $4.4 million decline from last year with a $10.2 million drop in adjusted earnings.


Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at This week it features Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher discussing his Kentucky Derby prospects and New York Racing Association handicapper Andy Serling previewing the Cigar Mile and Remsen Stakes. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify.

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