Will Sharp Azteca Be Beaten in the Cigar Mile?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The last Grade 1 race of the year for older horses is coming up this Saturday, that being the $750,000 Cigar Mile Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct. The prestigious race presents an interesting handicapping challenge, since the one-mile distance around one turn tends to attract a deep and talented field of both sprinters and stayers.

In recent years, the stayers have had the edge in the Cigar Mile, with horses like Tonalist, Stay Thirsty, and Flat Out (all of them successful going ten furlongs or farther) achieving success while cutting back in distance. But the 2017 renewal of the race hasn't drawn any stayers of that magnitude, which is why many handicappers will be focusing their attention on a true mile specialist: Sharp Azteca.

In terms of speed figures and, well, pure speed, it's hard to top the front-running Sharp Azteca. The four-year-old son of Freud has fired off some huge efforts over the last two years, including easy romps in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II), Kelso Handicap (gr. II), and the Pat Day Mile Stakes (gr. III), a trio of mile races held around one turn.

But there are reasons to think that Sharp Azteca can be beaten at a short price. For one, he's suffered defeats in the four biggest races of his career, finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I), Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), and Malibu Stakes (gr. I) and third in the Godolphin Mile (gr. II). His tendency to fall short in tough spots is something to keep in mind as he lines up against a quality field in the Cigar Mile, especially since he'll be facing a couple of other talented front-runners (including the California shipper Americanize) that should ensure he doesn't secure an easy lead.

Considering how slow and tiring the main track at Aqueduct has been during the current meet (particularly the rail), it's not hard to envision a pace meltdown unfolding that could favor a horse coming from off the pace. The most logical candidate might be Practical Joke, who finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile after spending the first part of the race on a dead rail and then trying to rally into a strong final quarter-mile fraction.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Practical Joke's record is that he's 5-for-5 in one-turn races and 0-for-6 in two-turn races. Although some of his longer races have been excellent, including a close third in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), he seems clearly better going a bit shorter and could relish the return to one turn. He's also drawn wide in post eight and should be able to stay away from the slow rail.

The big wildcard in the Cigar Mile is surely Seymourdini, who has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career. During his first three runs this year, which stretched from March through July, Seymourdini achieved three gate-to-wire wins by the staggering margins of 12 ¼, 13 ½, and 10 ½ lengths. The latter victory came against New York-breds in the 8.5-furlong State Dinner Stakes at Belmont Park, in which Seymourdini ran his rivals off their feet with a half-mile in :44.94 and earned a massive 113 Beyer speed figure.

Following the State Dinner Stakes, the Cigar Mile was announced as Seymourdini's long-term goal, and he did not run again until the seven-furlong Bold Ruler Handicap (gr. III) on October 28th at Belmont Park. In a performance that had "prep race" written all over it, Seymourdini was outsprinted early while running a distance short of his best and seemed to be going nowhere around the far turn, retreating back to last place before suddenly finding his stride in the homestretch. Motoring up the rail like he'd joined in the race at the quarter-pole, Seymourdini closed seven lengths in the final furlong and clocked that distance in :11.97 per Trakus.

Of course, Seymourdini has a few questions to answer as well. It was a little concerning that he had so little to offer during the first few furlongs of the Bold Ruler Handicap, and drawing post two doesn't leave him with a lot of options in terms of race strategy--he's been most effective racing on the lead, but trying to outrun Sharp Azteca and Americanize (while presumably winding up running on the tiring rail) could be very tough.

Then again, a return to his State Dinner form would make Sharp Azteca a force to reckon with, and if Jose Ortiz can work out a perfect trip settling behind Sharp Azteca and Americanize while getting off the rail, Seymourdini could be poised for a big step forward in his second start off the brief layoff.

Finding the best win play in the Cigar Mile will come down to an examination of the post-time odds; Practical Joke and Seymourdini are the two that interest me most, and while Seymourdini might not be the most likely winner, his 6-1 morning line odds (compared to 2-1 on Sharp Azteca and 7-2 on Practical Joke) could make him the best value. Assuming good odds, I'll take a shot with him on top.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Cigar Mile?


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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