Betting on a Sophomore in the Cigar Mile

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

Saturday's $750,000 Cigar Mile H. (G1) at Aqueduct is the final Grade 1 race of the season for male dirt horses. The roster of winners is impressive; the last 15 years have seen champions Kodiak Kowboy (2009) and Maximum Security (2019) take first prize, along with such accomplished horses as Belmont S. (G1) winner Tonalist (2014) and two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) winner Flat Out (2013).

By this time of year, three-year-olds are more than capable of holding their own against older rivals, and it's not uncommon to see members of the sophomore division take first prize in the Cigar Mile. Since its inaugural renewal in 1988, Forty Niner (1988), Dispersal (1989), Flying Chevron (1995), Gold Fever (1996), El Corredor (2000), Discreet Cat (2006), Daaher (2007), Tale of Ekati (2008), To Honor and Serve (2011), Connect (2016), Maximum Security (2019), and Americanrevolution (2021) have all defeated their elders in this prestigious one-mile prize.

Seven horses have entered the 2022 Cigar Mile, including four Grade 1 winners, although one of the non-Grade 1 winners (#5 O Besos) is expected to scratch due to the equine herpesvirus outbreak at Churchill Downs. It's a quality field, but one horse—the accomplished three-year-old #2 Zandon—looks rather like a standout.

Never out of the trifecta in eight starts, Zandon has competed with aplomb against tough graded stakes rivals ever since winning his October 2021 debut at Belmont Park. Let's take a moment to recount Zandon's exploits in seven consecutive graded stakes:

  • On Dec. 4, Zandon finished second in the Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct, beaten a nose by future Belmont S. (G1) winner Mo Donegal.
  • On Feb. 19, Zandon finished third in the Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds, beaten only by future Travers S. (G1) winner Epicenter and last-out Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) winner Smile Happy.
  • On Apr. 9, Zandon dominated the Blue Grass S. (G1) at Keeneland by 2 1/2 lengths over Smile Happy and next-out Pennine Ridge S. (G2) winner Emmanuel.
  • On May 7, Zandon finished third in the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by future Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) fourth-place finish Rich Strike. Epicenter finished three-quarters of a length ahead of Zandon in second place.
  • On July 30, Zandon ran second in the Jim Dandy S. (G2) at Saratoga, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by Epicenter while finishing half a length clear of Lexington S. (G3) and Ohio Derby (G3) winner Tawny Port.
  • On Aug. 27, Zandon finished third in the Travers S. (G1), 5 1/4 lengths behind Epicenter but only a nose behind Arkansas Derby (G1) and Haskell S. (G1) winner Cyberknife.
  • On Sept. 24, Zandon finished second in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1), three lengths behind Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Taiba, but 3 3/4 lengths ahead of Cyberknife. Taiba came back to finish a strong third in the Breeders' Cup Classic, while Cyberknife returned to finish second by a head in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1).

The form of the 2022 classic generation has held up well, and Zandon ranks among the best of the group. The competition should be easier in the Cigar Mile, and Zandon's runner-up finish from the Pennsylvania Derby looks even better given how well Taiba and Cyberknife performed against older rivals at the Breeders' Cup.

Significantly, Zandon is cutting back to a one-turn mile for the Cigar Mile, a configuration shift that may trigger his strongest run of the season. Zandon has lost ground from the eighth pole to the finish line in his last four starts racing 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/4 miles, suggesting that the stretch-running colt will appreciate the cutback in distance. Certainly his pedigree (by Upstart out of Creative Cause) hints that racing one mile might be a strong suit for Zandon. Taking all of these positives together, Zandon looks tough to beat in the Cigar Mile.

For second place, #7 Mind Control is a logical choice. Winner of the 2018 Hopeful S. (G1) and 2019 H. Allen Jerkens S. (G1), Mind Control boasts a 7-4-2-1 lifetime record at Aqueduct highlighted by triumphs in the Jerome S., Bay Shore S. (G3), Toboggan S. (G3), and Tom Fool H. (G3), plus placed efforts in the Gotham S. (G3) and two editions of the Carter H. (G1).

Much of Mind Control's success has come sprinting, but he also boasts a 5-4-1-0 record racing one mile, highlighted by a tenacious triumph over Grade 1 winners Hot Rod Charlie and Shirl's Speight in the Salvator Mile (G3) earlier this year. Mind Control most recently won the Parx Dirt Mile via disqualification and figures to keep his momentum rolling with a strong showing in the Cigar Mile.

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



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