Photo by NYRA/Coglianese Photos
Tomorrow afternoon, the $500,000 Cigar Mile Handicap (gr. I) will be held at Aqueduct. The one-mile race marks the final grade I race of the year in New York, and as is befitting of such an important race, the Cigar Mile has drawn a very talented field of seven. One entry, the three-year-old colt Marking, is not certain to run, but even if he scratches, the remaining six runners promise to put on an exciting show.
First and foremost among them is Private Zone, who won this race by five lengths last year and finished second in 2013. He’s possibly the best sprinter/miler in the country and enters off a close runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I), but while it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him score a repeat victory in the Cigar Mile, there are a couple of reasons why he might be slightly vulnerable. For one, a mile might be slightly beyond his best distance–he’s just 1-for-5 at this distance. For another, he took advantage of a speed bias in the Cigar Mile last year, and his competition that day was led by Secret Circle and Bourbon Courage, who were probably pushing the limits of their distance capabilities as well, making it easier for Private Zone to win the race.
Since arriving in Lynch’s barn a few weeks ago, Private Zone’s penchant for quirky behavior has already been on display when the speedy gelding self-aborted a work on Saturday and forced Lynch to gallop him into the race.
“It’s not the most orthodox [training regimen],” Lynch said. “I’ve only had a couple of weeks with him and only seen him this past week, so we’re going to do the best we can to get him there. I like to think everything happens for a reason, though, and he’s coming out of the Breeders’ Cup, so his fitness level was already good. Maybe he didn’t even need the work; he’s been very happy in his training this week. Hopefully he brings the same hard, tough race he’s been running.”
Keeping all of this in mind, I think Private Zone could be a vulnerable favorite, and could be worth trying to beat in multi-race wagers like the Pick 4. Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) third-place finisher Red Vine and Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. I) winner Mshawish are both worthy of respect and could win this race on their best day, but my choice to defeat Private Zone is Tonalist. Winner of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and two renewals of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), Tonalist was facing an impossible task last time out trying to chase American Pharoah’s pace in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), so I’m willing to forgive his tiring fifth-place effort. He’s proven himself to be a very capable runner at a mile, winning the Westchester Handicap (gr. III) and finishing second in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) earlier this year, so the cutback in distance shouldn’t be an issue. In fact, he beat Private Zone by two lengths in the Metropolitan. Some consider Tonalist to be a Belmont Park specialist that isn’t as good at other tracks, but his strong third-place finish in the Whitney Stakes (gr. I) suggests that he can be effective away from Belmont, and don’t forget, 2013 Cigar Mile winner Flat Out was also considered a Belmont specialist through much of his career.
It could also pay to keep an eye on Matrooh, who turned in a career-best effort to win the Bold Ruler Handicap (gr. III) by 1 3/4 lengths last time out. In that race, he tracked fast fractions while racing wide, then took command through six furlongs in a rapid 1:08.93 and drew off to win in the time of 1:21.24 seconds. For his effort, he received a Beyer speed figure of 105, and if he can equal that effort or take another step forward, he could be right in the mix to upset Tonalist and Private Zone. His combination of tactical speed and finishing kick is a great asset, and he’ll be carrying just 116 pounds, eight less than Tonalist and seven less than Private Zone. At 6-1 on the morning line, he’s definitely not one to overlook.
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