Five Questions to be Answered in 2019 Cigar Mile Handicap

A racing fans takes a closer look at the past performances in this file photo. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

The $750,000, Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap Dec. 7 at Aqueduct is a much-anticipated race and one of the highlights of a marquee card featuring six stakes that will close out the 2019 graded stakes schedule in New York.

This race could mean a lot in terms of awards with the 3-year-old male division still open and Maximum Security looking to stamp himself as the Eclipse Award front-runner.

With that said, this will not be a walkover for Maximum Security as the field came up competitive and he will have to earn it on the racetrack.

1. “Maximum Security vs. Spun to Run en la Cigar Mile.”—@ArodriguezVera (Alfonso R.)

The handicapping starting point begins with assessing the probable favorite, Maximum Security, and Spun to Run, who is very likely to be a solid second choice at post time. Both of these runners come into the race off a dominant win in a Grade 1 stakes as well as solid form and speed figures. Both are capable of winning this race, although the presence of the pair with a shared running style makes for an interesting pace scenario. Both of these horses prefer to race on the lead, and the presence of each other should keep them honest in this race. This is not the first time these two horses have met on the racetrack as they faced off in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational Stakes at Monmouth Park July 20. Maximum Security had the advantage going into the Haskell based on his previous races, which included his controversial disqualification after crossing the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Given a favorable trip, Maximum Security was able to secure that win with Spun to Run finishing third. Spun to Run was making his first appearance in a graded stakes in the Haskell, and that was reflected in the wagering (34.60-1 odds) despite coming off back-to-back wins at Parx Racing. Spun to Run had a bit of a rough start in the Haskell, was asked to rate just behind the pacesetters, and then was no match for Maximum Security late as he made his move off the far turn. Given the way Spun to Run was ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr. in winning the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile by 2 ¾ lengths, expect him to be far more assertive today as Ortiz will not allow Maximum Security an easy lead. To help handicap pace, I use OptixPLOT, and looking at the PLOT for this race, there is little distinction between Maximum Security and Spun to Run to the first and second call. This is where the two, given their respective short prices, could find themselves vulnerable and open up the race to alternatives.

2. “Looking At Bikinis after a very impressive 4 ½-length victory at Keeneland this fall should be one to watch.”—@michaelaakemp (Michaela)

Looking At Bikinis (Keeneland/Coady Photography)

Chad Brown is no stranger to this race and has won two of the last three editions of the Cigar Mile with Connect in 2016 and Patternrecognition last year. He will send out a solid pair Saturday in Network Effect and Looking At Bikinis. As noted by Michaela, Looking At Bikinis was very impressive in his Keeneland allowance win Oct. 4. He was primed to rebound off a troubled run in the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes, and did so the right way at Keeneland. A big part of his troubled Travers trip came when he stumbled at the start. That poor start is notable as not only did it impact his performance that afternoon but it also is a characteristic he has shown in the past. Even in his most recent allowance win, he lost his footing at the break, but given the field and class level, Looking At Bikinis was able to quickly recover and the trouble was not even noted in the official chart. With that said, he certainly belongs in this field. He is still lightly raced with just five career starts to date, and excusing the two-turn races brings a perfect 3-for-3 record around one turn.

Network Effect also is worthy of a mention as it is tough to knock his four starts to date, all top-two finishes. Like Looking At Bikinis, he seems well-spotted by Brown for this race given both his overall race record and experience here at Aqueduct. He will be making his second start of the form cycle after coming back last month in an allowance win following a 344-day layoff. While Network Effect does have two graded stakes placing as a 2-year-old, class will still be a test for him stepping back up into graded stakes competition.

3. “… This race will be won by a sprinter.” —@MikeDeSabato718 (Mike D.)

Assessing distance capability in a one-turn mile certainly can bring sprinters into the conversation. While most of these Cigar Mile horses have one-turn mile experience, or even the extended sprint distance of seven furlongs, experience at this particular mile configuration plays a role in the handicapping process. There is really one “true” sprinter in the field in Whitmore, who has spent the majority of his career and enjoyed the bulk of his success at distances shorter than a mile. Personally, this is not a preferred angle. Usually horses that have been kept at a particular distance are competing in those races for a reason. The sudden change can give off the “experiment” signal. With Whitmore, it is a little more interesting given he has run well several time at seven furlongs, including a win in the Grade 1 Forego Stakes in 2018, and his connections had an obvious reason to keep him in the sprint division based on his success in graded stakes. I am not as concerned about Whitmore’s ability to run well in the one-turn mile here, in fact I do think he can, however whether he can run the type of race he would need to win is another question. Since he is coming out of the shorter sprint races, he can be expected to race closer to the pace than he has while sprinting. That does improve his overall chances for a better trip, however it could also impact his ability to finish. He has a strong closing kick when sprinting, but if he is sitting closer to the pace expect his finish to be more of a grind than a close.

4. “How much do you weight previous track bias in your handicapping?”—@dinkinc (Alan)

Incorporating track bias is extremely important for handicappers, though it needs to be assessed in a bigger picture of how that track bias impacts the overall performance of that horse. Three of the runners in this race, including Maximum Security, are coming out of the Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap on a day that favored inside runners. Winner Maximum Security, while inside and slightly aided by the profile, still ran his race. That profile probably helped a horse like Tale of Silence, saving ground behind Maximum Security, to fill the exacta and slightly worked against True Timber racing just outside of Maximum Security. Another to look at is Nicodemus, who was significantly impacted when running against a bias when he finished fourth in the Grade 2 True North Stakes June 7. He has upside off that race considering the bias, and even more from his fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 John A. Nerud Stakes in July when racing against the race flow. While this is a step up in class and a significant test for him, Nicodemus has upside off those races and might be overlooked based on his “paper” past performances.

5. “Who will win the Cigar Mile?”—@Mikepike5Rao (Michael R.)

A win from Maximum Security or Spun to Run would be no surprise but it’s not much fun taking a short price on either runner. For reasons mentioned above, Looking At Bikinis deserves a legit look in this race and seems to be an improving type throughout his 3-year-old season. This is a bit of a stab, but the value should be there with Nicodemus ambitiously (and perhaps confidently) placed by Linda Rice coming back from a layoff.

Much like the Cigar Mile brings the end of the 2019 graded stakes schedule in New York, this is the Five Questions season finale. I appreciate everyone that takes the time to read these articles and hope you find the information useful in all of your handicapping. Until next year – Happy Holidays! — Emily (@EmilyOptixEQ)

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