There are some stakes that have names which do not seem to fit. Like a seven-furlong sprint stakes being named after trainer Woody Stephens, who won the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes five years in a row. Yet the Cigar Mile Handicap fits like a glove since the mighty Cigar won the race back in 1994 when it was known by its original name of the NYRA Mile.
Renamed in Cigar’s honor in 1997, it has proven to be an attractive spot for horses to pick up a Grade 1 win before year’s end, as it was last year for Maximum Security, whose victory in the Cigar Mile wrapped up the 3-year-old male championship.
1. Performer (7-5): This was supposed to be the breakthrough year for Performer but cancellations in the spring and then an ankle injury have limited him to just one start this year. Nevertheless, with five straight wins in a six-race career, he looks like the most talented starter and the horse to beat in this spot – especially since he’ll carry five pounds less than highweighted Firenze Fire.
JOCKEY: Joel Rosario; TRAINER: Shug McGaughey
2. Mind Control (20-1): As recently as late July, his 20-1 odds would have been a huge bargain. But this multiple Grade 1 winner has struggled lately and comes into the race off a weak ninth-place finish in the Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland. On the plus side, he’s a four-time stakes winner at Aqueduct, where he has never been worse than second in five starts.
JOCKEY: John Velazquez; TRAINER: Gregg Sacco
3. Snapper Sinclair (20-1): He’s done far better on turf than dirt and with just two wins in 20 starts on the main track, he’s a tossout in a field this tough.
JOCKEY: Manuel Franco; TRAINER: Steve Asmussen
4. Firenze Fire (5-2): Seven furlongs has been his limit for a while but this late-running sprinter was successful at a mile much earlier in his career, winning the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at two. Without much early speed in this race, his ability to stay close to the lead in sprints should allow him to work out a good trip and be a major threat. Off a third in last month’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint, he’s one to watch.
JOCKEY: Jose Lezcano; TRAINER: Kelly Breen
5. Mr. Buff (6-1): He’s fast enough to be a top contender, but this New York State-bred struggles against top level competition. He should be in front early, and on his best try it would not be surprising to see him in the picture at the end. Whether he can do that in a Grade 1 stakes is the question begging for an answer.
JOCKEY: Junior Alvarado; TRAINER: John Kimmel
6. King Guillermo (9-2): He missed out on running in the Kentucky Derby due to a fever and earlier this year he was good enough to win the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby at 49.20-1 and finish second to Nadal in a division of the Arkansas Derby. He has not raced in seven months, but his trainer has done a fine job of having him ready after a layoff. If he can do it again, this 3-year-old could be the main threat.
JOCKEY: Jose Ortiz; TRAINER: Juan Carlos Avila
7. Majestic Dunhill (20-1): On the surface, it’s hard to like him after finishing seventh in a Grade 3 sprint stakes in his last start. But when you consider that race was a week ago and was probably too short for him at six furlongs, the quick turnaround and stretchout to a mile could signal a bounce-back effort and make him an interesting longshot.
JOCKEY: Dylan Davis; TRAINER: George Weaver
8. True Timber (15-1): He’s winless in 2020 and 2019, which diminishes his chances, but he was third in last year’s Cigar Mile and second in 2018 so he can’t be discounted and might wind up in the exotics at a nice price.
JOCKEY: Kendrick Carmouche; TRAINER: Jack Sisterson
9. Bon Raison (20-1): He was claimed for $80,000 in July, but a 10th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint paints him as a longshot here.
JOCKEY: Jorge Vargas Jr.; TRAINER: Jack Sisterson
THE PICK: Performer
LIVE LONGSHOT: True Timber