Saturday December 1st: Race 9 at Aqueduct. The $750,000 Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap run at one mile on the dirt for three year olds and upward. (Post Time: 3:45 PM EDT).
(2) Sunny Ridge: The barn of trainer Jason Servis sends out this five year old son of Holy Bull looking to avenge a narrow loss when last seen finishing a close second in the Kelso Handicap (G2) at Belmont Park back in September. In that effort Sunny Ridge trailed the majority of the field early on before gradually moving up to try and challenge the leader as the field turned for home; however, as the track was extremely biased towards speed that day and due to the fact that Sunny Ridge ran quite wide during parts of the race, he had no chance at catching the winner Patternrecognition who ended up taking the field gate to wire. The 95 Bris Speed Rating (BSR) that he posted in that performance was somewhat respectable when compared to this field’s best efforts at the distance but it appears he is going to have to go a bit faster today in order to have any chance at hitting the board. Yet, Sunny Ridge is by far the most accomplished miler in this race having finished in the money in all five of his career attempts at the distance. Additionally, Sunny Ridge is quite familiar with racing at Aqueduct as he has raced at the track eight times (though six of those starts occurred over the old and now non-existent Inner Track).
Sunny Ridge’s primary running style is that of a pace-stalker with fairly good middle to late closing speed. Unlike his last effort in the Kelso, where his rival was allowed to get loose on an uncontested lead and wired the field, this time it appears Sunny Ridge will have a much more ideal pace scenario to run after as a number of entrants in this race possess excellent early speed and this could create a fairly contentious pace early on. In fact the TimeForm Pace Projector has suggested that there will be a fast pace for this race today and has indicated that Sunny Ridge will be traveling mid-pack by the halfway point tracking the leaders. If his jockey, Irad Ortiz, can tuck him in along the rail and stalk the initial pacesetters, then Sunny Ridge should be in an optimal spot for mounting a challenge to take on the leaders as the field turns for home. However, if it appears that the track has a pronounced speed bias (i.e. favors those runners on or near the early lead), then Ortiz will likely have to position his mount much closer to the pace as he did in the $100K State Dinner Stakes (Listed) at Belmont back in July in order to have any shot at winning. Over the past three years, Jason Servis has done exceptionally well in getting his runners to fire after layoffs of 46-90 days as he has been winning at a 28% rate (63% rate of finishing in the money) during that time period. Additionally, he has been off to a hot start so far in the current Aqueduct meet having won 31% of his first 16 starts. Furthermore, over the past 60 days when Ortiz and Servis have hooked up, Ortiz has won with 32% of his mounts for the trainer. It will likely take a near career best effort for Sunny Ridge to turn the tables on Patternrecognition today (as well as upset the likes of Mendelssohn and Copper Town) but he is certainly capable of doing it and at 9/2 on the ML he offers good value for those willing to take the chance by playing him on top.
(5) Copper Town: The Todd Pletcher trainee, an incredibly lightly raced four year old son of Speightstown, makes a major step up in class today as this race marks his graded stakes debut. Copper Town’s career thus far has been marred by numerous injuries and setbacks and in fact prior to his last out effort back at Keeneland on October 13th, he had not raced in nearly a year. However, that exceptionally long layoff didn’t seem to affect his performance in a $62.5K Optional Claiming race in which although he broke poorly, his jockey, Javier Castellano, didn’t panic and kept his cool by allowing his charge to take up a stalking position just a few lengths behind the pacesetters. Then as the field entered the turn for home, he swung Copper Town out and began to mount a bid for the lead and eventually drew past the field to win easily by five lengths going down the stretch. His performance in that six and a half furlong sprint was certainly encouraging and it appears that race could be an ideal stepping stone for Copper Town being competitive versus this field today. While Copper Town has yet to contest a race over the Aqueduct surface, he has raced before at a mile and that came when he broke his maiden last year at Belmont when he easily beat the likes of Backyard Heaven (the 2018 Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes winner) and today’s rival Stan the Man. This colt certainly has promise and if he can improve off of that sprinting effort when stretching out today, then he certainly looms as a major threat to win.
Prior to 2018, Copper Town’s primary running style was that of a need to lead type (i.e. a pacesetter). However, he demonstrated in that Keeneland effort that he does not have to be on the lead in order to have a chance at winning the race (although this new tactic of rating may have been due to his poor initial break). This year’s edition of the Cigar Mile is absolutely loaded with horses that possess good early speed and in fact there are a number of rivals that are a good deal faster than Copper Town. Although the TimeForm Pace Projector has indicated that it is likely that Copper Town could be forwardly placed, at least by the halfway point of the race, I would vehemently disagree as that is the wrong strategy for him to have any chance of hitting the board today. In fact, it would behoove Castellano to try his best and force Copper Town to rate behind the initial pacesetters and thus avoid a potential barbeque on the front especially since Mendelssohn is likely to try and burn out any and all rivals that challenge him early on. Over the past three years Todd Pletcher has done remarkably well with returning runners that won their last race back to the winners circle as he has won 25% of his last 916 starts and finished in the money 56% of the time. Additionally, over the past two years, Pletcher has gone 15 for 50 (30% win rate) with back-to-back winners in dirt routes after the horse last raced in a sprint. Moreover it is very encouraging to see Castellano elect to remain onboard especially since he has posted a 22% win rate in route races this year and over the past 60 days has won with 38% of his mounts for Pletcher. Finally, Copper Town’s two most recent works over five furlongs at Belmont were both particularly sharp and should indicate that he is in good form coming into this race. If Copper Town can handle this step up in class today and if Castellano can give him an ideal trip, then this young colt will be a major contender not only to hit the board but also possibly spring a mild upset and win this race.
(1) Mendelssohn: The international connections of Ballydoyle and Aidan O’Brien will once again be shipping over this half-brother to Beholder as they continue to search for his first graded stakes win on dirt in the United States. Today’s start in the Cigar Mile will mark the seventh time Mendelssohn has made the transatlantic trip from Ireland but it appears that not only will he be receiving some major class relief but he will also be significantly cutting back in distance as his last three starts were all at ten furlongs. However, this race likely marks the culmination of a long and arduous three year old campaign and while from a class perspective Mendelssohn appears to be clearly the best there are a number of question marks surrounding him. The main concern is that his only effort at a mile in the Dwyer Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park back in July simply was not good and that was when squaring off against a fairly weak field. Additionally Aidan O’Brien has gone 0 for 14 in graded stakes races on dirt in the United States and that’s not particularly encouraging. Finally there is the matter of the projected pace scenario.
As mentioned earlier, there are a number of runners in this race that possess very good early speed; however, Mendelssohn appears to be the fastest of the bunch (especially as evidenced by his efforts in both the Travers Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic). While his performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Belmont proved that he can effectively rate behind a scorching pace and still keep on going, Mendelssohn is likely to not employ that tactic today. Rather as he has drawn the rail, he will likely be sent by jockey Ryan Moore from the get go and dare his rivals to come after him lest he get away with an uncontested lead. Yet, there are two other runners in this field, the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee True Timber and the Chad Brown runner Patternrecognition that will likely be forwardly placed as well and could be contesting those initial fractions with Mendelssohn. Additionally there are several others in this field that will be found rating off of the pace and they could apply additional pressure to Mendelssohn such that he begins to falter in the final furlongs of the race. Although if Aqueduct is favoring those horses with early speed and if Mendelssohn can get loose on a comfortable lead then his rivals very well could end up chasing him for second especially as the cutback in distance will likely be greatly beneficial to his running style. Over the past three years, Aidan O’Brien’s has not done well when racing in the United States while Ryan Moore simply has not ridden enough this year to post any worthwhile statistics. As the 2-1 ML favorite and with several question marks surrounding him, this column is going to take a stand against Mendelssohn today. While he absolutely could win this race and might do so with ease today, it is my belief that this long three year old campaign and seven overseas trips this year will finally take a toll on him and thus he may not be quite as sharp today as he has been in his prior efforts and thus will be unable to get away with an uncontested lead. However, I do believe that he still is talented enough to outlast many of his rivals and still finish on the board today either in second or third.