Multiple Grade 2 winner Sharp Azteca breezed three-quarters in 1:13 on Saturday over the fast main track at Gulfstream Park West in his final major move ahead of the $750,000 Cigar Mile Handicap (G1) on December 2 at Aqueduct.
Jockey Javier Castellano was aboard the Jorge Navarro trainee for Saturday’s move, and has been tabbed to ride the Freud colt for the first time in the eight-furlong contest.
“He’s not the type of guy that says much, but he sounded impressed with the horse,” Navarro said of Castellano. “We didn’t have much time to talk right after, but he called me from the airport and he told me he really liked him. He’s never been on him before, that was their first date, and he was very, very pleased with how the horse worked.
“We know each other from South Florida and we have a pretty good relationship, and it makes everything so much easier for me to hear that from a jockey like Javier Castellano.”
Sharp Azteca has yet to finish worse than third from six starts this season. He captured the Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) to kick off his four-year-old campaign in February, shipped to Dubai for a close third in the Godolphin Mile (UAE-G2) and filled the runner-up spot in the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) in mid-June. The dark bay posted wins in the Monmouth Cup Stakes (G3) and Kelso Handicap (G2) by a combined 11 1/2 lengths, and enters the Cigar Mile off a half-length second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) on November 3 at Del Mar.
“That’s the way he does things, he goes out there and he shows up, he runs,” Navarro said. “That was a big race at Del Mar, that was a huge race. I was pretty pleased with how he did. How much can I ask? I can’t be upset about it. I want nothing but the best for him. I do want to win that race and I want to win a Grade 1 for him, but I’m sure that’s just around the corner.
“One turn, two turns, I don’t think it matters for him. He’s just a straight-up runner,” the conditioner added. “I think he’s a horse that shows up to every dance. The only time he didn’t show up was the second time I ran him and he was getting over a foot issue. Aside from that, I can’t remember the last time he ran a bad race. I take my hat off to him for that.”
While the Cigar Mile was penciled in on Sharp Azteca’s schedule, the Kentucky-bred’s connections nearly decided to bypass the race following the Breeders’ Cup.
“Before the Breeders’ Cup, he had never shown me signs of being tired,” Navarro explained. “But the first two days after the race, I could see he was tired. I could see it in his eyes. When we moved him back to Florida, the plans for the Cigar Mile were on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to see how he came back, how he was acting, how he was eating. If he wasn’t 100 percent, we were going to give him 45-50 days, send to him out to the farm for a few weeks. We want to get that Grade 1, but we also want to make sure he’s happy, doing good. We don’t want to run him just to run him.
“About two weeks ago, he started showing us that he was ready to do something and now he’s back to his normal self. I think he’s put on weight since the Breeders’ Cup. He looks amazing. And, the way he worked today, I think Castellano fell in love with him. He’s ready now. Hopefully, he’s not a straight Floridian and he’ll like the cold weather up there.”
Sharp Azteca is scheduled to ship to New York early Tuesday morning.
Multiple Grade 1-placed Neolithic readied for the Cigar Mile with a half-mile move over Belmont Park’s fast dirt training track on Friday, breezing four furlongs in :48.81 for trainer Todd Pletcher.
“He worked good. We’ll talk to the connections and see what they want to do and find out about jockey assignments,” Pletcher said.
Neolithic worked in company with stakes-placed Vulcan’s Forge, who is also under consideration for the Cigar Mile. Vulcan’s Forge most recently finished second against allowance/optional claiming rivals at Aqueduct on November 12 while Neolithic was a last-out runner-up in the Fayette Stakes (G2) at Keeneland on October 28.
Neolithic has finished in-the-money in all five of his 2017 starts thus far. After running third in both the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) and Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1), the Harlan’s Holiday four-year-old took the summer off and returned August 5 at Saratoga to score against allowance/optional claiming rivals. He was third in the Woodward Stakes (G1) in September at the Spa and then showed up at Keeneland for the Fayette.
“He got kind of sick when he first came back out of the World Cup – he had a little temperature – so we were forced to give him some additional time off,” Pletcher said. “But he’s come back with three good races.
“This will be kind of a new twist for him; a one-turn mile. He’s had success at seven-eighths and he’s also had success going a little bit further. Hopefully, he’s tactical enough to be behind the main speed and ahead of the main closers and find that spot. It’ll be interesting to see.”
Neolithic has competed at Aqueduct once before, finishing second in last year’s Discovery Stakes (G3).
“He’s pretty versatile and he shows up and runs hard wherever you take him,” Pletcher said. “He’s followed up with a couple of good, quality purse-earnings against some of the best horses in the world. I like the fact that he’s run well at whatever distance and whatever track we’ve been at.”
Grade 2 winner Tom’s Ready posted his final major breeze for the Cigar Mile on Friday, clocking a half-mile over Churchill Downs’ fast main track in :49.20 for trainer Dallas Stewart.
“He’s just a moderate-type workhorse,” said Stewart, who added that the More Than Ready four-year-old exited the work in good order and is en route to Belmont Park. “He’s consistent in his workouts. He shows up big in his races.”
Tom’s Ready enters the Cigar Mile off a three-quarter length victory in the Bold Ruler Handicap (G3) at Belmont on October 28, for which he earned a career-high 104 BRIS Speed rating. The Pennsylvania-bred was third in the Kelso prior to that one, captured the Leemat Stakes on July 29 and finished seventh in the Met Mile in his past three attempts going a mile.
“He’s a real fighter. He’s a grinder and he’s very healthy right now, so we’re hoping he shows up big for us. There’s a lot of good horses, so he’ll have to run a big race to win,” Stewart said. “He’s the type of colt where he comes from the back and he circles the field and he’ll make a big run, so we’re just hoping for a hot pace to help us out.”
Also headed to the Cigar Mile is multiple Grade/Group 1 winner Mind Your Biscuits, who last breezed five furlongs in a bullet 1:00.19 over Belmont Park’s fast main track on November 21. The Chad Summers-trained four-year-old exits a third-place run in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1).
“All things considered I was real proud of him, and what he accomplished,” Summers said. “We went over there last year, and it was different. This year had a totally different feel to it. To come up short, at that point, it was a little tough to swallow. He was a little too far back. Del Mar I believe is the shortest stretch in the country, and it hindered a lot of runners. Hopefully we’ll get a little payback on Saturday. We have a lot of respect for Sharp Azteca. It’s only a matter of time before he gets a Grade 1 win. I also love that Simon Callaghan is coming, he will put a little more speed in the race with Americanize, and we’ll find out who Practical Joke is.
“I think it’s going to be a great race, I’m real excited for it. Just hope that the weights are fair. I hope I don’t have to give away 10 or 12 pounds to anybody else. We’ll see how much they give us and the others.”
Mind Your Biscuits will be trying a mile for only the second time in his career. The Posse colt’s other try going eight furlongs came in 2015 and resulted in a fourth-place finish against maiden special weight foes.
“This is as strong as a Cigar Mile as I can remember. From top to bottom, there’s a deep field in there,” Summers continued. “Everybody is coming in from all directions. It’s great to see Dallas Stewart coming in, Mr. (Charles) Fipke has a horse in there (Tale of S’avall). With that said, I’m interested to see where the weights will be when they come out. I mean my horse ran a mile once, so I hope they’re kind to us.
“I think he’ll be fine. Not that you can really feel certain until they do it. You just don’t know. How they run, how they look, how they train…until they do it, you won’t know. I always believed he can handle the distance. He’s coming into it great.”
Mind Your Biscuits is already a dual Grade 1 winner, thanks to victories in last December’s Malibu Stakes (G1) and this March’s Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-G1). He also finished third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint but was elevated to second via disqualification of another runner.
“He’s done well. He came out of the Breeders’ Cup great,” Summers added. “I’m real proud of him. I don’t know if maybe it’s the weather with him. Last year, he flourished in this kind of weather. The colder it is, it’s like he gets relief from the summer. He’s doing real well though, and I’m happy with how he’s coming into the race.
“I’ll ship him over to Aqueduct later this afternoon, let him get used to the area. The plan is to throw him out there Tuesday morning, and do something with him. Maybe a quarter-mile just to keep him sharp. I did it in Dubai, and wanted to do it at the Breeders’ Cup, but we didn’t. Nobody knows him better than my exercise rider, so we’ll see.”