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Sharp Azteca, Practical Joke lead tough edition of G1 Cigar Mile Handicap

by NYRA Press Release

December 2, 2017

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile contenders Sharp Azteca and Practical Joke are back on the East coast for a return engagement in a field of 10 for the 29th running of the Grade 1, $750,000 Cigar Mile Handicap presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack.

The Cigar Mile, the cornerstone of the Aqueduct fall meet and the last Grade 1 race of the year in New York, will be accompanied by a trio of graded stakes: the Grade 2, $250,000 Remsen for 2-year-olds, Grade 2, $250,000 Demoiselle for 2-year-old fillies, and Grade 3, $200,000 Go For Wand for fillies and mares at a mile. Live broadcast of the Cigar Mile, set to end the day's action as Race 10, will be included in a special edition of Aqueduct Live, airing from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on FS2 and MSG+.

Gelfenstein Farm's Grade 2 Kelso Handicap winner Sharp Azteca and Klaravich Stable and William H. Lawrence's multiple Grade 1 winner Practical Joke finished second and fourth, respectively, in the Dirt Mile on November 3 at Del Mar.

Trained by Jorge Navarro, Sharp Azteca is still seeking his first Grade 1 win after three runner-up finishes in as many tries, including the Dirt Mile, where he led under a pressured early pace but couldn't hold off a late charge from Battle of Midway, finishing a half-length behind the winner.

The 4-year-old Freud colt has finished in the money in all six starts this year, including wins in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap, the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup, and, prior to the Breeders' Cup, a four-length victory in the Kelso at a one-turn mile on September 23 at Belmont Park.

"I want to get a Grade 1 for him," said Navarro. "Once he retires, I want to hear that people are using him because of what he's shown as a runner, but I think he just needs that Grade 1 under his belt.

"We have the horse, I believe that," he added. "With the seconds and thirds, the track wasn't playing to our advantage or we had bad positions or guys being on top of him, but I know we have a good horse, and now we've got a top rider too."

On Saturday, Sharp Azteca breezed six furlongs in 1:13 with Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano aboard at Navarro's Florida base at Gulfstream Park West before shipping to New York on Tuesday.

"He's looked great [since arriving]," said Navarro. "He's liking the cooler weather. He ate up and went to the track [Wednesday] and jogged a mile, galloped a mile. The exercise rider knows him more than me. He's been on top of him since he was a 2-year-old and said he trained great and he's hitting the ground good. I can't ask for more."

Castellano will ride from post 6 carrying the field's high weight of 125 pounds.

Practical Joke, slated to stand at Ashford Stud in 2018, will try to add another Grade 1 to his resume in his final career start for trainer Chad Brown. A 3-year-old son of Into Mischief, Practical Joke won the Grade 1 Hopeful and Grade 1 Champagne as a 2-year-old and owns a pair of victories this year, including a 1 ¼-length score in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial on August 27 at Saratoga Race Course.

All five of his career victories have come around one turn and at distances ranging from six furlongs to a mile. He gave two turns one final try in the Dirt Mile, rallying from well off the pace to finish a clear fourth, 5 ¼ lengths behind Battle of Midway.

"We were proud of his effort in the race," said Brown, who won his first Cigar Mile last year with Connect. "He tried very hard, as always, but he just couldn't get the job done over that surface, with that setup, against those horses on that day. We get to turn the page and bring him back home to one turn and expect a better result.

"He's undefeated around one turn and we're hoping he ends his career that way," he added. "It's a very strong field, a large field, so he'll have his work cut out for him, especially against older horses again, but we feel he's up to the task. We're excited about the race but we're sad to see him leave our barn. He's been a rock of consistency for us and we expect more of the same on Saturday."

Practical Joke will break from post 8 with Joel Rosario aboard at 120 pounds.

Another Cigar Mile entrant exiting the Breeders' Cup is 2016 New York-bred Horse of the Year Mind Your Biscuits, stretching out to a mile for only the second time in his career following a strong third-place finish in the Sprint on November 4.

Trained by Chad Summers, the 4-year-old Posse colt will make his 19th career start in the Cigar Mile, and will look to add another tally to his win column following victories in the Grade 2 Amsterdam and the Grade 1 Malibu, as well as his biggest win to date, a three-length score in the Group 1 Golden Shaheen in Dubai on March 25. His lone start at a mile came as a maiden in November 2015 at Aqueduct, where he finished fourth behind Governor Malibu.

"All things considered, I was real proud of him and what he accomplished," said Summers. "We went over there last year [where he finished third in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Sprint], 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."

Carrying 122 pounds, Mind Your Biscuits will break from the rail with Irad Ortiz, Jr. in the irons.

Irish Smith Stable's Seymourdini will make his second start this fall for the Linda Rice barn. In the Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap on October 28 at Belmont, his first race in nearly four months, he was pinched at the break and raced midpack before making a late move in the stretch to finish fourth.

Prior to the Bold Ruler, the 4-year-old ridgling by Bernardini put together a three-race win streak earlier this year, won by a combined 36 ¼ lengths and topped by a 10 ½-length victory in the State Dinner in July, where he earned a career-high 113 Beyer Speed Figure.

"The Bold Ruler was his first race off a four-month layoff so obviously going into that race, I was concerned about whether I had him fit enough, but it was my best option out there," said Rice. "He had an odd trip, but despite that, I think he put in a good effort and it should set us up well for the Cigar Mile.

"He got lost in the last race and he was a bit confused behind horses," she continued. "It was a different trip than he's accustomed to. Blinkers are something we'll consider down the road, but not this time. He's really matured. As a 2- and 3-year-old, he was immature mentally and physically and he didn't handle a strong regimen. This year, I've seen a big improvement in his disposition. He's much more confident. He's calm and collected and hopefully becoming a good competitor."

Seymourdini, at 117 pounds, will be ridden by Jose Ortiz from post 2.

Before going to stud next year at Spendthrift Farm, G M B Racing's Tom's Ready, a three-quarter-length winner of the Bold Ruler, will also look to end his racing career on a high note for trainer Dallas Stewart. The 4-year-old colt by More Than Ready will be ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith from post 4 carrying 118 pounds.

Rounding out the field for the Cigar Mile are L. William and Corinne Heiligbrodt and Team Valor International's allowance winner Vulcan's Forge for four-time Cigar Mile winner Todd Pletcher, who holds the record for most training victories in the race's storied history; Kaleem Shah's homebred Americanize, who won the Damascus on the Breeders' Cup undercard on November 3 for California-based trainer Simon Callaghan; Mark Hennig-trained Beasley, exiting a third-place effort in the Bold Ruler for owners Lee Lewis and Mark Grier; Jeff Drown's Summer Revolution, exiting a two-length optional-claiming victory on October 26, from the barn of Rudy Rodriguez; and Patrick McBurney trainee Just Call Kenny, third last time out in the Richard W. Small on November 11 at Laurel Park.