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Connect wins Cigar Mile at Big A

As daylight began turning into dusk, Connect and Divining Rod surged together down the Aqueduct stretch. At the wire, it was the favorite, Connect, who got up on the outside by a head in Saturday’s $500,000 Cigar Mile, a predictable yet dramatic exclamation point to a year Chad Brown owned.

The gritty Connect gave Brown his 60th stakes win, and his 22nd Grade I, of a year in which he seems destined for his first Eclipse Award as America’s leading trainer. Typically, the 38-year-old native of upstate Mechanicville gave the credit to everyone but himself.

In the crowded winner’s circle, the low-key Brown pointed to jockey Javier Castellano and said: “There’s only one guy you want in a tight finish: this guy.”

Then Brown thanked owner Paul Pompa Jr. for his patience when their colt suffered a few minor injuries. “Every time there was little setback with this horse, Paul took it right in stride and said, ‘We know we have a good one. Let’s do right by the horse and he’ll do right by us.’

‘’I appreciate very much the amount of time Paul has allowed me to work with this horse. It’s paid off.”

Connect responded by going 5-for-6 this year, and the Cigar’s $300,000 winner’s share raised his career total to exactly $1.25 million. He hadn’t run since Sept. 24, when he edged another standout 3-year-old colt, Gun Runner, by a half-length in the Pennsylvania Derby. Connect was 10-1 that day at Parx but only 3-2 in the Cigar.

“I was a little concerned that he hadn’t had a race under his belt since the Pennsylvania Derby,” Brown said, “but I know how much heart he has and how competitive he is.”

The son of Curlin had to be fully extended to run down Divining Rod and rider Daniel Centeno, who led by 1½ lengths at the eighth pole. “You don’t have much to think about,” Castellano said of the stretch duel. “You ride and focus and try to motivate your horse, and he responded every step of the way.”

Connect rated patiently, sitting back in fifth after a half-mile in 46.44 seconds and fourth after 6 furlongs in 1:11. He moved five-wide into the stretch, and for a few strides he was on the outside of a four-way duel. Leader Divining Rod, in blinkers for the first time, kept coming while Anchor Down and Threefiveindia backed up.

“We had a good trip,” Castellano said. “The way it set up was perfect.”

The winner paid $5 after being timed in 1:35.34 on a fast track. Realm ran third, five lengths behind Divining Rod and a neck ahead of 44-1 shot War Story. Completing the order of finish were Anchor Down, Threefiveindia, Tale of S’avall, Economic Model, Mylute and Ocean Knight. Brown also trains Threefiveindia and Economic Model.

Among Brown’s 2016 accomplishments were a record-setting 40 wins at Saratoga and his 1,000th career victory. He was asked to reflect on them; he wouldn’t have done it on his own. Unlike many big-time sports figures, he’s immune to The Disease of Me.

“It’s been an unbelievable year,” Brown said. “I’m so lucky to have so many great owners who give us these horses. And I have such a terrific staff. They put in so many hours, which helps make days like this happen.”

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