It’s how New York’s real racing season has ended since 1988, with the Cigar Mile at funky old Aqueduct. As always, the Big A will roll on endlessly through winter, but it won’t host an event as important or as lucrative as the Grade I, $750,000 Cigar until the Wood Memorial in April.
The old racetrack in the Ozone Park section of Queens looked different. Gone is the winterized inner track installed in 1975, replaced by a second turf course during a recent reconfiguration. Besides the new optic was a brief climate upgrade: an unseasonably pleasant December Saturday. For once, there was no chilling breeze sweeping through North America’s windiest track.
A few minutes before sundown, Sharp Azteca burst into the lead in upper stretch, and by the eighth pole the 8-5 favorite had smoked the Cigar. Runner-up Mind Your Biscuits, trained by Long Island native Chad Summers, and Practical Joke were moving late but had no chance to catch Sharp Azteca. The margin was 5¼ lengths.
Four weeks after leading until the final strides of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar, the confirmed front-runner had a new rider, Javier Castellano, and a different approach. Castellano and trainer Jorge Navarro decided to sit off the pace, and the strategy worked brilliantly. Sharp Azteca rated about two lengths behind in third as Seymourdini, pressed by Americanize, set hot fractions of 22.78 seconds for a quarter-mile and 45.97 for a half. After Sharp Azteca surged past Americanize at the top of the stretch there was a pace meltdown, and the closers were too far back to make an impact.
“We looked at the past performances and saw a lot of early speed,” said Castellano, who replaced Paco Lopez. “He switched off a little bit, and when I asked him, he finished very impressively. He had so much left in the tank.”
Navarro said owner Ivan Rodriguez was behind the jockey switch. “We believe he is one of the top horses in the nation,” Navarro said. “So he needs one of the top riders.”
Sharp Azteca paid $5.50 as the card’s third winning Breeders’ Cup also-ran, joining the 2-year-old filly Wonder Gadot ($5.20, Demoiselle) and the 2-year-old colt Catholic Boy ($10.40, Remsen). “You usually don’t see too many horses run fast and be second in the Breeders’ Cup and come back after a short rest and run like he did,” Castellano said.
Sharp Azteca was timed in 1:35.17 for his eighth win in 16 starts and earned $450,000, raising his total to $1,756,740.
“I knew he was sitting on that Grade I, but you know what, I wasn’t expecting this big of a performance,” Navarro said. “He ran his eyes out. I bought him, I picked him out. This means a lot.
“Last year I said he was one of the top 3-year-olds, and another trainer came up to me and said, ‘Are you kidding? Do you know what you’re talking about?’ Here it is. He’s the only one from that class still around.”