Sharp Azteca shows new dimension in Cigar Mile

OZONE PARK, N.Y. -- Sharp Azteca proved he could run just as well from off the pace as he has when he's on it as he rallied from third to dominate Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

Under Javier Castellano, Sharp Azteca was 2 1/2 lengths off the early pace in third, confronted the pace-setting tandem of Seymourdini and Americanize approaching the top of the stretch, and then ran away from those two and the rest to win the Cigar Mile by 5 1/4 lengths. Mind Your Biscuits, who last December beat Sharp Azteca in the Grade 1 Malibu at Santa Anita, was second by 2 3/4 lengths over the late-running Practical Joke.

Americanize finished fourth and was followed, in order, by Tom's Ready, Just Call Kenny, Vulcan's Forge, Beasley, Seymourdini, and Summer Revolution.

It was the eighth win from 16 career starts for Sharp Azteca, but his first in a Grade 1 stakes. In addition to a second-place finish in the Malibu, Sharp Azteca had also run second in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park in May and second in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile four weeks ago at Del Mar.

He won the Cigar, carrying top-weight of 125 pounds, spotting 3 to 12 pounds to the field.

"I picked him out, it means a lot," said winning trainer Jorge Navarro. "When the horse was a 3-year-old I mentioned that he was one of the top 3-year-olds, and an old trainer came up to me and said 'Are you kidding? Do you know what you're talking about?' Here it is."

This year, as a 4-year-old, Sharp Azteca won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap, the Grade 2 Kelso, and the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup. He also finished third in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile in March.

When he won, Sharp Azteca typically did so on the front end. In the BC Dirt Mile, he set the pace only to be caught by Battle of Midway.

Navarro said he was confident that Sharp Azteca could rate until Friday when he watched videos of the horse attempting to do just that.

"He kept throwing his head up every time we tried to rate him," Navarro said.

Javier Castellano, who flew to south Florida last week at the request of owner Ivan Rodriguez to work the horse, said he thought the horse would rate. But when the gates opened, Sharp Azteca broke on top.

Still, Castellano was able to reel him in and let Seymourdini and Americanize duke it through a quarter in 22.78 seconds and a half-mile in 45.97. When Castellano asked Sharp Azteca to go after those two, the colt responded. He caught the leaders by the quarter pole and was never really threatened in the stretch.

"He switched off quick and he relaxed behind those horses very, very impressive," Castellano said. "Only good horses can do that. "

Sharp Azteca ran a mile in 1:35.17 and returned $5.50 as the 8-5 favorite.

"I wasn't expecting this big of a performance," Navarro said. "You know what? He ran his eyeballs out. What else can I ask?"

In January, Navarro may ask Sharp Azteca to try to run 1 1/8 miles in the $16 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 27.

"After this performance why not," Navarro said. "We are going to see how he comes out of this first."

Mind Your Biscuits, third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, ran a very credible second going a mile, which may be a tad beyond his best distance.

"I think he showed everybody he could go a mile," trainer Chad Summers said. "I have all the respect in the world for Jorge Navarro and Sharp Azteca … I thought it was a two-horse race, it was, he got the jump on us and he beat us today."

Practical Joke, last after a half-mile, rallied to finish third, beaten eight lengths in what is his final career start. He retired with a record of 5-2-3 from 12 starts and earnings of $,1795,800.

"I thought he ran a real solid race," trainer Chad Brown said. "It was hard to make up ground today on this track. That said, the winner was very impressive and I don't think it would have mattered how the track was playing, it looked like nobody was going to beat him today."