Sharp Azteca wears crown as top miler

To afford a full four-week gap between the Breeders' Cup and the stakes that mark New York's last truly big racing weekend until the spring, the New York Racing Association chose this year to move Aqueduct's Cigar Mile, Remsen, and Demoiselle out of their traditional spots on Thanksgiving weekend and run them instead on the first Saturday in December.

Just the word "December" makes me shiver, and you might agree that "December" and "major stakes racing in New York" are terms that have never gone together. But the move of these races this year proved a success, as all three of these stakes Saturday were won in emphatic fashion by horses coming out of the Breeders' Cup. This might well not have happened had NYRA remained a slave to the calendar and kept these stakes in their traditional spots. If NYRA remained static, these Breeders' Cup contenders/Aqueduct winners might never have even seen the entry box.

As it was, the Cigar Mile trifecta was an all-Breeders' Cup affair, as Sharp Azteca, the runner-up in the Dirt Mile, was followed home by Mind Your Biscuits, who finished third in the Sprint, and Practical Joke, the fourth-place finisher in the Dirt Mile. But that is a mere technicality because thanks to another sensational performance in which he absolutely obliterated his field, the Cigar Mile was all about Sharp Azteca, and nobody else.

Sharp Azteca might have pulled a perfect trip in the Cigar Mile, but that is only because he is a very fast horse with high early speed who is also very amenable to rating. So, Sharp Azteca willingly sat just off a disputed early pace until it was time to put his opposition away in the stretch, which he did without hesitation to win off in isolation.

Sharp Azteca's Cigar Mile romp was every bit as good, if not better, than his runaway win in the Gulfstream Park Handicap in his first start this year, or his easy win in the Monmouth Cup, or his dominating score in Belmont's Kelso Handicap. But even his losses this year were big efforts. Sharp Azteca was easily second-best in the Met Mile, finishing behind only Mor Spirit, who never ran like he did that day before or since. And Sharp Azteca was involved in what appeared to be a destructive early pace when a close third in the Godolphin Mile on the Dubai World Cup card.

But Sharp Azteca was a brutally unlucky loser in the Dirt Mile at Del Mar. He set a strong pace under pressure, and while everyone who was in close contact with him early wound up surrendering, he battled on gamely to be beaten just a half-length. And if that isn't enough, Sharp Azteca spent most of the Dirt Mile near the inside, which most definitely was not the place to be.

Sharp Azteca was the most consistently brilliant miler we saw this year. I actually think he's one of the best milers we've seen in recent years. But without an Eclipse Award category to officially commemorate it, a tip of the hat will have to suffice.


* Catholic Boy and Wonder Gadot were clear-cut winners in the Remsen and Demoiselle. I'm inclined to buy into Catholic Boy, but I'm more reserved when it comes to Wonder Gadot.

Catholic Boy, fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf after a lousy trip (truth is, several horses in the Juvenile Turf had bad trips), was making his first start on dirt in the Remsen against a field that was less than imposing. But I liked how, for a closer, he wasn't too far out of it early, and certainly liked how he won off by himself the way you would want for a colt with designs on bigger things. Dirt certainly isn't a problem for Catholic Boy, and neither is distance.

As for Wonder Gadot, who finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in her first attempt on dirt, she also won off over a Demoiselle field of suspect quality. But she was on top of a pace that was so slow -- 50.28 seconds to the half, 1:16.24 for three-quarters -- that it renders her performance inconclusive. For me, anyway.

* To be clear, I am not advocating for a new Eclipse Award category to honor dirt milers. If the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile did what it was supposed to do when it was created and spurred a reasonably coherent series of major one-mile races throughout the year, I might feel differently. But it hasn't, and the Dirt Mile is a siphon of talent from the Breeders' Cup Classic and Sprint as anything else.

* As alluded to up top, I thought the inside was dead on Del Mar's main track on Breeders' Cup Friday and Saturday, went on record with it at the time, and have repeated it several times since. I'm taking Sharp Azteca's big win Saturday as strong supporting evidence of that belief.

* I'm still trying to figure out why the American Graded Stakes Committee elected to downgrade the Delaware Handicap from a Grade 1 event to a Grade 2 race in 2018, the only race in its latest annual review to suffer such an indignity.

Since 2010, the Del Cap has been won by the multiple Grade 1 stakes winner Life At Ten; the champion Blind Luck; the three-time champion Royal Delta, who won it in 2012 and 2013; the multiple Grade 1 winner Sheer Drama; and the multiple Grade 1 winner I'm a Chatterbox. And just this year, when there were only about four older dirt distance females who were really any good, the Del Cap was won by Songbird, a two-time champion.

I agree with the sentiment that in an era of declining foal crops, there are too many graded stakes races, including too many Grade 1 races. I agreed with the decision last year to downgrade the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial, which have underperformed for many years in their primary role as producers of Kentucky Derby winners. But of all the races that could have and, in an apolitical racing world, should have been downgraded, it's a mystery to me how the Delaware Handicap was the one this year to take this hit, especially considering its recent performance.