Moving Cigar Mile, Boosting Purse Pays Dividends For NYRA

In its 29 years of existence, the stakes now known as the Cigar Mile Handicap presented by NYRA Bets has undergone a world of change.

The brain child of then-New York Racing Association President Gerard McKeon, the one-turn race at Aqueduct was originally named the NYRA Mile by McKeon to shine a positive light on the organization through a new and lucrative race bearing its name.

Now, nearly three decades later, the mile distance is the lone holdover from its inaugural running in 1988.

In 1997, the race was re-named the Cigar Mile in honor of its 1994 winner, owner Allen E. Paulson’s two-time Horse of the Year who posted his first stakes win in the Grade 1 race.

That first NYRA Mile, which was won by Claiborne Farm’s Forty Niner, was run on October 22, two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup. The NYRA Mile preceded the World Championships in four of its first five years before finally finding a home in 1994 as the centerpiece of NYRA’s Thanksgiving weekend stakes package.

That, too, will change on Saturday, when the Cigar Mile, as well as the Grade 2 Remsen and Grade 2 Demoiselle, take up a new residence in the week after Thanksgiving. It’s a move intended to make the stakes more viable for horses exiting the Breeders’ Cup while adding another week of high-quality racing to the NYRA schedule.

All three stakes will be included in a special edition of Aqueduct Live, airing from 3-4:30 p.m. nationally on FS2 and regionally on MSG+.

“It makes sense to move the Cigar Mile,” said Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations. “There are two big races after the Breeders’ Cup, the Clark (November 24 at Churchill Downs) and the Cigar Mile. It fills a spot if you want to give your horse one more race before the end of the year, when he might go to stud or get the winter off. It’s always been a meaningful race but moving it back a week will get across the point that we have an important race 28 days after the Breeders’ Cup and should help us get top horses back in the race.”

The switch in timing, coupled with a purse increase from $500,000 to $750,000, paid immediate dividends as three horses who competed in the Breeders’ Cup and placed among the top four in their respective races – Sharp Azteca, Practical Joke and Mind Your Biscuits – top the list of Cigar Mile entrants.

“I take my hat off to the NYRA staff for moving the race,” said Chad Summers, trainer and part owner of Mind Your Biscuits, who was third in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint. “This was a race that was always run on Thanksgiving weekend. Years ago, running back in two or three weeks wasn’t a big deal. But now, especially with the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar, for us traveling back from California, it would have been difficult for all of us to run in it. The extra week is huge for us.”

Summers said that a strong effort in the Cigar Mile could encourage the connections to enter the Grade 1, $16 million Pegasus World Cup, set for January 27 at Gulfstream Park.

“You look at the horses who have won the Cigar Mile and it’s a litany of good horses. It’s a race that can show everyone he’s not just a sprinter and he can go a route of ground, even if it’s a one-turn mile,” Summers said. “This race is crucial for us. We want to see him get the mile and get it emphatically. What that will do is open doors for next year. Two turns is not out of the realm of possibilities. You see $16 million at stake at Gulfstream and running in it isn’t out of the question, depending on what happens in the Cigar.”

In addition to its rich purse, the Cigar Mile also promises to add an impressive line to the winner’s resume as a stud prospect.

“It’s an important race to win, especially if you’re looking to create a stallion,” said trainer Chad Brown, who will saddle Practical Joke. “It carries a lot of weight with breeders.”

Besides the benefits of an extra week after the Breeders’ Cup, Panza said the changes strengthen the Aqueduct schedule by giving it 14 stakes between Nov. 23-Dec. 2 as opposed to carding the year’s final Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes on Thanksgiving weekend.

“This gives us an extra weekend of big races here at Aqueduct, which makes sense at this time of year,” Panza said. “We like the idea of big days for the Belmont Stakes or Travers with a half-dozen stakes or more but spreading things over the two weeks seems best here and we’re confident people will respond positively to it.”

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