OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Already with a personal best 98 wins on the year, trainer Christophe Clement will send out a potent pair in the Grade 1, $500,000 Cigar Mile Handicap on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack in hopes of his securing his first victory in the marquee one-mile dirt race.
The Cigar Mile, the centerpiece of the Aqueduct fall meet, will be joined on Saturday by the Grade 2, $300,000 Remsen, Grade 2, $300,000 Demoiselle and Grade 3, $300,000 Comely on a 10-race program that begins at 11:50 a.m. ET.
Leading the charge for Clement is multiple Grade 1 winner Tonalist, who is coming off a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland, where he finished 12 ½ lengths behind American Pharoah.
Last year's Belmont Stakes winner, Tonalist began 2015 with a facile score in the Grade 3 Westchester at a mile, and then turned in a strong runner-up effort behind Honor Code in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at the same distance, dispelling the notion that the long-winded son of Tapit needed more ground to be effective.
Though he stretched back out in his next start, the Grade 2, 1 ¼-mile Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park, Tonalist was denied victory by an obstinate Effinex, who prevailed by a head. In his subsequent outing, the bay colt again faced the cream of the crop in the handicap division in the Grade 1 Whitney on August 8, but could only manage to finish third after coming from far back.
Returning to Belmont, where he has never been out of the exacta in seven tries, Tonalist took his second consecutive Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup by a widening 4 ¾ lengths over a sloppy track on October 3 before going on to the Classic.
Blinkers will go back on Tonalist, who Clement trains for Robert Evans, for the first time since the Met Mile. He will be ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez from post 5 as the second morning line choice at odds of 2-1.
Rounding out Clement's 1-2 punch is Red Vine, a consistent dirt miler owned by Don and Joan Cimpl and Jon and Sarah Kelly. Though he raced on turf for the first 13 starts of his life, Red Vine found a new home when a turf race was washed to the main track on December 4 at the Big A. After soundly beating a respectable field that day, the son of Candy Ride was off for nearly four months but returned in style to take an optional claimer at Aqueduct by three lengths going a mile on dirt.
In his next start, the 5-year-old became a stakes winner, winning the one mile, 70-yard Majestic Light on May 23 at Monmouth Park by two lengths, and then quickly stepped up into graded stakes for the Grade 3 Salvatore Mile at Monmouth, in which he finished second. After a trip out west for the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, where he finished third behind Beholder, Red Vine returned to the NYRA circuit to contest the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap and was runner-up to California invader Appealing Tale.
In his most recent start, the bay horse turned in another solid effort, finishing third behind Grade 1 winners Liam's Map and Lea in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
"He's trained so well and it's the last Grade 1 of the year [in New York], so why not?" Clement said. "He's stabled here and will get a break after the race As of now, the plan is for both Red Vine and Tonalist to remain in training next year."
Installed at 8-1, Red Vine will break from post 3 with Joel Rosario in the irons.
Meeting Clement's duo is last year's winner, Private Zone, now in the barn of trainer Brian Lynch. Since his rail-aided victory in the 2014 edition of the Cigar Mile, the gelded son of Macho Uno has continued his strong one-turn form, including wins in the Grade 1 Forego and Grade 3 Belmont Sprint Championship on the NYRA circuit, as well was a third-place finish in the Met Mile, and the Grade 2 Churchill Downs. Most recently, the bay 6-year-old lost a heartbreaker in the Breeders' Cup Sprint to Runhappy on October 31 at Keeneland.
Since arriving in Lynch's barn a few weeks ago, Private Zone's penchant for quirky behavior has already been on display when the speedy gelding self-aborted a work on Saturday and forced Lynch to gallop him into the race.
"It's not the most orthodox [training regimen]," Lynch said. "I've only had a couple of weeks with him and only seen him this past week, so we're going to do the best we can to get him there. I like to think everything happens for a reason, though, and he's coming out of the Breeders' Cup, so his fitness level was already good. Maybe he didn't even need the work; he's been very happy in his training this week. Hopefully he brings the same hard, tough race he's been running."
Owned by Good Friends Stable, Private Zone will leave from the outermost post 7 as the 6-5 morning line favorite.
Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap winner Matrooh will step up in class and look to remain unbeaten in one-turn races in North American for trainer Chad Brown and Shadwell Stable. The 5-year-old son of Distorted Humor traversed the Atlantic Ocean and came off a layoff of more than a year to win his first stateside start on March 1 at Gulfstream Park going a mile on dirt. The bay gelding steadily progressed through his conditions before trying the Grade 3 Philip H. Iselin around two turns, and then breaking through in the seven-furlong Bold Ruler at Belmont.
Matrooh, 6-1, will be ridden from post 4 by Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Classy turf miler Mshawish will try dirt for the first time in his career on Saturday coming off a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Mile on October 31 at Keeneland. The dark bay 5-year-old, who raced overseas for the first three years of his career, sports an American pedigree, and is trained by the circuit's perennial leading trainer, Todd Pletcher. He will break from post 2 with Javier Castellano aboard.
Completing the field are Marking, 15-1, who is undefeated in two starts, including a 5 ½-length victory in a one-mile allowance on November 4 at Belmont; and Full of Mine, 50-1, most recently third in the Empire Classic Handicap on October 24 at Belmont.
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