When you have a horse at the top of his game, seize the moment and have some fun, says trainer Bob Baffert.
Baffert is taking that approach with Midnight Lute, the winner of this year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr.I). With an Eclipse Award as top sprinter all but a certainty, Midnight Lute looks to add to his laurels in the $300,000 Hill ‘n’ Dale Cigar Mile (gr. I) at Aqueduct on Nov. 24.
After a breathtaking performance in the Sprint at Monmouth Park on a sloppy track on Oct. 27, Midnight Lute heads a field of seven in the final grade I in New York this year. Midnight Lute is the 123-pound highweight.
Midnight Lute, who is expected to race next year, could become the first Breeders’ Cup winner to capture the Cigar Mile in the same year, and the only Sprint winner ever to do so. Cigar, the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner, won this race in 1994, when it was called the NYRA Mile.
“He is training well, and the Cigar Mile is always a race we are looking at,” said Baffert, who won this race with Congaree in 2002 and 2003 and with El Corredor in 2000. “He is starting to bloom and we want to see more of him. We are having fun with him.”
Midnight Lute, a 4-year-old son of Real Quiet, reached a turning point in his career at Saratoga when he won the seven-furlong Forego Stakes (gr. I) in spectacular fashion. His Forego win came after a 5 1/2-month layoff, and in near track record time of 1:21.06. The Forego was Midnight Lute’s first grade I victory for his owners Mike Pegram, Carl Watson and Paul Weitman.
Baffert said the key to Midnight Lute’s successful move to grade I competition was the three tie-back surgeries he had to correct a breathing problem.
“He became a different horse,” Baffert said.
Midnight Lute, ridden by Garrett Gomez, came with an explosive run in the stretch of the Breeders’ Cup after racing well off the pace in the six-furlong race. His margin of victory was 4 3/4 lengths.
“At the half-mile pole, I said, ‘No way, can he do it,’” Baffert said. “At the eighth pole, he took off. It was so exciting to watch.”
In 10 career starts, Midnight Lute has not won beyond seven furlongs.
“We need to give him a shot at the mile in the Cigar; we have built him up to it in small increments,” Baffert said. “With his stride, it doesn’t seem like distance will be a problem.”
Gomez, seeking his third consecutive Cigar Mile victory, has the return call from the rail.
The horse with best chance of upsetting Midnight Lute is Daaher, who is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and owned by Shadwell Stable.
An equipment change made the difference for Daaher, a 3-year-old son of Awesome Again . After being equipped with blinkers, Daaher won a first-level allowance race by nearly 14 lengths at Saratoga. He followed with a win in the Jerome Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont Park on Oct. 7.
“I wouldn’t trade places with anyone,” McLaughlin said of Daaher’s chances in the Cigar Mile. “I have a lot of respect for Midnight Lute, but there are plenty of things in our favor. This is a serious horse.”
Mike Luzzi rides Daaher, who could secure the early lead. He drew post 5 and carries nine fewer pounds than Midnight Lute.
Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. had entered City Attraction and Diamond Isle, a coupled entry, but said he wasn’t certain if either would run. City Attraction ended up in the Fall Highweight Handicap at Aqueduct on Nov. 22 where he finished a close third behind winner Grand Champion and Joey P.
Xchanger was no factor in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Monmouth on Oct. 26. He finished sixth in the slop, beaten 34 lengths. Sir Greeley, a graded winner at a mile, and Naughty New Yorker, a consistent performer in New York-bred competition, complete the field.
$300,000 Hill 'N' Dale Cigar Mile Stakes (gr. I, Race 8, 3:48 p.m.), 3 & Up
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Midnight Lute (KY), 123, Garrett K. Gomez
2. Sir Greeley (KY), 116, John R. Velazquez
3. Naughty New Yorker (NY), 114, Javier Castellano
4. Diamond Isle (KY), 114, Alan Garcia
5. Daaher (ON), 114, Michael J. Luzzi
6. City Attraction Scratched
7. Xchanger (FL), 114, Cornelio H. Velasquez