So often a disappointment when on the verge of stardom, Lion Tamer jumped up and surprised in the 16th running of the $350,000 Hill 'n' Dale Cigar Mile (gr. I) at Aqueduct on Saturday.
While the Michael Tabor-owned 4-year-old son of Will's Way improved his lifetime record to eight-for-15, his losses include a dull showing at 4-5 in last year's Lanes End (gr. II) which derailed his Triple Crown hopes. Earlier this year Lion Tamer appeared on his way to the top of his class before a poor effort as favorite in the Westchester Handicap (gr. III) and an empty race in the Tom Fool (gr. II) over the summer.
"I always thought this was a horse good enough to win a grade I," winning trainer Todd Pletcher said. "I really didn't plan on going in here with him, but he ran so well in the Sport Page (second at Aqueduct on Oct. 31), he obviously liked the track, and he was training so well, so we decided to take a shot."
Lion Tamer rallied from last on the run down the backstretch under Jose Santos to make the lead at the top of the stretch and draw off to win by 1 1/4 lengths after a brief battle with favorite, Pico Central. Badge of Silver wound up nosing Pico Central for second. Pico Central, the top weight in the field of eight at 123 pounds, spotted the first two finishers eight pounds apiece.
The loss was only the second in seven races this year for Pico Central and denied him an unprecedented sweep of New York's grade I sprint races. Forced to set a blazing pace from the rail while pressured by Pletcher's Purge, he also lost his opportunity to show off for Eclipse voters who must decide between him and Speightstown, who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) at Lone Star Park. Pico Central, who was not nominated, remained in the barn.
"We'll have to wait until January," said Paulo Lobo, trainer of Pico Central.
"With the rail there is no option," he said of the decision to send his Brazilian-bred. "We talked about trying to leave one or two horses in front of him, but from there it was impossible."
So Pico Central set the pace – :22 2/5, :44 1/5 and 1:08 1/5. By that point Lion Tamer had pulled even on the outside and although Pico Central dug in, he could not match the winner late.
"I still had a lot of horse when I turned for home," jockey Victor Espinoza. "At the eighth pole, he put his head up and he didn't feel very comfortable."
Espinoza and Lobo reported after the race that Pico Central had lost a shoe. Lobo added that Pico Central will be kept in training for a 6-year old campaign in 2005. Lion Tamer is also expected to race again.
Pletcher who trains Speightstown, made his case for an Eclipse. Speightstown was beaten by Pico Central by 4 1/2 lengths at equal weights in the Vosburgh (gr. I) in their only meeting at Belmont Park Oct. 2
"As far as champion sprinter goes, I think the one race that really solidifies the championship is the Breeders' Cup," he said. "When you show up on a neutral playing field and win, if it's close, that's what separates the closeness. I obviously have a biased opinion, but I think if anyone is out there that was on the bubble, maybe this sways them the other way."
Kela was scratched from the Cigar due to a fever.
The chestnut Lion Tamer earned $210,000 for his fifth win of the year, increasing his career bankroll to $763,380.
He paid $26, $9.40 and $3.70 as the 12-1 fourth choice. Badge of Silver, ridden by Jerry Bailey, returned $5.0 and $3.10. Pico Central's show was $2.20.
Unforgettable Max, Potrisunrise, Purge, During and Voodoo followed.