11/27/2008 1:00AM

Champions no strangers to Cigar Mile


NEW YORK - A victory in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, first run as the NYRA Mile in 1988, has never been part of a horse's championship season. That's not going to change in its 21st running at Aqueduct on Saturday, where no one is going to dislodge Midnight Lute or Benny the Bull as the nation's champion sprinter or Curlin as the top older male of 2008. Yet the race has a fascinating and distinguished history, including victories by three horses who were champions in other seasons.

Forty Niner won the inaugural running on Oct. 22, 1988, the year after he was the nation's champion 2-year-old. It was his 12th start of a 13-race campaign that already included victories in the Fountain of Youth, Lafayette, Haskell, and Travers and seconds to three eventual champions in the Lexington (Risen Star), Kentucky Derby (Winning Colors), and Woodward (Alysheba). Two weeks later, Forty Niner concluded his career with a horror-trip fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

That was the last time a horse used the race as a prep for the Classic. The next year, Dispersal beat Sewickley by a nose and those two came back two weeks later to run third and sixth behind Dancing Spree and Safely Kept in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. In 1990, the idea that the race was any kind of a Breeders' Cup prep was scrapped altogether, and the race was run just a week after the Cup as an

alternative to the Classic. Quiet American, excluded from an oversubscribed Classic in a controversial call, made that year's selection

committee look bad with an overpowering 4 3/4-length victory over Dancing Spree - who had run sixth in the BC Sprint just a week earlier. (Yes, good horses actually used to race every week or two.)

As for the race's current namesake, Cigar was 8-1 making his dirt-stakes debut in the 1994 NYRA Mile. One race earlier, he had been switched back to the dirt after 11 straight grass races and trounced a second-level allowance field by eight lengths with a 104 Beyer that could have been higher. He won the NYRA Mile by seven lengths over Devil His Due, the second in his string of 16 consecutive victories over the next 21 months.

Sir Bear won the race in 1998 and became the only horse to win both of New York's Grade 1 dirt miles when he took the Metropolitan six months later. Left Bank beat Graeme Hall and Red Bullet to win the 2001 edition, a year before he was the nation's champion older male.

By then, the race had been renamed the Cigar Mile by NYRA chairman Kenny Noe, who always hated the corporate name "NYRA" and refused to adopt the common pronunciation of "Nye-ruh," instead always spelling it out N-Y-R-A. There may also have been a touch of guilt in his renaming the race: One morning he was jawboning with trainer Bill Mott under his shed row when a horse thrust his neck out of the stall and took a hearty bite at him. Noe instinctively wheeled and smacked the horse, not realizing it was the two-time Horse of the Year.

The lone two-timer winner of the Cigar Mile is Congaree, among this decade's most talented horses never to win an Eclipse. He beat Aldebaran by 5 1/2 lengths in 2002 and Midas Eyes by 5 1/4 in 2003, part of a 12-for-25 career in which he earned $3.2 million.

Congaree was a pure miler who was classy enough to stretch things a bit farther under the right circumstances. Breeders celebrate milers, and Europeans prize them on turf, but American racing affords few opportunities to shine at the distance. The Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile was meant to remedy that, but its first two runnings have been at tracks unable to run the race around one turn, turning what should be an extended sprint into a sort of lesser route race. Same problem next year when the Cup returns to Santa Anita, but the race will be run at its proper configuration in 2010 at Churchill Downs and 2011 at Belmont.

By then, it might be time to

consider an Eclipse Award for the nation's champion miler. If the title hasn't been settled to everyone's satisfaction after the BC Dirt Mile, the Cigar Mile could extend the Eclipse race to the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend at Aqueduct.