09/19/2008 12:00AM

Cigar Man stepping up on the turf

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MIAMI - After finishing second behind division leader Wise Answer as a maiden in the 2007 In Reality Stakes and then graduating by nearly a dozen lengths four weeks later, Cigar Man was generally considered one of the more promising 2-year-olds on the grounds here last fall. Unfortunately, the homebred never lived up to expectations, finishing off the board in his first seven starts as a 3-year-old before returning home to win a first-level allowance race earlier this month.

Obviously a happier horse now that he's back in familiar surroundings under the shed of trainer Kathleen O'Connell and with that elusive second victory finally under his belt, Cigar Man will attempt to make up for past disappointments when he returns to stakes competition in Saturday's Needles Stakes. The 1 1/16-mile race on the turf for 3-year-olds also is expected to feature the grass debut of Breeders' Cup Classic hopeful Smooth Air.

Cigar Man spent most of the summer in the Midwest with trainer Ronny Werner, a move brought about by the first of two purse cuts that have cast a pall over the 2008 Calder meet.

"He was sent out of town strictly because of the purse cut at the beginning of the meet," said O'Connell, who trains Cigar Man for owner-breeder Charles Spence. "When the purses got better, they sent him back here. He loves this racetrack, and I was very pleased that he was able to get that last win under his belt. I think it was a big confidence booster for him."

Cigar Man has made just one previous start on grass, finishing last under entry-level allowance conditions at Arlington Park after contesting a lightning-fast pace.

"I watched the race on television and I think his performance was much better than people might think," O'Connell said. "He really wants to run at horses, not on the pace, and he battled through some very fast fractions and still only got beat nine lengths. He's got a turf pedigree, and it appeared to me he had a beautiful stride over the turf."

O'Connell realizes Cigar Man faces a formidable task taking on Ohio Derby winner Smooth Air in the Needles.

"When you have a 3-year-old like him at Calder, you've got no choice but to run him in a two-other-than allowance race, a $25,000 claimer, or a stakes," O'Connell said. "So we might as well give him the benefit of the doubt and try him in the stakes."

Next start for 'Phil' undecided

While O'Connell is committed to running Cigar Man in the Needles, she remains undecided about whether to start her newest 2-year-old star This One's for Phil in the Foolish Pleasure Stakes on Saturday or train him into the $400,000 In Reality on Oct. 18. This One's for Phil is coming off a 4 1/2-length victory in the one-mile Seacliff Stakes.

"He's doing really well, and coming back in three weeks isn't a problem," O'Connell said. "Unfortunately, he's only eligible for $50,000 because of the latest purse cut and the fact he's not Breeders' Cup eligible. If he doesn't go there, we'll just wait for the big one."

Like all of her colleagues, O'Connell remains frustrated over the purse situation that has helped deplete many stables here this summer. "Just when everybody got pumped up after the original purses were restored, they cut them again," O'Connell lamented. "I just wish they'd get this [account wagering] thing straightened out. Someone should just lock everybody involved in the negotiations in a room and not let them out until they get it settled."