11/17/2005 1:00AM

Cigar Mile shapes up as three-trainer affair

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Cigar Mile nominee Badge of Silver hasn't raced since sixth in the Stephen Foster in June.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Aqueduct's main track will soon be buttoned up tight for the winter. But before winter's deep freeze we get one last meaningful day of racing next Saturday, highlighted by the last Grade 1 stakes of the season, the Cigar Mile.

The Cigar Mile is usually a terrific betting race. A week out, there is an excellent chance the winner will come from one of three barns, because Bobby Frankel, Todd Pletcher, and Richard Dutrow Jr. train 16 of the 23 nominees - nearly 70 percent of the potential runners, including the one-two finishers in last year's renewal.

Frankel, Pletcher, and Dutrow dominate the list. That's not really a surprise, now, is it?

Frankel has only two nominees, Badge of Silver and Mass Media, but they make up a potentially strong hand.

Badge of Silver has not been out since fading to sixth in the Stephen Foster back in June, but he has won 4 of 6 starts in layoff situations and ran huge in this race a year ago, when he battled for the lead from the opening bell and came on again to nose Pico Central for second.

Mass Media is an in-and-outer, but ran the best race of his life on Aqueduct's main track last fall to win the Sport Page Handicap by daylight over Lion Tamer with a 115 Beyer Speed Figure, and flashed some of that long-lost form by winning the Grade 1 Forego at 15-1 two starts back.

Lion Tamer, one of Pletcher's eight nominees, sprang off that runner-up effort in last year's Sport Page to pull an upset in last year's Cigar Mile. Those two races on the local surface resulted in Lion Tamer's career-best Beyers, and he appears to be rounding back to peak form after returning from a layoff with third-place finishes in the Vosburgh and Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Magna Graduate, a well-traveled 3-year-old, and Host, who had a tough trip in the Breeders' Cup Mile, are the most intriguing of Pletcher's other nominees.

Magna Graduate's 14 starts have come at 11 different racetracks, and he is still improving. Lost amid the fireworks of Breeders' Cup Day was his win the Discovery Handicap, in which he ran down front-running favorite Scrappy T in a strongly run route.

Sluggish starts and light checking in the early stages of turf races is trouble that is routinely overblown by trip handicappers. But being checked once set down for the stretch drive constitutes legitimate trouble on the grass, and Host was blocked virtually the length of the stretch when beaten a grand total of three lengths for all the money in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

The distance is right up Host's alley, as he demonstrated winning the Shadwell Mile off a layoff. And despite the fact that he faded to third in his only U.S. dirt start, there are favorable signs Host can better that performance: He won a Group 1 on dirt in Chile by six lengths; he has become more formidable in the U.S. since adopting rate-and-finish tactics; and his sire, Hussonet, also sired Wild Spirit, another Chilean import whose first two starts in this country were dominating wins in the Shuvee and Delaware Handicaps.

Four of Dutrow's six Cigar Mile nominees - Bailero, Byanosejoe, Mr. Whitestone, and Yankee Mon - are also nominated to the Fall Highweight.

The remaining two, Silver Wagon and Tiger Heart, are owned by Buckram Oak Farm. As New York trainer pattern players are fully aware, or should be, several Buckram Oak horses from either Florida or Kentucky have improved leaps and bounds after shipping to Dutrow's barn at Aqueduct this year, notably Silver Train, winner of the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

The improvement pattern has already been exhibited by Tiger Heart, who had an out-of-town Beyer peak of 91 before rattling off figures of 108-102-105 in his first three local starts. And the first-time Dutrow angle will be in play with Silver Wagon, who is already talented enough to have run a Beyer of 110 finishing second in the Met Mile.

If Las Vegas had an over/under line for predicting Silver Wagon's Beyer first-time Dutrow, what do you suppose it might be? It's hard to say, but since he was capable of reaching 110 with another trainer, the new-and-improved number would probably be something around 120 - 1 point below the best figure that Cigar himself ever ran.