11/26/2016 7:17PM

Connect by a head in thrilling Cigar Mile

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Michael Amoruso
Connect and jockey Javier Castellano edge Divining Rod in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile on Saturday.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – As Connect and Divining Rod battled through the Aqueduct stretch of Saturday’s Grade 1 Cigar Mile, trainer Chad Brown wondered if the lack of a recent race would compromise his horse’s chances to win.

But Connect, the 3-year-old on the outside under Javier Castellano, kept on persevering and was able to outduel Divining Rod, a 4-year-old to his inside, and win the $500,000 Cigar Mile by a short head.

It was the fifth win from seven starts for Connect and his first in a Grade 1. He hadn’t run since taking the Grade 2, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx on Sept. 24, beating Gun Runner, who had won Friday’s Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

“I was concerned because he hadn’t had a recent race under his belt, but I know how much heart this horse has and how competitive he is, and he really showed a lot of heart today,” Brown said. “It’s very rewarding to see a horse that shows you so much promise since they’re an unraced 2-year-old really turn out to be what you thought they could be. A 3-year-old beating olders in a race like this is a very high mark on his résumé.”

The win improved Connect’s record to 5 for 7 and pushed his career earnings to $1.25 million.

The win also helped pad Brown’s résumé for a possible Eclipse Award as top trainer as the Cigar Mile was Brown’s 60th stakes victory of the year, his 41st graded stakes and his 11th Grade 1.

Brown had chosen the Cigar Mile for Connect immediately after the Pennsylvania Derby, believing the horse would need significant time to recover from a hard race. He also felt the one-turn mile would be more significant for Connect’s second career as a stallion than would Fridays $500,000 Clark, a two-turn, 1 1/8-mile race at Churchill.

Also, the Cigar Mile didn’t have a Grade 1 winner in the field, and Connect was sent off as the 3-2 favorite in the 10-horse field.

Connect settled into fifth position down the backstretch as Anchor Down sparred on the lead with Threefiveindia, also trained by Brown, through a quarter in 23.31 seconds and a half-mile in 46.44. Realm and Divining Rod were in the second flight.

Divining Rod, equipped with blinkers for the first time, and Connect launched their bids almost simultaneously, with Divining Rod three wide and Connect four wide. Divining Rod held a brief advantage turning for home, but by the three-sixteenths pole, the pair was on equal terms. Divining Rod had the lead inside the sixteenth pole, but Connect kept on fighting and got his head on the wire first.

 “You have to ride a little bit, you have to be focused and ride aggressive, and I tried to pass the other horse,” Castellano said. “He fought all the way to the end.”

Connect, a son of Curlin owned by Paul Pompa Jr., covered the mile in 1:34.34 and returned $5 as the 3-2 favorite.

“He ran his race. That was a great race, exciting finish; we just couldn’t get there,” said Arnaud Delacour, the trainer of Divining Rod. “I thought that was a big stretch from both of them. Connect is a great horse.”

Realm finished third by a neck over War Story, who was followed by Anchor Down, Threefiveindia, Tale of S’avall, Economic Model, Mylute, and Ocean Knight.

Connect is a two-time winner at 1 1/8 miles, so it is expected that Pompa could have many suitors in terms of leasing the horse for a spot in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28. The Pegasus is open to 12 horses, but those 12 slots have already been sold for $1 million apiece.  However, many slot holders don’t have a suitable horse.

Pompa said he already has fielded phone calls about the possibility of leasing the horse for that race.

“Whatever I do I’ll discuss with my trainer,” Pompa said.