11/22/2007 1:00AM

Midnight Lute makes his case

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Midnight Lute, coming back after winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint, could become a contender for the older horse Eclipse with a Cigar victory.
OZONE PARK, N.Y. - When it comes to Midnight Lute, trainer Bob Baffert wishes this was Memorial Day weekend and not Thanksgiving weekend.

"He's just getting good," Baffert said. "I wish it was the beginning of the summer."

At the beginning of the summer, Midnight Lute was recovering from throat surgery and still six weeks away from returning to the work tab. This fall, Midnight Lute has developed into a fire-breathing monster, romping in the Forego Handicap and Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Saturday, Midnight Lute will be heavily favored to continue his winning ways when he heads a field of seven entered in the $350,000 Cigar Mile, the final Grade 1 race of the year to be run in New York. The Cigar tops a nine-race card that features four graded stakes, including the $200,000 Remsen for juveniles, the $200,000 Demoiselle for juvenile fillies, and the $100,000 Discovery for 3-year-olds. First post Saturday is 12:25 p.m.

While he has already clinched an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter, Midnight Lute could join the discussion for champion older horse - along with Lawyer Ron and Invasor - with a powerful victory in the Cigar Mile. That is the furthest thing from Baffert's mind, however.

"I really haven't thought about it," Baffert said. "[The media] does that stuff, we're just enjoying it. He's a good horse, we're just having fun. My job is to keep him happy, keep him sound, keep him running. You guys are in charge of the other stuff."

Baffert has certainly done his job well. In the Forego, Midnight Lute was sitting right off a moderate pace before taking over at the five-sixteenths pole en route to a 2 1/4-length victory over Benny the Bull. He earned a season-best 124 Beyer Speed Figure in that race, his first start in 4 1/2 months.

In the Breeders' Cup Sprint, Midnight Lute overcame a slow start and splashed his way down the middle of a sloppy Monmouth Park surface to win by 4 3/4 lengths.

"Everything was against him and he still finished with a flourish," said Baffert, who seeks his fourth Cigar Mile trophy this decade after winning with El Corredor (2000) and Congaree (2002-03). "Right now we don't need to worry about pace, don't need to worry about whatever. Just keep him healthy and happy and let him do the rest of it."

As the 123-pound highweight, Midnight Lute will be spotting seven to nine pounds to the rest of the field. He will break from the rail under Garrett Gomez, who won last year's Cigar Mile aboard Discreet Cat.

The horse with the best chance to upset Midnight Lute is Daaher, a 3-year-old son of Awesome Again who has stepped up his game immensely since trainer Kiaran McLaughlin added blinkers to his equipment. Daaher earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures winning a first-level allowance at Saratoga and the Grade 2 Jerome Handicap at Belmont.

With the defection of Tasteyville due to a wrenched ankle, Daaher could be the main speed under Mike Luzzi at 114 pounds.

"If we're the only speed, we'll be on the lead," McLaughlin said. "That would be nice."

McLaughlin is hopeful that the nine-pound weight break, as well as seven weeks between starts, will play to Daaher's benefit.

"It's going to be a big test for us," McLaughlin said. "The blinkers on sure moved us way up, and we've been pointing for this spot since our last race."

The 3-year-old Xchanger was competitive in Grade 2 company before getting whipped in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, run over a sloppy track. With dry conditions expected Saturday, trainer Mark Shuman is hopeful of a return to form from Xchanger.

With Tasteyville injured, his trainer, Pat Kelly, has entered Naughty New Yorker, who has run very well in one-turn mile races, albeit in state-bred company.

Completing the field are Sir Greeley, first or second in 6 of 7 starts over Aqueduct's main track, and the entry of Diamond Isle and City Attraction. City Attraction finished third in Thursday's Fall Highweight and will likely be scratched out of this spot.