True Timber deserved a moment in the limelight and he finally got it in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap under the cloudy skies at Aqueduct on Saturday, December 5. It was his third start in the race.
Trained by Jack Sisterson for Calumet Farm, True Timber was cast as an extra at 7/1 in a show in which Performer, the 17/20 favorite, was expected to be the star act. Luckily this six-year-old bay son of Mineshaft had not read the program and he stormed clear in the stretch to score by five and a half lengths under an ecstatic Kendrick Carmouche.
Steve Asmussen’s 13/1 shot Snapper Sinclair was runner-up under Manny Franco, closely followed by the underwhelming Performer piloted by Joel Rosario. Shug McGaughey had saddled him successfully in his last five starts and they included a Grade 3 at this track over an extra eighth of a mile in November 2019.
A four-year-old son of Speightstown, Performer had successful surgery on his fetlock in June and returned to the track in October, winning on a surface described as muddy at Belmont Park. It was not against this level of opposition but he won easily by nearly two lengths, giving his many fans realistic hopes that he would cope with the sloppy conditions.
In contrast True Timber had not finished with his head in front for over two years and that was in an allowance optional claimer at Belmont Park run over six furlongs. He was saddled then by his original handler, Kiaran McLaughlin, who quit training horses to become a jockey’s agent for Luis Saez. True Timber was moved to Sisterson six months ago as a result.
Sisterson was full of praise for McLaughlin for providing him with a relatively mature horse who had seen plenty of action but was in pretty good shape. True Timber finished third for him in the Grade 1 Forego Stakes over seven furlongs in late August at Saratoga after being ignored by bettors at 38/1. The track was sloppy that day which may not have helped the chances of some of his more fancied rivals.
McLaughlin saddled True Timber in the Cigar Mile twice. In 2018 he was the runner-up, beaten less than a length by Chad Brown’s Patternrecognition after starting as a no hoper at 32/1. In 2019 he once again outran his inappropriate starting price of 33/1 to finish third, five and a half lengths behind the then all-conquering Maximum Security. Why did bettors completely ignore him again? He had taken third in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap at Belmont, four lengths behind Maximum Security in October that year.
Sisterson mentioned that the Cigar Mile had been a target race in the schedule as soon as True Timber joined him. He had hoped to run him in the Breeders’ Cup Mile too but he failed to get into the race and contested the lowly Lafayette Stakes run over seven furlongs at Keeneland on November 7 instead. True Timber finished second, beaten a length and a half by Miguel Angel Silva’s 4/1 favorite, Sleepy Eyes Todd.
With the benefit of hindsight Sisterson thought it was no bad thing that he did not get to run in the Breeders’ Cup, a seven-furlong work-out was possibly a better prep for a more realistic target.
What happened in the race?
True Timber broke well from gate five but Carmouche wisely settled him in third place behind the pace-setting duo, the 3/1 second favorite King Guillermo and Mr Buff. Trained by Juan Carlos Avila, the three-year-old King Guillermo sprung a major surprise in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby in March, scoring easily at 49/1. He was subsequently the runner-up to Nadal in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in May and looked to deserve his place in Cigar Mile betting market. Mr Buff came into the race after scoring in the Empire Classic Handicap at Belmont Park in late October and was fancied by many at 4/1.
Performer broke slightly slowly from his inside gate and found himself trailing the field of six. Rosario admitted that he did not plan to be that far back and thought it took some time for his horse to master the track conditions. The forecast rain had arrived leaving a horribly sloppy track that prompted the defection of the strongly fancied Firenze Fire as well as Mind Control. Majestic Dunhill was also scratched late.
Carmouche did well to sit quietly behind the battle for the pace as the first half mile was run at a fairly frenetic 45.82 seconds. He started closing on the leading pair about three furlongs out and headed them a quarter of a mile from home, posting a time of 1 minute 36.49. Snapper Sinclair emerged from mid pack to track him in the move but never looked likely to catch him when he kicked clear. Rosario began pushing at a similar point on Performer who responded generously but not with the power required to get anywhere near True Timber. King Guillermo finished fourth, beaten 12 lengths but ahead of Mr Buff.
A victory for the little guys
Carmouche repeatedly punched the air as he crossed the wire and had a smile from ear to ear as he walked into the winner’s enclosure. The three jockeys behind him had a host of Grade 1 victories to their names, it was Carmouche’s first after 20 years in the saddle. He was so overcome by the situation that he thanked his entire family as well as God for allowing him this pleasure. His talent had a lot to do with it. Carmouche was not given any riding instructions and rode a perfect race, instinctively responding to the way it unfolded.
For Sisterson it was a second top level win. He has been training in his own name at Keeneland for less than two years and has made an excellent start with the horses in his care. Sisterson grew up in the north of England where he developed a love for racing. His parents owned a few horses who competed at the lowest level there in point-to-points, he got the bug. He grew much too tall to become a jockey and wanted to get involved in training. He had ambition, moved to the US and worked for Doug O’Neill as well as Todd Pletcher. He got to know the key people from Calumet at O’Neill’s and has linked up with them to good effect.
Sisterson obviously knows how to train horses and is pleased that True Timber has been invited to contest the $20 million Saudi Cup in Riyadh in February. The Pegasus World Cup in January is also a target that is being considered. He is very aware that the soon to be seven-year-old True Timber should not be left idle when in top performance mode.
True Timber’s incredibly impressive Cigar Mile victory was probably helped by his ability to handle an extremely sloppy track. He had performed better than expected on one before but he was once again underrated by bettors. Is it because he has never been saddled by a Hall of Fame trainer? True Timber should not be underestimated when conditions are tough at any level.