Cigar Man finished eighth and last, beaten nearly 23 lengths in last year's Ralph M. Hinds Handicap. Trainer Vladimir Cerin expects dramatic improvement when the Florida-bred gelding runs in this year's edition of Fairplex Park's marquee race on Sunday.
Cigar Man, a consistent son of Drewman with 5-6-6 record from 31 starts, drew the No. 2 post position in a competitive field of 11 going about a mile and an eighth.
""It's a very good field for a $75,000 stake,"" said Cerin, the track's leading trainer in 1994 and 1995, who won the Hinds in 2000 with Casey Griffin. ""It looks like a Grade III, maybe a Grade II.""
Cigar Man rarely shows early speed, so he'll likely need a fortuitous journey to negotiate through traffic and win. At Del Mar last out on Aug. 21, he rallied from sixth and last to win by a half-length going 1 1/6 miles on Polytrack.
""It's a big field, so for us, it'll take a little bit of luck to get a clean trip,"" Cerin said. ""But he's training better than he ever has.""
The field for the Hinds, which goes as the 11th race on a 12-race program starting at 1 p.m.: Red Door Drive, Martin Pedroza, 119; Cigar Man, David Flores, 118; Swift Winds, Felipe Valdez, 117; Spurrier, Joel Rosario, 119; Tres Borrachos, Christian Santiago Reyes, 116; Unusual Smoke, Omar Berrio, 116; Booyah, Alex Bisono, 112; Quindici Man, Victor Espinoza, 119; Hey Elvis, Martin Garcia, 118; All Saint, Daniel Sandoval, 114; and Cayambe, Alonso Quinonez, 117.
Red Door Drive and Spurrier are an entry owned by Arnold Zetcher and trained by Bob Baffert. They are the 6-5 morning line favorites.
FAIRPLEX KING PEDROZA RESUMES RIDING TODAY Martin Pedroza was cleared to ride Saturday after missing the last two days for medical issues, the major one being a pinched nerve beneath his right shoulder. Despite offering to sign a waiver absolving Fairplex Park of any responsibilities, Pedroza did not receive permission to ride Friday from track doctor Daniel Yanni.
Pedroza's agent of some 23 years, Richie Silverstein, held little malice Saturday morning, despite the fact that five of the horses Pedroza was named to ride Friday won. The 45-year-old jockey also lost two winners Thursday when he took off due to a stomach-related illness.
""Everybody was just doing their job,"" Silverstein said, ""the doctor, the stewards, and this could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because Martin wasn't scheduled to try and resolve the pinched nerve issue with doctors until mid-October. The injury was a result of three separate incidents involving 2-year-olds at Del Mar the second week of August. Now it's done and he's cleared to ride.""
Pedroza got the OK last night after undergoing the necessary examinations at UC Irvine Medical Center in a hectic five-hour ordeal.
""We left the track at 4:30 and didn't finish until 9 last night,"" Silverstein said. ""Fairplex was nice enough to ferry Martin to an MRI center in Arcadia, fighting rush hour traffic. From there, they drove him to the UC Irvine facility, which is really in Orange. Martin received emergency room treatment from a partner of Dr. Yanni's, we ultimately got the (authorization) slip he needed to ride, and we left about 9 o'clock.
""The reason the stewards didn't let Martin ride Friday was, Dr. Yanni happens to be a neurosurgeon, and when he questioned Martin about his absence Thursday and he examined him yesterday, he felt Martin needed his ongoing (pinched nerve) problem looked at. Dr. Yanni noticed it just from a very, very minor examination.
""All Dr. Yanni asked Martin was to produce something that said he could ride, and he would agree to let him. But as far as Dr. Yanni was concerned, Martin shouldn't have been riding.""
Pedroza, who began the 15-day meet that ends Monday on a pace to break his record of 51 victories set over 17 days in 2004, had 35 wins going into Saturday, and was named to ride in all 12 races. Had he won the seven races he missed the last two days, the track's career leader in victories with 641 would have had 42, needing 10 to break his mark.
As it is, he needs 17 in the final three days. He still has locked up his 12th consecutive riding title.
""I wouldn't say he has no chance,"" Silverstein said. ""Realistically, I'd have to win seven today, six Sunday and four Monday. It's a shame he lost those winners, but it's still possible. If it was some other rider's record, we would be very upset. What's most upsetting is, Martin has been riding with this condition since early August. He was willing to sign a waiver yesterday, but nobody was willing to take responsibility for him.
""He's not going to be any better today than he was yesterday, just because a doctor signed a note. We were irritated and stressed yesterday, but everybody was just doing their job.""
FAIRWELLS: Monster mule Bar JF Hot Ticket won for the 41st time from 49 career starts Friday when the 7-year-old mare led throughout to take the first race by 2 lengths under jockey James Wooten Jr., paying $2.40 to win. The $1 exacta with $2.90-1 second choice Bar JF Red Ticket returned $1.40.