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Cigar!

Though His Winning Streak Ended at 16 Races, Cigar Remains the Very Model of the Modern Major Thoroughbred
John Lee
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Synchronicity. How else can you explain it? At the same time cigars are on the rise, Cigar is on the rise. Ignored for many years, cigars may be the product of the '90s; ignored for his first few years, Cigar may be the racehorse of the '90s.

Over a span of 21 months, Cigar ran in 16 increasingly high-profile races from coast to coast and continent to continent. He faced 116 opponents, beating every one and equaling the record win streak the immortal Citation set almost half a century ago. He got there by hard work, but otherwise he didn't do it the old-fashioned way. Cigar is the very model of the modern major thoroughbred.

Cigar's march to "Sweet 16" explored uncharted territory. Instead of the storied Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont Stakes route that figures prominently in the résumés of most thoroughbred legends, Cigar was routed through arrivistes Breeders' Cup, Dubai World Cup and Arlington Citation Challenge.

A professional equine-athlete, Cigar recently signed with a high-profile international marketing firm, the Creative Marketing Group of Indianapolis, to protect and promote his image. That image and every other fact about him can be extracted from cyberspace at his extensive Web site (http://www.cmgww.com).

And he has celebrities in his entourage. Yes, that was Jack Nicholson posing, cigar in hand, with Cigar in the winner's circle at Belmont Park after the Woodward Stakes last year.

Nostalgia is a big commodity in the modern sports business, and Cigar plays to that trend as well. No horse in years has triggered so many comparisons to the greats of his game--Spectacular Bid, Secretariat, Forego and Citation--as has Cigar, and in doing so he brought their careers back to life for racing fans who may never have seen those champions run.

In marketing terms, Cigar is a rainmaker. Racetracks devise bonus schemes and put up grandiose purses to secure his services, and he has brought record-breaking business to those tracks lucky enough to get him.

Like any modern, progressive business concern, Cigar is a global player. Why send Cigar halfway around the world to run in the Dubai World Cup? Fabled bank robber Willie Sutton could have answered that one--because that's where the money is. Cigar's owner, Allen Paulson, isn't shy on the subject. "In racing they seem to gauge the ability of a horse by how much he makes--the same as they do in the world of business," he says. Cigar earned $2.4 million of his record $9,319,815 in career earnings on that Arabian night eight time zones from where he calls home.

Though Cigar calls New York's racing center Belmont Park home, even the first stage of his 16-race win streak would be an away game--not far away, just a dozen miles down the traffic-impaired Belt Parkway to Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. For trainer Bill Mott, that borough name may be Aqueduct's strongest claim to racing's sobriquet "Sport of Kings."

"Aqueduct is not one of my favorite racetracks. We just like to van over, get it done and go home. I usually don't even go up to the box seats to watch the race," he says.

So when Cigar began what was to become one of the most celebrated streaks in racing history, Mott and a few members of his crew were gathered under a wide-screen TV in the first floor of the clubhouse along with the gorgeous mosaic of New York racing fans who call Aqueduct their home away from home."I'm in blue jeans, a windbreaker, I've got a cup of hot chocolate, maybe a hot dog, and I'm looking over someone's shoulder at their program to check the numbers of the horses," Mott says, recalling the prosaic scene.

Mott was at Aqueduct to saddle Cigar for his 14th career start--a career that had netted only two wins to date--but only the fifth start under his training. The race would also be Cigar's first race on the main dirt track after 11 tries on the turf.

Team Mott watched the electronic image of Cigar break from the gate and flow to the lead by the first quarter of the mile race. The trainer focused in on track announcer Tom Durkin's race call: "...and the first quarter was drilled in :22 and 2. It was quick and contentious and Cigar takes charge.... Cigar opens up two and a half lengths...a half mile--could it be?--in 44 and three-fifth seconds!!...perhaps it was too fast!"

Apparently not, because in the deep stretch Durkin would be saying, "Cigar's just waltzing home today. He just crushed his rivals to win by 10!" Durkin then couldn't resist the kind of clever play on words that would make Cigar the darling of headline writers around the world as he concluded his call with, "No butts about it, it was Cigar, much the best."

"I got that out of the way very quick. That name is a pretty easy target. Once was enough," Durkin recalls. "But I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the half-mile time. With all the races I see, I get a very good idea of how horses are running, and he was running so easy. At that level of competition, horses just don't run a half mile in :44 and change and still win. It would be like a guy from the minor leagues coming up to the majors and pitching a no-hitter."

Mott was lucky he didn't drop the hot chocolate. "We all just looked at each other," Mott says, his eyes bulging and his jaw going slack even in the retelling. "I said, 'Just look at what we had all along!' "

What they had, had only just begun.

Let's not try to sell this as a rags-to-riches story, however. Cigar grew up on the right side of the track. His owner and breeder is Allen E. Paulson, the 74-year-old founder and chief executive officer of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. A record-setting pilot, Paulson names all his horses after aviation checkpoints. (No, Cigar was not named for the memory of a fine panatela, but for Checkpoint Cigar in the Gulf of Mexico.) He has campaigned a herd of high-end thoroughbreds, including Arazi, Eliza, Estrapade, Fraise and Theatrical, and ranks among the leading money-winning owners in North American horse racing history.

Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott, 43, has been the leading trainer at the prestigious Gulfstream and Saratoga meets, and among the 100 or so horses he trains are runners owned by such racing luminaries as Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates and Henryk deKwiatkowski, the owner of Calumet Farms in Kentucky. Jockey Jerry Bailey's accomplishments could fill a book, so here are just two highlights: at age 39, he is already in racing's Hall of Fame; and, going into 1996, he had won an almost greedy four out of the last five runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic, America's richest race.

"Jerry Bailey is perfect for Cigar," Tom Durkin says. "If Bailey had been a horse, he'd be Cigar. They share a lot of qualities, but the greatest thing they share is competitiveness."

While his breeding may not be considered the most fashionable, Cigar still drew a hot hand when his genes were being dealt. Though his dam, Solar Slew, banked only $5,856 in seven fruitless attempts to win a race, Cigar may have picked up some freakish, yet to be isolated winning-streak gene from her, because her sire was Seattle Slew, who was the only horse to go into and come out of the Triple Crown races undefeated. Seattle Slew's sire, Bold Reason, won his first seven races.

Cigar's sire, Palace Music, was a solid racehorse who earned almost a million dollars on the grass. Like his son, Palace Music had what it took to win big on either side of the Atlantic as he notched top-tier turf wins in the United States and Europe.

Still, Paulson's breeding operation produced 140 other well-bred foals besides Cigar in 1990. Though it would be a while before he caught Paulson's eye, Cigar made quite an impression on Josh Pons' Country Life Farm in Maryland, where he was raised.

Because of his predilection for rising on his hind legs and trying to sucker-punch whoever got close to him, the young Cigar earned the nickname "The Hammer," which ceased to be a joke when he landed a glancing, but fortunately harmless, blow to the midsection of Ellen Pons, six months pregnant at the time. Cigar would later put the hammer to himself when, startled by a few deer that had gotten into his pasture at Paulson's Brookside Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, he showed considerable speed running headlong into a fence, ripping a gash down the length of his chest.

Despite the scar, Cigar developed into an impressive physical specimen. Every part of him looks good and all the parts work in concert like a Swiss movement. The tale of the tape has him as a six-year-old bay standing 16 hands, 3 inches (5 feet 7 inches at the shoulder), 1,024 pounds, with a girth of 71 inches.

"He's what we'd call very scopey," Mott says. "His top line is very flowing. He's long and lean with a slender neck. He's not too wide, very streamlined. All of which has a lot to do with his fluid action. And he's well balanced. The back matches the front, the top matches the bottom. Horses like that are hard to find."

Mott knows firsthand how those qualities translate into a smooth ride, because the 165-pound trainer has ridden the horse in the mornings several times. "With a lot of horses you can really feel them run. They'll hit the ground hard and give you quite a pounding," the trainer says. "But with him it's like his legs do all the work--his body doesn't move."

Jerry Bailey, Cigar's jockey for 15 of the 16 streak wins, says, "He has a very efficient stride. His feet barely clear the surface. Ironically, that's considered a turf stride."

Tom Durkin's perspective on Cigar's athleticism comes from on high in the track announcer's booth. "He has perfect balance. He reminds me of the Olympic champion Michael Johnson--ramrod straight, no wasted motion, flawless in execution, perfect, erect and focused," Durkin says. "You call tell how a horse is running, if he's straining or laboring, by how he holds his head. Cigar's head just doesn't move."

What's going on inside that head is also important. "The key to his durability may be that he's very intelligent. He knows how to take care of himself," Mott says. "And he can handle commotion. He seems to enjoy it, he thrives on it."

Cigar started his career in California with trainer Alex Hassinger Jr. and, like most American horses, his first races were on the dirt. He showed little in his first start at Santa Anita on Feb. 21, 1993, but two and a half months later he was an impressive winner at Hollywood Park. His breeding shouted turf, however, so his next 11 starts would be on the grass. He didn't do badly, running a good fourth and then third before winning over the weeds at Del Mar, the summer playground of West Coast racing. He continued to run well, though without a win, against increasingly tough competition, until the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on Nov. 20, 1993, when he ran a dismal 11th.

"We had his knees operated on for chips," Paulson says, "and so we thought of sending him east with the idea that the softer turf courses they have there might be easier on him. Besides, we were already sending other horses to Bill Mott."

After Cigar recuperated, Mott put him back on the turf at Belmont Park in the summer of 1994. Cigar showed little in four dull efforts. With the turf racing season in New York winding down, Mott decided to punt. Cigar would give the dirt another go. "For a turf race you want a horse that can relax more," Mott says, "but Cigar gets up on the bridle and a horse can get away with that on the dirt."

Cigar got away with it. After the aforementioned Aqueduct win, Cigar stepped right up to the Grade 1 NYRA Mile, also at Aqueduct, and beat a bunch of proven stakes horses by seven lengths.

Cigar had now gotten Paulson's attention, but Paulson no longer owned the horse, even though Cigar had been carrying colors almost identical to his star-spangled red, white and blue silks.


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