Though His Winning Streak Ended at 16 Races, Cigar Remains the Very Model of the Modern Major Thoroughbred
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"I had given Cigar to my wife, Madeleine, but after he won a couple I wanted him back," Paulson admits. "She made me a deal for Eliza--my two-year-old champion filly. She's always wants to get good fillies; they're the factories of the future. But now she says with the way Cigar turned out, I still owe her another."
Mott experienced the thrill of the NYRA Mile victory via long distance. "I was in Japan to run some horses and I called the racing office at Aqueduct to see how the horse did. When they told me that he won and how he won, I said, 'You're kidding!' I was jumping up and down," Mott says. "To go from that little race to a Grade 1 stake! There I was in Japan with the two stars of the barn, Fraise and Paradise Creek. They were both going to be retired and I was wondering if we had a horse who would fill the gap in the stable."
Cigar not only filled the gap in Mott's stable; he filled racing's superstar gap. It had been a long time since Secretariat made the cover of Time. Not that there hadn't been great horses and great races of late; it was just that no good horse stayed good long enough for his fame to spread much beyond racing's all-too-cozy confines. Racing usually draws its superstar candidates from the ranks of the three-year-olds in the Triple Crown races, but the brilliance asked of them in the spring classics may come at the expense of durability and consistency later on.
Cigar was stitching together something that any sports fan can relate to--a winning streak of historic proportions. Every step along the way was important, but some were more epic than others as Cigar raced towards Citation's record of 16 wins in a row.
Victories three through five all came at Florida's Gulfstream Park. In win No. 3, a minor race in late January 1995, Cigar met the challenge of running off a layoff. In win No. 4, Cigar's victory in the Donn Handicap was less significant at the time than the fact that it came at the expense of Holy Bull, then the biggest name in racing, who suffered a career-ending injury in the middle stages of the race.
For track announcer Tom Durkin, who called Cigar's races in New York and Florida, the epic race was win No. 5, the Gulfstream Park Handicap. "To me, that was his most visually impressive race. Jerry Bailey at no point asked him to run and Cigar absolutely humiliated the best horses around," Durkin says of Cigar's seven-and-a-half-length win. "Horses just do not win $500,000 Grade 1 races that easily."
For many observers, however, it was streak win No. 6 that shifted Cigar from pretender to contender. In the Oaklawn Park Handicap in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Cigar ran into a fair sampling of those misfortunes that fall under the heading "racing luck," miscues that can leave the best horse in a race a loser.
"The Oaklawn race told me he was a champ," Paulson says. "The race drew the big horses from all over the country, horses like Concern [the 1994 Breeders' Cup Classic winner] and Silver Goblin [who was on an eight-race winning streak of his own]. It's not just that he beat them; it was the way he beat them."
Mott saw it the same way. "Oaklawn was his first big test. He was up against a well-rounded field, horses that could do anything. There was early speed and there were closers," he says. "He got carried wide into the first turn, he gets up on the pace and then is pinched back. He goes again and makes one big move."
But was the move big enough to get by a hard-charging Silver Goblin, who hit the top of the stretch alone on the lead?
"As I turned for home I went to the whip," says Dale Cordova, Silver Goblin's rider that day. "When I raised the whip Cigar was nowhere; half a jump later the whip is coming down and [Cigar's] right there. I couldn't stop. I hit him hard...like the whip wrapped around his nose. He threw his head up. Another horse might have quit, but he just took off. My horse was running hard. A normal horse would not have passed us, but Cigar is not a normal horse."
Bailey remembers the whip incident just as clearly. "That might have stopped another horse, but it was like he took the negative and turned it into a positive. He goes and runs one of his biggest numbers so far."
In race No. 7, the Pimlico Special in Baltimore, Cigar won wire-to-wire, on his own, with no prompting from his rider. Race No. 8 at Boston's modest Suffolk Downs would provide one of the emotional highlights of Cigar's victory tour. Suffolk had floated a half million dollar bonus plan designed to lure Holy Bull, but there were no regrets when Cigar showed up to claim the prize. "It wasn't a hard race, but it was a lot of fun. And Suffolk set the precedent for how to promote Cigar," Bailey recalls.
Paulson also remembers the Boston trip fondly. "It was such a nice experience, such a nice crowd," Paulson says. "That was the main reason we wanted to go again." (Which they did on June 1 of this year for streak win No. 15.)
Cigar was then due for some down time, but his owner said race on.
"The Hollywood Gold Cup was not on the agenda. It was supposed to be a rest period for Cigar. But in that race he was more powerful, more devastating than in any other race," Bailey says of Cigar's three-and-a-half length win.
Cigar closed out '95 by winning a trio of Grade 1 races at Belmont Park, a feat that alone would have been enough to secure the reputation of any racehorse: the $500,000 Woodward (No. 10), $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup (No. 11) and $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic (No. 12) in which Cigar overcame an outside post and a muddy track he didn't like, closing out his perfect year with his most prestigious win to date.
Suffice it to say there was no suspense leading up to the announcement of Cigar's Eclipse Award as the Horse of the Year, or for the kudos given to Mott, Bailey and Paulson for their accomplishments.
Cigar began 1996 on familiar ground, taking his second Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park for win No. 13. But the ground he'd travel in his next start would be anything but familiar.
The $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic was the world's richest horse race, until the $4 million Dubai World Cup was inserted into the racing calendar for March 27. California tracks countered with a three-race series that offered a lucrative bonus plan designed to attract Cigar. A horse that swept all three races would earn an extra $2 million.
Paulson's plan was to have Cigar try to win all four.
The California series, known as the MGM Grand Classic Crown, came up cursed. A foot problem kept Cigar out of the Santa Anita Handicap on March 2 while another foot ailment later eliminated him from the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 30. (It was on Aug. 10 in the last part of the series, the Pacific Classic, that Cigar's streak would finally come unraveled.)
Here are just a few of the challenges Cigar faced going from the Donn to Dubai: an abbreviated training schedule due to the time lost from the foot ailment; a 7,000-mile commute; an unfamiliar desert climate; a deep, tiring, sandy track; a track shaped more like a triangle instead of the familiar oval; and a full field of high-quality, but hard to gauge rivals culled from the top racing circuits worldwide.
Oh yes, and the race would be run under the lights at night.
It all was quite a contrast to where the streak began, from Aqueduct Racetrack by Jamaica Bay to Nad Al Sheba Race Course by the Persian Gulf. Mott would watch this race from a big, comfortable leather armchair, surrounded by sheiks in the royal enclosure. From this perch he found himself slipping into "the zone."
"There's so much excitement around you, you find yourself slipping into a shell, this little vacuum," Mott says. "People come up and talk to you and you respond on some level, but you're so keyed in on your horse on the track, you get tunnel vision."
Cigar broke well and moved smoothly into striking position. He hit the top of the longest stretch he'd ever face and worked his way past two horses to take the lead. But at about the point where Cigar's normal stretch run would be ending he throttled down, just as Soul of the Matter was revving up. The track announcer picked up the action:
"There's a furlong to go and its a duel to the line....Soul of the Matter on the outside of Cigar and Cigar is digging deep...he's never had to fight harder...he's coming back! It's going to be Cigar by three parts of a length!... This horse had to dig deep. He came, he has taken on the world and he has conquered."
"By the eighth pole I thought he was beaten," Mott says of the tightest finish in Cigar's streak. "If I watch 100 races like that, the other horse would have won 95 of them."
Bailey agrees. "That's the race I'm most proud of," he says. "All that he overcame in that race! It was like he did it for America. A lot of people got on his bandwagon then."
Back home, the next two races went according to form as Cigar drew clear to win the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs (No. 15) and the Arlington Citation Challenge in Illinois (No. 16), a race cooked up to showcase Cigar's bid to tie Citation's record.
Cigar tied Citation but he couldn't pass him. In the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 10, Cigar got seduced into an overheated speed duel with the Richard Mandella-trained Siphon. By the top of the stretch Cigar had won the lead, but it would cost him the race as the late-running Dare and Go, another Mandella trainee, breezed by. Running on empty, Cigar still held second. The crowd fell silent until Cigar jogged back to be unsaddled and then gave the fallen hero a heartfelt ovation.
"The race was a real letdown for the public and a real downer for the horse," Paulson says. "It was the first time in 17 races he didn't get to pose for pictures afterwards. Later he wouldn't eat, and even though he loves peppermints he wouldn't take one."
Bailey says, "He knew, he knew. He took the loss personally. He was dejected."
Tom Durkin sees it this way: "Cigar wants to run. He's so competitive he wants to get into it, almost to a fault, to the point where it exposes his Achilles' heel. In the Pacific Classic he just got involved in the fight too soon and for too long."
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