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.
"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."
A couple of weeks later, Saratoga Race course tried to cheer up Cigar by holding a day in his honor. Cigar put in an easy public workout between races, then jogged back to a photographer-dense winner's circle to accept the keys to the city of Saratoga Springs from its mayor in the form of an enormous key-shaped oatmeal cookie.
The next morning, Mott was back at the barn pondering the future while munching on a hunk of Cigar's cookie key. He knows Cigar will soon retire from racing to live the life of an equine Casanova in the breeding shed.
Mott admits that, when it's all over, he'll feel a little relieved...and a little lonely. "Someday I'll be out here with four mules who can't beat anything and then I'll be looking for someone to talk to," the trainer says.
Though he's a magnet for good mounts, Jerry Bailey knows there will never be another Cigar. "I wish everyone could watch him from the moment he goes to be saddled. He's cool, calm and collected, but then he swells up and becomes this super horse. When I'm on him in the gate, I feel like I'm sitting on a balloon, waiting for the gate to spring open so I can let the air out like a jet.
"I'm not overly religious, but I feel that God put this horse here for a reason, and put him with people who let folks around the country and around the world see him run."
Five weeks after the streak ended, Bailey and Cigar got right back on the winning track by capturing the $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park. After the win, the jockey made a flying dismount from Cigar's back and stuck the landing in Belmont Park's winner's circle. By voice vote, the crowd scored it a perfect 10.
Bailey was asked to condense his emotions into one word.
"Redemption," was his reply.
Meanwhile, Bill Mott, stepping out of character, led the cheers, rallying the emotions of one of racing's feel-good moments.
"The crowd got into it as much as I did. Everyone shared in it. It felt pretty darned good," Mott says. "And I'll give you 10-to-one Cigar will eat a peppermint tonight."
Two more races remained on Cigar's dance card: the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 5 and the $4 million Breeder's Cup Classic at Woodbine in Toronto on Oct. 26. That should mark the end of his career as a racehorse and the start of his career as a stallion.
"I have a firm offer of $30 million from Japanese breeders for Cigar, but I'm not going to sell him. I think he belongs in America," Paulson says. "Thirty million will get you thinking, but I have a lot of beautiful ladies in my barn who would love to meet Cigar."
John Lee is a New York-based writer.