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This is the lull before the two-day horse racing storm.
We try to keep our minds clear of all the wiseguy posturing that could lead one to the conclusion that every horse in the 2014 Breeders' Cup (October 31 - November 1) has an equal chance to win. They don't, so don't be confused.
And there are sundry developments in the pitiable world of Thoroughbred horse racing, such as a prominent trainer with yet another drug suspension; Arlington Park bitching and moaning about being foiled again in its mission to monopolize Illinois racing; Shared Belief, one of this year's racing stars, getting mugged in the Awesome Again Stakes in his final prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic; and the hard-working Wicked Strong is finished for the year.
But none of this tedium amounts to a hill of beans as we contemplate and mourn the passing of Cigar, an important, ultimate champion, the best since Secretariat, and the "unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable" runner whose 16 consecutive victories dead heats him with the revered Citation.
The 24-year-old two-time Horse of the Year and four-time Eclipse honoree died Tuesday at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington after undergoing spinal surgery to relieve compression and osteoarthritis in his lower neck vertebrae.
By all accounts he was a gentle and friendly soul, allowing visitors to the Kentucky Horse Park Hall of Champions, where he had resided since 1999, to pet him and offer the occasional carrot or mint. His primary jockey, Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, had dropped by while in town to cover Keeneland races for NBC.
"It's a sad, sad day for me. I did get to see him on Sunday," Bailey said. "I fed him some carrots, but I knew he wasn't doing too good."
His accomplishments are legendary. In 33 races, he won 19; 15 of them stakes, 11 Grade Is. He was in the money another nine times, amassing $9,999,815 in total winnings. He won all the big races in his sights at most of the important race tracks in North America, including Arlington Park, and even won the 1996 Dubai World Cup.
Bailey, rider for 19 of Cigar's 33 races, and the entire streak, said Cigar changed his outlook on the animals responsible for his livelihood.
"For the first half of my career, until Cigar, I had like a doctor-patient relationship. I rode the horses. I worked them out in the morning, and I went home. There was nothing else - until Cigar. He made me fall in love with horses."
The Palace Music colt out of Seattle Slew mare Solar Slew, was foaled April 18, 1990. Owner and breeder Allen E. Paulson, once owner of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., named him for a term representing an intersection in the air, part of air traffic control lingo. Cigar went unraced as a two-year-old.
"Cigar was the type of horse that was never going to be a precocious 2-year-old or an early 3-year-old. He was by Palace Music, so that's one of the reasons he was on turf, but we also had to manage him, work through some of the things that he went through. We knew he'd get better with age," said his first trainer, Alex Hassinger.
His racing career started slowly. Under trainer Hassinger, and later under Bill Mott, Cigar was considered a turf horse, although his maiden win came in his second race, by more than two lengths, on the dirt at Hollywood Park. He bounced around California, winning two inconsequential races his three-year-old year, 1993. At the end of that season, he had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips.
After four well-spaced and lackluster turf losses that didn't commence until July of his four-year-old season, Mott and owner Paulson switched him to dirt.
Hassinger recalled Mott's due diligence. "I remember Bill Mott called me up after he'd started him four times [on turf], and he said, 'You want to tell me about that maiden win on the dirt?' I told him he went six furlongs in 1:09 and 2 without (Pat) Valenzuela shaking a stick at him. He said, 'Okay, thanks.' And that was it."
As 1994 ran out, the streak began three days before Halloween with an eight-length win in a one-mile Aqueduct allowance race. He ended that season with a seven-length, 115 Beyer gem, at better than 4-1(!), over Devil His Due and Punch Line in the NYRA Mile Handicap, now known as The Cigar Mile. He would never again have a Beyer Speed Figure lower than 108, most of them in the hundred-teens, and even recording an other-worldly 121 in the Oaklawn Handicap. He raced just about everywhere. Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, Gulfstream, Saratoga, Pimlico, Suffolk Downs, Hollywood Park, Arlington Park, Belmont, Del Mar, Canada's Woodbine, and Nad Al Sheba in Dubai. Interestingly, he never raced at Churchill Downs. Being a California turf horse precluded his running in the Triple Crown or the Saratoga summer Jim Dandy-Travers parlay.
His race comments during the streak are precious: Led throughout. Drew off, ridden out. As rider pleased. Steady hand ride. Cruised in hand. Handily. 4 wide, ridden out. Rated, easily. Lost ground, drew clear. Much best, driving.
During the streak, he led every race at the three-quarter pole, usually by lengths, winning only in Dubai by anything less than a full length. His magnificence throughout his unbelievable run, chronicled by unrivaled racing photographer Barbara Livingston, is unmatched.
Cigar had gears, patient to bide his time on the backstretch and then make his bid to take control of the race on the turn. Finding more as the wire approached. He only ran two of the races on the lead the whole way: his five-year-old debut in an allowance race at Gulfstream and then the Grade I Donn Handicap three weeks later on the same track. He won the Donn twice.
As an older horse, he obviously did more than you could ever ask of a Thoroughbred: Gulfstream Park Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, Pimlico Special, Massachusetts Handicap (twice), Hollywood Gold Cup, Woodward (twice), the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
In 1995, Cigar swept the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in Belmont's fall meet, and was well on his way to Breeders' Cup glory.
In the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont as the number 10 horse, you could see the aggressiveness and power of the heavyweight champion, the irrepressible Cigar, under a tight hold by Bailey on the sticky, muddy going. You'll jump out of your chair at the 1:29 mark of the video as race caller Tom Durkin shouts out Cigar's move on the turn, the slingshot to the rail and the pulling away down the stretch, and then Durkin knighting him as "the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable CIGARRR!" as he consumes the finish line. It was his twelfth win of the streak and the last of his five-year-old campaign. He won Eclipse Awards for both U.S. Outstanding Older Male Horse and United States Horse of the Year.
Cigar enjoyed another three months off, returning to Gulfstream in February 1996 to notch his second Donn Handicap, registering a 117 Beyer right off the bench!
The lure of a $5 million purse, international prestige, a horse who's going good, rested with a race under his saddle. All had to play a part as Mott and Paulson booked the long flight to the United Arab Emirates for the March 27 inaugural Dubai World Cup, the feature of the finest international racing festival Middle East money could buy. We've learned since, through experience, that American horses who make the trip usually return with little semblance of good form or success, even if they win there.
But we're talking about Cigar. After a decent start, Cigar and Bailey (watch for the blue cap, red shoulders and white silks on Bailey, third from the rail as they enter the stretch) wisely stayed with the front contingent of runners. Out of the turn and into the stretch, it appeared Cigar, with his patented rush, had dispatched all foes, only to have Soul of the Matter and Gary Stevens sneak up on him another three or four lanes outside. Soul of the Matter drifts further inside, giving Cigar the opportunity to eyeball him, and you can see the champion bear down even harder. He used the last furlong in its entirety to finally repel Soul of the Matter.
"Even now, if you watch it on TV, you think Soul of the Matter is going to go right by him. But I could feel Cigar's engine revving beneath me. He wasn't going to let him get by," recalls Bailey, who said the World Cup was Cigar's finest performance. It was the 14th win of the streak.
Except for Cigar and Citation, it's impossible for a horse to run, or win, at the highest level of the game for the duration, as these two did. Citation's trainers, Hall of Fame father-son duo Ben and Jimmy Jones, had a horse who could run fast and often. And cover a milk route in his off time if you asked him.
By the time Cigar came around, horses did not run as often, but this one did race every three or four weeks for entire seasons. The fact that Bill Mott was able to keep him in such top form for so long is testament to how great a job he and his staff did. If you remember that Cigar fired every time after a season-ending vacation or short freshening, well, the record screams.
Cigar won his second Massachusetts Handicap - win number 15 - on June 1, 1996. Handicap races are contests in which race officials assign weights based on the record and quality of the horse; the better the horse, the higher the weights. By now, Cigar was routinely carrying 124-130 pounds, and getting older.
He missed the June 30 Hollywood Gold Cup with a foot bruise, but would still need a prep for the August 10 Pacific Classic.
Just as it had done 23 years earlier for Secretariat in the Arlington Invitational, Arlington Park came to the fore and created the self-explanatory Arlington-Citation Challenge. It was one thing to get Cigar to Arlington, but having him in a race that could tie him with Citation for most consecutive wins was a true tour de force. The $1.05 million purse was also a requirement.
(Citation was 5-1 in six races in Chicago. His 16-race streak came basically in the middle of his 45-race career. Win number seven was the Stars and Stripes at Arlington Park, 23 days after he completed his Triple Crown in 1948. His next two, including the American Derby, came at old Washington Park in Homewood.)
True to his style, Cigar, breaking from the challenging 10 post, put on his trademark burst in the stretch and beat Dramatic Gold by more than three lengths in front of more than 34,000 fans. He had done the impossible and tied Citation for win number 16!
Bailey was concerned with the 130 pounds Cigar carried.
"He's been asked to do some difficult things, asked to carry 130 today. I told you about him losing some ground in the first turn and I'll tell you what, a 16-, 18-minute post parade didn't help any. He overcomes it all. Everything you throw at this horse, no matter what it is, he shrugs it off. He just wins," Bailey said in the post-race press conference. It was on to Del Mar and the Pacific Classic.
Off at 1-9 with little except the respectable 6-1 Siphon expected to challenge, Cigar became trapped in the dreaded pace duel. Not wanting to let Siphon get a clear lead and run away uncontested, and being pressured by Dramatic Gold on his outside, Cigar stayed step for step on a blisteringly fast pace. At the quarter pole, Siphon ran out of gas. Cigar fought valiantly but the two had burned up on the front end and Dare and Go, at 39-1, opportunely sprinted past to beat Cigar by 3.5 lengths. The streak was over.
Mott didn't blame Bailey or Cigar, chalking it up to the forced pace. Bailey this week blamed himself: "That one's on me. I put him on that pace. I got to thinking he could do anything."
Cigar came back a month later to win the Woodward. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, seeking to avoid the same pace meltdown as in the Pacific, Bailey and Cigar stayed back in the second tier as Louis Quatorze and Skip Away battled in front. Alas, as LQ melted away on the rail, Cigar's valiant run ran out of real estate as three-year-old Skip Away, who would become one of the best horses of his generation, held on by a short head. The young guns had come callin'.
Once again, as Secretariat had done 23 years earlier, Cigar would run his final race in Canada. But this was on the biggest stage of all, the Breeders' Cup Classic, a concept and a race that didn't exist when Secretariat was electrifying the world.
As the entire pack kept with another very swift pace, Cigar made his patented move on the turn and headed for the wire. Brave as he could be, the wire just came up too quickly as he finished third a head and a nose behind Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze.
Time for retirement, Cigar again swept the Older Horse and Horse of the Year Eclipse Awards for the second straight year. The super horse was given the astronaut treatment in New York City, with the Budweiser Clydesdales leading his luxury van to the doors of Madison Square Garden, where he paraded farewell, Bailey up, to racing.
He was assigned to Ashford Stud for breeding but proved to be infertile. Curlin broke his money earnings record in 2008.
People like to compare athletes in any sport. How do we interpret Cigar's fantastic career?
The filly Personal Ensign won 13 races and retired undefeated. Rapid Redux won his 22nd consecutive race as recently as 2012, but it was most definitely on the minor-league level. Peppers Pride stayed home in New Mexico to finish 19-0 for her career. Camarero tore it up in Puerto Rico for a Joe DiMaggio-ish 56 straight wins in the mid-1950s.
We won't forget Zenyatta. She won 19 straight from 2007-2010 with her lone defeat coming in the Breeders' Cup Classic in her last race. She beat top competition once, against the boys, winning the Classic in 2009 over Gio Ponti, who was better as a turf horse. I will forever contend that Zenyatta's connections always protected her streak by running the same races against the same horses on the same tracks (predominantly artificial surfaces). She never traveled east of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and never came close to the consistent string of Beyer Speed Figures Cigar earned.
Cigar took on all comers at the top level of the sport, just as Citation did. He beat Unbridled's Song, now a top sire, and Star Standard, Holy Bull, Wekiva Springs, Heavenly Prize, Soul of the Matter, Halling, Concern and Thunder Gulch. He was a distance horse, winning at the classic 10 furlongs six times. He bulled his way on or near the front, win or lose, toward the finish line in every race he ran. He tried to tell Mott something during four mediocre turf races on New York's deeper courses: "I prefer dirt." Cigar was not put into a position to excel in those races. Once he was, he returned the favor, eminently.
Blood-Horse put Cigar at number 18 on its list of the top 100 horses of the 20th century. Fair enough, he wasn't the best of all time, 18 seems about right. But he dominated his generation and his time as only the greats do, are able to do. Audaciously do. We need to remember just how much he gave us, both on the track and to the thousands he greeted in his retirement.
We sure could use a horse like Cigar these days. Or one even remotely close.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.