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Remembering Cigar, a Champion Who Streaked Into History and Hearts

Posted by on Nov 12, 2014


On Sunday (October 5, 2014), Jerry Bailey went to see the first horse he ever loved. Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey, knew that Cigar, at age 24, wasn’t in great shape. Old age and arthritis had reduced his once-beautiful gait to a motion resembling a rocking horse with a splintered glider. He was on his last legs.

When Bailey approached his old buddy with some carrots, however, he got a shiver down his spine. Cigar’s left eye was circled in white like a halo, and Bailey had been transfixed by it for the wildest two years of his riding life. Now the horse had the same look that he had in the paddock before each of his 16 victories on a winning streak that crisscrossed the country and extended overseas, filling racetracks and making him front and center news in the mid-1990s.

“He turned around and had that look,” Bailey, now retired, said Wednesday, his voice cracking on the other end of the phone. “He almost looked right through you. He always commanded your attention.”

Then Cigar ambled over for his treats.

Cigar died Tuesday night at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., from complications after surgery for severe osteoarthritis in his neck. His accomplishments are impressive: a two-time horse of the year and a winner of 19 of 33 career starts and $9,999,815 — then a career record for earnings — who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2002.

They do not begin to measure, however, the passion Cigar stirred in lifelong racetrackers like Bailey and the trainer Bill Mott, or the excitement that he caused among casual sports fans when he made perfection look so easy over the course of his winning streak. Even better, Cigar was a late bloomer who carried his heroics through his 6-year-old campaign, at an age when most accomplished horses these days have been retired to the breeding shed.

He came to be known as “America’s Horse,” and it is not an overstatement to say that Cigar was one of the few recent superstars in a fading sport.

Cigar was a ham who posed for the cameras before beating the best of his generation from New York to California, from Massachusetts to Dubai. He was the inspiration for one of the greatest calls in the history of thoroughbred racing when he jetted off to win the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park to end a perfect 10-for-10 season.

“Cigar! Cigar makes his move, and he sweeps to the lead with a dramatic rush,” roared the New York announcer Tom Durkin, with a tremor in his baritone, as Bailey turned him loose. “Here he is, the incomparable, the invincible, the unbeatable Cigar.”

He received a police escort down Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue — accompanied by the Clydesdales and the Knicks’ cheerleaders — to his final destination of Madison Square Garden, where on Nov. 2, 1996, he was thrown a retirement party before the white-gloved set at the National Horse Show.

It didn’t take long for the great racehorse to demonstrate that he was comfortable among the upper crust. When Bailey lifted in his saddle, Cigar broke into an elegant glide as if he had competed for blue ribbons in a previous life.

“He was such a cool horse,” Bailey said. “He had so much charisma.”

Cigar’s racetrack heroics throughout the streak were many. At the Oaklawn Handicap in Arkansas in 1995, Cigar was accidentally hit in the face with a whip by a jockey aboard another horse. Instead of losing momentum, Cigar shook his head, pinned his ears and spurted away for a sixth consecutive victory.

Three months later in the Hollywood Gold Cup, a clod of dirt hit Cigar squarely in the head, making him angry and putting him in a tug-of-war with Bailey. His hands creased by the reins and fingertips numb, Bailey finally surrendered. They won by three and a half lengths anyway, to keep the streak at nine.

But Bailey’s favorite moment was Cigar’s gentlest. After Cigar completed his perfect season in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup, Bailey took his son Justin, then 3, to check on the horse in Mott’s barn. Bailey had the boy in his arms when Cigar suddenly stopped grazing, stepped over and put his nose to Justin’s chest and chin.

“He was just nuzzling on him,” Bailey said. “Less than 24 hours earlier he was on fire, just a machine, and now he was like a pony in the parking lot of the Kmart. He really liked people.”

Cigar showed up in Mott’s barn after a 3-year-old campaign that was bigger on promise than results. He had a couple of wins and was placed on the turf. Mott was already on his way to the Hall of Fame, but he became convinced that Cigar was a better horse than Mott was a trainer.

“I galloped him once myself on the Belmont training track and came back chirping about how talented he was,” Mott said. “But I kept him on the turf for four races, and he kept getting beat.”

In October 1994, Mott shifted strategy and ran Cigar in a mile race on the dirt at Aqueduct. He had worn jeans that day, thinking he had little reason to believe he was going to the winners’ circle.

“He won by eight lengths, and the rest is history,” Mott said.

Yes, but with a twist. Mike Smith was aboard Cigar for the first of his 16 victories. But Smith already had a regular ride on a big horse, Holy Bull, who would go on to become the horse of the year in 1994.

So Bailey inherited the mount, and with Mott and Cigar’s owners, Allen and Madeline Paulson, went on a nearly two-year joy ride that brought home trophies from nearly every major American race and the inaugural runningof the world’s richest one, the 1996 Dubai World Cup.

“I knew what was going on was special and was never going to happen again,” Mott said. “The really good ones win races when they are not at their best. Whether he was coming off a layoff, or had a foot issue, or got caught in compromising position in a race. Cigar overcame all those.”

If there is a hole in Cigar’s résumé, it is Mother Nature’s fault: He proved infertile as a stallion. He lived out his days at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions, where he was a popular draw for those who wanted to lay eyes on the world’s greatest living racehorse.

Then there were the private visits by old friends. Bailey stopped by often, simply to say thank you, not only for the glory but also for the salve Cigar applied to a competitive rider’s soul.

“For the first half of my career, until Cigar, I had like a doctor-patient relationship,” Bailey said. “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.”

Photo courtesy of Phil Cole/Getty Images.

via http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/sports/cigar-won-many-races-and-countless-hearts.html?_r=0

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