October 8, 2014

CIGAR - farewell to a legend

Cigar was my favorite race horse of all time, along with so many other racing fans in their 30's and 40's. He epitomized the tough race horses from decades long ago, running 10 times in his first Championship season of 1995, winning all ten under the conditioning of Bill Mott. Coincidentally, he was post #10 in the season finale Breeders' Cup over a sloppy Belmont Park where Tom Durkin proclaimed "He beat the best the world could offer, and mother nature too!"  He was voted horse of the decade of the 1990s and 18th best horse of the 20th century and was a first ballot 2002 Hall of Fame inductee for owners Allen and Madeleine Paulson. He retired with career earnings just a shade under $10 million.
Today's owners and trainers who want to bitch and complain about their "star" horse being treated unfairly need to go back and watch some of Cigar's 1996 race replays. Cigar routinely carried 128 and 130 pounds in handicap races (spotting up to 20 lbs to opponents) and was pressed and baited repeatedly in the Pacific Classic by the duo from Dick Mandella's barn (Siphon and winner Dare and Go). I am often asked by friends attending horse races with me if horses know if they won or lost. Well, it was reported that Cigar would not eat for three days after his loss in what would have been his record breaking 17th consecutive win (since passed by Zenyatta at 19). 

Cigar ran into some tough 3 year-olds (Skip Away and Louis Quatorze) getting weight breaks late in his career but still brought his best effort near the finish line each race. After getting an extremely wide trip under his regular pilot Jerry Bailey in the Woodbine hosted Breeders' Cup Classic of 1996, he still finished a charging 3rd to Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze in a three-way photo. Cigar set a track record that day with his effort despite the wide trip, but the top two ran a split second faster. After that defeat, the much anticipated match race with l'Arc de Triomphe winner Helissio fell apart with concerns Cigar was no longer performing at his best and needed a break.
Ironically, the last of the modern day "iron horse" competing at the highest level was a horse Cigar passed the baton to in the 1996 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Skip Away. "Skippy" made a dozen starts at 3, eleven starts at 4 and nine starts at 5, winning divisional Eclipse Award honors each year.  By comparison, the reigning back to back Horse of the Year Wise Dan only started six and seven times in his last two championship seasons and will only have five starts after the Breeders' Cup due to a mid-season injury.
One of the highlights of my year since his retirement to the Kentucky Horse Park was visiting the incomparable Cigar annually at the Lexington horse haven. A few years ago upon an early morning visit I caught Cigar having a bad day and not responding to visitors near his stall. I was so upset leaving the horse park to see him in that sunken state that I could not leave that way. After driving around viewing area farms and having lunch, I drove back to the Horse Park before my departing flight in hopes of seeing the real Cigar. Fortunately, he was moving around much better and I was able to coax him to the stall gate to share a peppermint and a pet for a final goodbye.

Now we are learning that Cigar had been suffering spinal debilitation in his lower neck for a while. That same massive, regal neck that was once his hallmark was now causing him increased pain. He recently underwent an advanced surgery to attempt to relieve his spinal cord compression which led to a fracture that took his life. I can't help but think of his long-time caregiver at the Hall of Champions, Cathy Roby, who passed away in 2011 upon this news today. For a special glimpse into the bond these two shared, see the video below where Cigar learns to paint...

Commenting after his final start in that Breeders' Cup, owner Allen Paulson said it best...
"He didn't disgrace himself; he tried damn hard," Paulson said. "He's one of the greatest ever. But the horse can't go on forever."
Nor can horses live forever, which makes this gray October day a somber one. I can only hope Cigar is ushered into the animal section of the pearly gates by St. Francis of Assisi himself.  Maybe then Cigar and Citation can share some stories from their gloried past and take a stroll around the pasture to settle the long-debated argument of who would have won if they faced each other going for that 17th victory.  My ten bucks would be on Cigar.