America's Hero


Cigar. The magnificent modern-day hero of the Thoroughbred Racing world whose story of triumph and tragedy is remembered by all who've known him or seen him race. His tale is retold in this article of Just About Horses, Sept/Oct 1997 issue.

A Tribute to Greatness

By Kate Downey

He was a gentle giant who towered over the world. At the height of his power he was unbeatable. His historic winning streak lasted nearly two full years, blurred time zones and criss-crossed global borders. With unwavering consistencey, unflinching bravery, and magnetic charisma, Cigar became more than a champion. He became a national hero.

It began on a frostbitten October afternoon at Aqueduct in 1995 when Cigar was stirred by the desire to win, and ended under a harvest moon two years later at Woodbine, when Cigar lay his heart at the mercy of the finish line, his desire to win all that remained untempered by time. When America's Horse took his farewell laps around Madison Square Garden and Churchill Downs, those who loved him realized that a magical chapter in racing history was about to end.

He retired as one of the truly great, among the few who not only dominated the racing scene, but also captured the imagination of the public. Not since Secretariat had America embraced a Thoroughbred with such loyalty and affection. People loved Cigar and Cigar loved the attention. It was a relationship that fueled sublime performances and left inedible memories.

Cigar arrived in Bill Mott's barn at Belmont Park late in 1993, an unassuming and somewhat shell-shocked three-year-old. He had started his career with promise in California, but after a string of discouraging races on the turf, Cigar looked like a failure. After surgery to remove a minor knee chip, the colt was sent to New York where the racing surfaces are more forgiving. Bill Mott nursed him through ulcers and insecurity, but Cigar nonetheless continued to disappoint on the track.

No one was prepared for the deliverance of October 28. Dusk crept over Aqueduct and chilled the afternoon air as a scattering of patrons watched the 6th race go off. Mike Smith was on Cigar that day, and although Bill Mott would have welcomed any divine intervention, he never imagined the transformation that took place.

Cigar made the lead and opened up. A handful of track-siders cheered him home, but the wind took their words. Cigar cocked his ear toward a silent welcome, coasting under the finish eight lengths clear. At last, he understood. Simon Bray, Bill Mott's number two man at Belmont says that Cigar was a different horse from that day forward, focused and full of himself. Winning changed his attitude. A jump to Grade One competition in the November NYRA Mile didn't faze him at all, Cigar breezed home agian, leaving millionaires and stakes-winners in his dust. It was more than just a change of scenery, or in this case, a change of racing surface; something fundamental had changed in Cigar. It was the wake-up call heard around the world.

What followed became the hyper-publicized winning streak, overflowing with extraordinary memories. Cigar rose to the occasion time after time, satisfied only with winning. His determination was something we found accessible and admirable. Like other two-legged sports heroes, we put him on a pedestal and he made it his throne. The coronation came in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic, when rain turned Belmont into an oozing mess and threatened Cigar's quest for a perfect 12-0 season. An allegation that Cigar was wearing prohibited shoes detained him in the paddock, leaving him boiling with fury as his opponents headed for the track without him. Cleared to run at last, the powerful bay was a sight, dragging his handlers out of the paddock, and when he emerged from the tunnel, a roar erupted from the stands, fanning the flames already burning in Cigar. He gnawed his bit, arched his neck and strutted into the starting gate.

His blood up, Cigar out-broke himself and Jerry Bailey realized he was a mere passenger to this one. Standing in his stirrups, he held him back as long as he could, but seven furlongs into the Classic, Cigar exploded. He burst upon the hapless leaders and ran away from them, his silver-streaked tail their lasting impression of 1995.

Nineteen-Ninety Six was bittersweet. Its summit was reached early, against all odds, but left us yearning for a story-book ending that couldn't be written. Cigar was now six years old and three years of pounding over hard ground was beginning to exact a price. A nagging bruise threatened his historic journey to the Middle East for the inaugural World Cup, a $4 million global challenge to be staged in Dubai. Just when British punters topped taking bets on Cigar in the World Cup, the champion was cleared to go.

He arrived jet lagged and off his feed, but Cigar was Cigar, and soon he was caught up in the splendor and excitement of his surroundings. He was the star, and he began to act like it. Under a nighttime sky streaked with purple, Cigar stepped onto the Sheikh's desert testing ground, honed for battle against the best horses in the world. Closely bunched into both turns, the field straightened out and Cigar emerged at the top of the stretch with three furlongs to run. Jerry felt the effort Cigar was making, his reserves dried up and his missed days of training now painfully felt. When Soul of the Matter made a defiant run from behind, Jerry knew they were in trouble. The black horse drew even with Cigar, a shadow that would not be shaken, and Cigar reached down.

This time the voice came from within. Cigar was his own inspiration now, and three strides from the finish he glared at Soul of the Matter and pushed his neck in front. His eyes were red and burned with sand when he made his way to the winner's platform, but Cigar had seen what mattered. He was a part of history now, a World Champion.

His victory at Dubai put him within two of Citation's record winning streak, and it convinced us that Cigar was truly unbeatable. The champion crushed the weight barrier by carrying 130 lbs. to victory in the Mass Cap, but he was battling increasing the odds against his age and physical durability. The record tying 16th win came in the aptly named Arlington Citation Challenge, where after a stiff challenge from Dramatic Gold, Cigar carried 130 pounds and a visibly moved Jerry Bailey into the record books.

The streak ended one month later, when the impossible happened - Cigar was passed by an outsider named Dare and Go deep in the stretch of the Pacific Classic. For the first time in almost two years, Cigar was unsaddled and led away while another horse went to the winner's circle. Reality was an unwelcomed intruder, leaving Del Mar stunned and silent. It made headlines the next day that Cigar had refused his favorite peppermint candies that night. It was no surprise. He was his own worst critic.

Cigar rebounded in the Woodward Stakes with an avenging repeat triumph that would be his swan song. When Skip Away beat him for the money three weeks later in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, it was clear that Cigar was struggling. When the old bruise flared up again two weeks later, a return trip to the Breeders' Cup seemed a daunting task. But even a vulnerable Cigar was a force to be reckoned with.

A record crowd packed Woodbine, believing in a fairytale ending and anxious to be a part of history. It was not to be. Cigar no longer had the speed to gain position early, and was left wide on both turns, losing all his hard-fought inches. On heart alone, he reached the leaders at the quarter pole, but he couldn't get by them. Age had softened his closing punch, and Cigar gained by just inches. He came within a neck of the lead, but that was all he could do, losing a three-way photo to finish a heartbreaking, but gallant third.

We sat in darkness. The spotlight fell on the in-gate and the applause started there, sweeping around Madison Square Garden and building to a deafening roar. It was his cue, as always. Cigar arched his neck and stepped out of the shadows, his graying tail streaming behind him. We stood and applauded him until our hands tingled with numbness and our eyes blurred with tears. Greatness knows itself, wrote Shakespeare. Glowing in the spotlight, illuminated by flashes from a thousand cameras, Cigar carried himself proudly and we celebrated his greatness. That was his storybook ending.

Have you ever met a legend? Well, in 1999 while I was at BreyerFest, I had the chance to meet this sensational stallion up close and personal. Let me tell you, all the heroic stuff aside, Cigar is the greatest sweetheart and the biggest ham you'll ever meet! He loves people, and he kept his audience entertained the whole time during his demonstration at the Hall of Champions in the Kentucky Horse Park (Lexington, KY). Here's a sampling of pictures I brought back from that experience!

"You love me, you really love me!"

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