The only thing dumber than wagering against Cigar in last
Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park was betting
against Notre Dame on the week the pope visited the U.S. This is
a remarkable horse, and the only excuse for not having known
that weeks ago is that you've been sequestered in a hotel room
somewhere. On a bleak, blustery afternoon, with the air full of
smoke--or was that just fog?--Cigar pushed his winning streak to
11 by romping home easily in the Gold Cup. "Sitting in the box,
waiting for the race, I don't think my heart rate was any faster
than if I was going to sleep," said Bill Mott, the horse's
easygoing trainer. "It's not that I didn't respect the other
horses, it's just that I have so much confidence in him."
The race was the first meeting between the 5-year-old Cigar and
Thunder Gulch, the 3-year-old whose resume includes victories
in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. The two hadn't
been scheduled to meet until the $3 million Breeders' Cup
Classic on Oct. 28 at Belmont. But on the Monday before the Gold
Cup, trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had been having a better year
than almost everybody but Ted Turner, got a little too cocky
when he looked over the weak field lined up to challenge Cigar.
"There's a nationwide movement to ban smoking, anyway," said
Lukas. "We're just trying to do our part."
But late Saturday afternoon, Lukas wasn't laughing as he grimly
watched Cigar stalk the early pace, gallop to the lead in the
turn for home and need only mild urging from jockey Jerry Bailey
for a one-length victory over Unaccounted For. The winner
covered the mile and a quarter in 2:01.1, a more than decent
time considering the deep and cuppy condition of a track that
was officially rated as fast.
Thunder Gulch threw in a rare dull race, struggling home fifth
in the seven-horse field, 14 lengths back of the winner. The
reason became obvious later in the barn, when the horse appeared
uncomfortable and Lucas ordered X-rays, which revealed a
fractured cannon bone in his left front leg. The injury will put
an end to his career on the racetrack.
As Bailey jogged Cigar to the winner's circle, the crowd of
15,457--which generally was in a mood as foul as the weather
because only one favorite had won in the nine races before the
Gold Cup--broke into a loud ovation. "He's been doing this to
good horses all year," Bailey said.
Cigar's main competitors now are the ghosts of racing's legends.
Among horses who have run after 1900, Colin and Man o' War hold
the record for most consecutive stakes wins (14) and Citation
owns the mark for consecutive victories (16). The Jockey Club
Gold Cup was Cigar's 10th straight stakes win and made him 9 for
9 this year.
Cigar's 1995 record compares favorably with any campaign put
together by Kelso, a five-time Horse of the Year (1960-64);
Forego, who won the sport's highest award three straight times
(1974-76); and John Henry, the Horse of the Year in 1981 and
1984. Of those three, only Kelso won as many as eight
consecutive stakes in one year. Like the other great horses,
Cigar doesn't care where or what distance he's running, how much
weight he's carrying, or whether he's on the lead or in the
pack. He has become America's horse, winning from Florida to
Arkansas, Maryland to Massachusetts, California to New York. His
average margin of victory has been more than four lengths.
Cigar is owned by airplane magnate Allen Paulson, who, at 73,
still flies his own plane and likes to name his horses after
aeronautical checkpoints. For example, he named Arazi, the
star-crossed colt whose 1991 Breeders' Cup Juvenile win was as
electrifying as his eighth-place '92 Kentucky Derby finish was
disappointing, after a checkpoint in Arizona.
So all those headline writers who like to trot out variations of
the CIGAR SMOKES FIELD theme should know that the horse's name
comes from a checkpoint in the Gulf of Mexico between Miami and
New Orleans. As Paulson tells it, he has only tried to smoke a
cigar once, when he was in the Army Air Corps during World War
II. "It made me sort of dizzy, as I remember," Paulson said.
Which, of course, is how he has come to feel about Cigar.
The soft-spoken, bespectacled Mott, who's known mainly for
developing Theatrical and Paradise Creek into outstanding turf
horses, put Cigar on the grass because he thought it would be
easier on the colt's knees, from which bone chips had been
removed when he was a 2-year-old. But after Cigar had only one
win in 11 starts on the grass as a 3- and 4-year-old, Mott
decided to try him on the dirt purely "as an experiment" (he was
so sure Cigar was a grass horse that he never even considered
running him in the '93 Triple Crown races). The result of that
experiment is now part of racing folklore.
The arrival of Cigar coincided with the demise of Holy Bull, the
immensely popular Horse of the Year in '94. In the Donn Handicap
last Feb. 11 at Gulfstream, the big news was Holy Bull's pulling
up with a career-ending leg injury. Virtually unnoticed was the
winner of the race: Cigar, his fifth-straight dirt victory and
his first against top-drawer competition.
Now Cigar has replaced Holy Bull as the people's choice, and
there are no plans to end that campaign before next year. On the
day of his victory in the Massachusetts Handicap on June 3,
Suffolk Downs gave expensive Macanudos to the first 2,000
customers who wanted them. Both Mott and Paulson show up for the
colt's races wearing cigar ties, and Mott, also a nonsmoker,
admitted Saturday that he had smoked three cigars between
Cigar's victory in the Woodward at Belmont on Sept. 16, where a
stogie-puffing Jack Nicholson showed up for the winner's circle
photos, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Such adulation has even affected rival trainers. As Nick Zito
watched a replay of Saturday's race on a clubhouse monitor, he
shook his head in admiration. "When I was a kid and first coming
to the races," said Zito, a native New Yorker whose Star
Standard set the pace but finished third Saturday, "my favorite
horse was Kelso. That's who Cigar reminds me of. See him
galloping down the stretch? That's how the old-time horses did
it. They'd measure horses, then do what they wanted. He's just
got the class of the great ones. What else can you say?"