THE UNLIKELY road to greatness had begun in New York exactly a
year earlier, so Cigar had come full circle when he was led into
the paddock at Belmont Park before last Saturday's $3 million
Breeders' Cup Classic, the world's richest race. In only 365
days he had taken owner Allen Paulson, trainer Bill Mott and
jockey Jerry Bailey on the longest journey in thoroughbred
racing history. How far is it, after all, from obscurity to
immortality? So now here he was, eyeballing his toughest
competition yet as he was led around the walking ring, applause
and whistles from the appreciative railbirds sweeping him along.
Everybody in the crowd of 37,246 knew that Cigar didn't have to
win the Classic to be voted Horse of the Year. His record for
1995 was 9 for 9, the best campaign for a thoroughbred since
Spectacular Bid ran the table in 1980, going 10 for 10. And he
had done it as only the truly special ones do, winning at six
tracks in six states, taking on all comers over all distances.
On his way from Barn 25 to the paddock, Cigar had traveled or
crossed stable roads named for such immortals as Man o' War,
Secretariat, Count Fleet and Omaha. It was these legends, and
such Hall of Fame handicap horses as Kelso, Forego and John
Henry, that he now stood on the verge of joining. With one more
race Cigar could confirm that he belonged among them and
eliminate any lingering doubts that, in just 365 days, he had
become the superstar that racing fans have been awaiting, with
increasing frustration, since Spectacular Bid's final race.
Bailey, 38, felt an inner tension as he strode through the crowd
of well-heeled horsemen gathered in the walking ring before the
Classic. "I wanted to show everyone how good Cigar is," Bailey
That, of course, is what the Breeders' Cup is all about.
Although Holy Bull was named Horse of the Year last year without
competing on the Breeders' Cup program, that was a rare
exception. Since its inception in 1984 the Breeders' Cup has
been the forum where reputations are confirmed. The purse
money--$10 million spread over seven races--is so huge that
everybody with a good horse wants a shot at it. Yet the fields
are so deep and competitive that the best horse doesn't always
win. In the first 11 Classics, for example, only three favorites
won (Alysheba in '88, Ferdinand in '87 and A.P. Indy in '92).
The pressure is fierce, and several Cup programs have been
marred by breakdowns, the most horrible of which came in 1990,
the last time the event was held in New York, when the great
filly Go for Wand shattered a foreleg 70 yards from the Distaff
finish and was destroyed on the track.
All last week memories of that tragedy remained in the
background at Belmont. Concerns about the track condition
intensified when torrential storms were forecast for Friday
night and Saturday morning. It bothered the cautious Mott--whose
horse had never trained, much less raced, on a muddy track--until
finally, on Friday morning, he just said the hell with it.
"There's nothing I can do about it," he said. "We know it's
going to rain, and we know there's going to be some mud. But
we're running no matter what. If he gets beat, so be it, but
we're not afraid of anything."
As it turned out, the rain wasn't as heavy as predicted. The
behind-the-scenes heroes were the members of the maintenance
crew, who did such a good job of sealing the main track (packing
the dirt tightly so that water drained off the surface instead
of seeping beneath it) that the going wasn't as treacherous as
it looked from the stands or on TV. The horses liked it just
fine: Three of the first four dirt races yielded record times--My
Flag in the Juvenile Fillies (1:42.20 for a mile and a
sixteenth); Inside Information in the Distaff (1:46.00 for a
mile and an eighth); and Unbridled's Song in the Juvenile
(1:41.30 for a mile and a sixteenth).
As the afternoon wore on, two gorgeous rainbows accompanied the
transition from overcast and drizzly to bright and warm. But the
sun never shone on trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who brought seven Cup
hopefuls from their Louisville base to New York and could come
no closer to the winner's circle than two second-place finishes.
The foremost disappointment for Lukas came in the Distaff, where
Serena's Song never got the lead she so loves and finished a
dull fifth, nearly 19 lengths behind the victorious Inside
Information, whose 13 1/2-length win over stablemate Heavenly
Prize made a joke out of what was supposed to be the day's most
competitive race. It gave trainer Shug McGaughey his second Cup
win of the afternoon (the other was My Flag, with Bailey up),
and McGaughey was quick to praise jockey Mike Smith, who also
won the Juvenile aboard Unbridled's Song. "Mike got her into the
race right away," McGaughey said. "He didn't want to let
anything slip away from him."
Last year Smith let Cigar slip away. On Oct. 28, 1994, Smith was
aboard when Cigar took the first steps of his historic journey.
At the time, Mott was at his wit's end with the colt, whose
pedigree indicated he should be a grass horse. But Cigar had won
only one of 11 starts on the turf, so Mott moved him back to the
dirt to see what would happen. Sent off at odds of 7-2 in a mile
allowance race at Aqueduct, Cigar rolled to an eight-length
victory that led track announcer Tom Durkin to scream, "It's
Cigar, and no butts about it!"
In Cigar's next start, the NYRA Mile, on Nov. 26, Mott used
Bailey because Smith was committed to Devil His Due. Cigar won
by seven. Bailey, who had ridden Cigar in some of his turf
races, was astounded by how much he had improved on the dirt,
but he reserved his final judgment until May 13, when Cigar won
the Pimlico Special and ran his winning streak to seven. It was
then that Bailey, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in
August, began calling Cigar the best horse he had ever ridden.
Although he had ridden three of the previous four Classic
winners (Black Tie Affair in '91, Arcangues in '93 and Concern
last year), Bailey wanted this one more than any other. Yet, as
he pulled on Paulson's red-white-and-blue silks, Bailey knew
that Cigar would need his best effort, on a track that didn't
suit him, against a field that included hard-knocking older
horses such as Concern, Soul of the Matter, Unaccounted For and
Tinners Way; a pair of late-blooming 3-year-olds in French
Deputy and Peaks and Valleys; and a European import, Halling,
who had won eight in a row on the grass. "Too many strange
things happen in this game," Bailey said, "but I knew I had the
One of those strange things happened when Bailey arrived in the
paddock before the Classic. Everything was upbeat until the
paddock blacksmith--at the request of Bobby Frankel, the trainer
of Tinners Way--came up to Mott and said he had been asked to
inspect Cigar's shoes. To protect the rear of Cigar's hooves,
Mott had equipped his horse with shoes that protrude about an
inch behind the hoof.
The shoes violated no rule, and in fact Cigar had worn them all
year, so Mott felt that Frankel was trying to employ a little
gamesmanship. "He was trying to claim foul or just be a crybaby,
I guess," Mott said. Frankel later said that he had requested
the check because the shoes looked unorthodox to him and he
wasn't sure they were legal. So Mott did a slow burn while the
blacksmith inspected Cigar's footwear, making the star of the
show the last to leave the paddock.
From then on, however, it was Cigar's day. Again. When the
starting gate sprang open, Cigar bolted from his outside post
position, moving up and in and running third before the leader,
Star Standard, had negotiated the first eighth of a mile. "He
leaves the gate wanting to go to the lead, and usually I have to
discourage him from doing that," Bailey said. "But this time I
gave him his head. When he got up there, I had to spend the next
three eighths of a mile trying to get him back. By that point I
needed a little rest on my arms."
Through the first six furlongs of the mile-and-a-quarter race,
Bailey and Cigar were content to stay third or fourth, stalking
the pace. But as the field galloped into the far turn, Cigar
made a breathtaking move that gave him the lead at the quarter
pole. Said Bailey, "Unaccounted For was starting to make his run
on the inside, so Cigar was ready to go for the lead, and I was
ready for him to take me. Cigar is so fluid and so efficient
that the only way you know you're going faster is when you look
over and see you're going past everyone."
As Cigar turned down the lane and headed for home, the only
question was whether anybody could catch him. The long shot
L'Carriere tried, leaving the pack to make a belated charge, but
he was never a threat. At the wire Cigar's margin was a
comfortable 2 1/2 lengths. He became, at 3-5, the shortest-price
favorite to win the Classic, and his time of 1:59.58 was a
And now what? If all goes well, a 6-year-old Cigar could go from
being America's horse to being the world's horse. Mott and
Paulson would love to take him to the Persian Gulf and run him
next March 26 in the $4 million Dubai Classic, which will
replace the Breeders' Cup Classic as the world's richest race.
But Bailey, who came to the postrace press conference with his
teeth clinched on a cigar that a fan had given him, was
interested only in savoring the moment.
"I don't know if this was his best race," Bailey said, "but it
was his most important race. He did it the same way we've seen
him do it so many times before. I don't know if he can duplicate
this year. I don't know if that's possible for him or anybody