IT MUST HAVE HAPPENED sometime in the middle of the night because
the blood had already caked and dried over the colt's shoulder
and down his right leg by the time Mike Barber found him
shivering near a broken section of fence on the north end of
Brookside Farm. Barber, the foreman of the place, reached in a
panic for his walkie-talkie.
It was a few minutes past 7 a.m. on Oct. 11, 1990, some 20 miles
west of Lexington in the Kentucky bluegrass country outside
Versailles, and Mac Carr, the assistant farm manager, had nearly
finished loading his gear in the Jeep Wagoneer and was rushing
to leave on a hunting trip to Colorado. In fact, Carr had just
slipped his Winchester rifle into the back of the truck when he
heard Barber's wail over the radio: "Oh, God! The Hammer's gonna
die! The Hammer's ripped himself wide open! Get up here. Now!"
Carr jumped inside the Wagoneer and roared out the gate onto
Route 60, heading east. "At about 300 knots," he said.
The Hammer was the nickname that the farmworkers had given the
unnamed son of Palace Music out of the broodmare Solar Slew, a
daughter of the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. Carr
thought of the weanling as "a little puppy dog," but one worker
who handled the babies would exclaim, "He's crazy. He'll step on
your head!" And thus he became known as the Hammer.
April 7, 1996
Little else distinguished him. Carr had always liked Palace
Music, who had earned five of his seven victories on the turf,
because he thumped into the breeding shed "like a tyrannosaurus,
bawlin' and squallin' like he was gonna eat ya alive." All that
sound and fury signified almost nothing. Palace Music was
crooked in front and sickle-hocked behind, and he tended to pass
on these deformities to his offspring, who were born largely
with the slows. Brookside's owner, Allen E. Paulson, had paid
$510,000 for Solar Slew as a 2-year-old, but she had struggled
as a racehorse, and in the fall of '90, when she was eight,
Paulson sold her to an Argentine stud farm for a song of $20,000.
The weanling did not move as Carr approached him in the field.
There were coyotes around, but they had not caused this. Coyotes
would have run him down and cut him off and chased him until he
dropped, then killed him where he lay. No, a deer had done this.
Carr had seen them up there, and nothing will stampede a herd of
weanlings faster than a bounding deer. Carr could picture the
colt crashing through the dark into the fence, snapping the top
wooden plank, tearing the wire mesh from the pole and cutting
his right shoulder so deeply that Carr could nearly put both his
hands in the wound. The footlong gash began at the point of the
shoulder and ran right down his chest.
"A horrible hole," says Ted Carr, Mac's father and the Brookside
manager. "He was probably in front by 10 when he hit that fence."
"But he was walking sound," says Mac. "And when I came up to
him, he looked at me like to say, 'Well, where's breakfast?' A
tough little bird, I tell ya."
The son of a failing sire and a castoff mare, the Hammer was not
worth much to begin with, and at the age of 176 days, standing
bloodied in that field, he had no prospects as a racehorse. In
the class of 110 other surviving foals born that spring to
Paulson mares, the Hammer was at the bottom. He took about 30
stitches that morning, but within days the rapscallion had burst
through the sutures, and grooms were treating the wound by
spraying it with water from a garden hose. No telling what price
you could have bought him for back then. "You couldn't have got
50 cents for him," Mac says.
Racing lore abounds with stories of horses rising from obscurity
to make a run at history. From Armed to Canonero II to John
Henry, they twine the braids of hope and romance through the
harsher narratives of the sport. But no modern tale of this kind
has resonated so sharply as the one about the weanling who grew
up to be Cigar. Has any blooded horse, from any period of racing
history, risen so spectacularly from the moors of nowhere to
enduring legend in the manner of this 1,100-pound bay with a
splash of white down his forehead and the ticktock balance of a
In the last 16 months, since trainer Bill Mott turned him from
an indifferent soldier on the grass to an undefeated warrior on
the dirt, Cigar has won 14 straight races at eight tracks--from
Massachusetts to Florida, from California to the shores of the
Persian Gulf--a streak that leaves him two short of Citation's
record 16 straight wins that included the 1948 Triple Crown.
Cigar's unbeaten run has taken him through 16 1/8 miles of racing
during which he has at no time been more than five lengths off
the lead. Eleven of his victories have been in Grade I stakes,
against the finest older horses in the world, and they have
ranged in distance from a hell-bent flat mile to a classic mile
and a quarter. And he has won all but two with the insouciance
that begins to demarcate the sparely grazed territory of the
Great Ones. Not since Spectacular Bid left shedrow in 1980 has
racing seen a performer who could match the quality or charisma
of Cigar, the 1995 Horse of the Year.
The Hammer turned out to be a runner, to be sure--one with more
heart and resources than even his most ardent admirers were
entitled to imagine. And on March 27, in the first running of
the $4 million Dubai World Cup on the sprawling desert
racecourse of Nad Al Sheba, in the United Arab Emirates city of
Dubai, Cigar earned the latest accolade in an already
extraordinary career. Under the lights that bathed the winner's
ring at Nad Al Sheba, as a weary Cigar circled nearby and
thousands of Arabs delivered a standing ovation, the crown
prince of Dubai and the creator of the cup, His Highness Sheikh
Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, swept across the circle in his
flowing white robe and red-and-white headdress and reached out
his right hand toward Mott.
"Congratulations, Mr. Mott," said Sheikh Mohammed, whose 550
horses in training give him the world's largest racing stable.
"He is the greatest horse in the world."
It was a moment for history. The cup was created to bring
together by invitation the fastest horses on earth over a mile
and a quarter, and 11 horses from five countries--the United
States, Great Britain, Japan, Australia and United Arab
Emirates--paraded to the post on the sand-and-dirt course. When
it was over, for the first time in its lengthy annals, racing
had an undisputed world champion.
It seemed especially fitting that Cigar, on the occasion of
staking that claim, should deliver his greatest effort as a
racehorse and the most desperate, dramatic performance of his
life, one in which every ounce of him was tested through the
final 200 yards. Off badly, with his back legs slipping out from
under him, Cigar had struggled to get in the hunt but was never
more than four lengths off the pace as jockey Jerry Bailey
guided him outside down the long backside and around that
sweeping turn for home. By midway of the bend, he had ranged up
outside the two front-runners--the Australian horse Danewin and
L'Carriere, another American entry--and in the final straight,
with about 100 yards to go, Cigar began to edge away.
What then ensued was the hairiest, most stirring horse race in
memory. Cigar was two in front and driving to the eighth pole
when, suddenly, another U.S. horse, songwriter Burt Bacharach's
Soul of the Matter, came surging to his flanks on the outside,
with Gary Stevens on his back doing the twist. In a trice, the
Soul was at Cigar's neck. Then his throat. Then their noses were
bobbing together. "We were eyeball to eyeball," Bailey says.
Cigar had missed two crucial weeks of training in Florida a
month before, when he had developed an abscess in his right
front foot, and Mott knew that if the missed time were ever to
haunt him, it would be here. "This is where it would show," Mott
says. "On the money."
Bailey went to a lefthanded whip. Then, as the wire loomed 50
yards ahead, Cigar seemed to lean hard into the bit a final
time, reaching forward with all he had left to pull away. He won
it by half a length. No American-bred horse--at least none with
the stature of Cigar--had ever left home on so daring an
adventure, one filled with all the perils of time change and
travel, and of the exotic world of desert days and Arabian
nights. It would be impossible to conceive of a more romantic
ending to such a quest. And, by the way, the winner's $2.4
million share of the purse also made Cigar the richest horse in
history, raising his earnings to $7,669,015 and pushing him past
The purse was a mere footnote to the duel. "The son of a gun had
to dig down, didn't he?" asked Mott, his face flushed in the
winner's ring. "We've always wondered if he'd have something
left if another horse ran at him. This is a very special horse."
No one is more responsible for the Cigar phenomenon than William
Irving Mott, 42, a veterinarian's son who came of age on the
banks of the Missouri River in Mobridge, South Dakota, where
winter winds howl off the prairies at 80 below and whence he
fled in 1972, a displaced, frostbitten cowboy out of high
school, to learn the craft of training. Wonderfully patient in
his handling of horses, careful about where he spots them at the
races and conservative in developing and campaigning his young
stock, Mott clearly favors erring on the side of caution.
"Bill's the best waiter I know," says Jim Bayes, Cigar's
farrier. "He can outwait 'em all. That's why he is where he's
at. The whole game is patience." Because he rarely overmatches a
horse and almost never saddles one not fit enough to do the job,
serious players revere him as a remarkable source of light--a
laser of consistency in an otherwise murky, inscrutable game.
"He wins with everything," says Andy Serling, a professional
horseplayer who has been tracking Mott for years in New York and
Florida. "With fillies and colts. Turf horses and dirt horses.
It doesn't matter. You get the feeling that every horse he sends
to the track, not just Cigar, is the first horse in his barn.
They all look great. There are no forgotten horses with Mott,
and he knows better than any trainer where they belong. He's the
best." In addition to Cigar, Mott has trained two other major
champions, Theatrical and Paradise Creek, and he is as much of a
cinch as Cigar to make it to the Racing Hall of Fame.
When they are finally enshrined, Paulson will have done his part
to put them there. The 73-year-old aviation tycoon--for whom the
taking of risks has always been part of the natural order of
things--has been as bold and aggressive an owner/breeder as Mott
has been a deliberate and careful trainer. Different as they are
in style and approach, they grew up fleeing the same cold
terrain of the same American hinterland. Paulson, the son of a
farmer who went bust in the trough of the Depression, was raised
on the banks of the Mississippi River, outside Clinton, Iowa.
His life in turmoil, his father broke and his mother ailing with
tuberculosis, Paulson was working as a janitor in a Clinton
hotel in 1939 when he won $33.33 at bingo, which he invested in
a bus ticket to California. "Everything was easy after I
survived my childhood," he says.
He is the archetypal self-made man. In 1941 Paulson was working
as an airplane mechanic for Howard Hughes, and following the end
of World War II, with something of Hughes's touch for making
money, he was buying hundreds of surplus B-29 engines then
disassembling them and selling the parts around the world. He
also began to convert old passenger planes into cargo carriers
and sell them. Paulson took his biggest gamble ever in 1978,
when he pulled together $52 million--some of it his money, some
of it others'--and bought the money-losing Grumman subsidiary
that built corporate jets. Paulson thus began the Gulfstream
Aerospace Corp., and in just five years, while turning it into
the world's largest maker of small private jets, he boosted
sales tenfold to $1 billion a year and pretax profits to $100
million. "I turned it around," he says quietly.
By the late 1980s, after selling the company to Chrysler for
$637 million in '85, Paulson had invested more than $100 million
in horses and land on which to raise them. Brookside had become
a foaling factory, and Solar Slew was just one of hundreds of
highborn mares who paraded through the breeding shed. While
carrying her son of Palace Music, the mare was vanned in
February 1990 to Country Life Farm, 30 miles north of Baltimore,
where she was to be bred again that spring to an obscure
Maryland stallion named Corridor Key. She dropped Cigar on April
18, and there they stayed, in this storybook nursery timbered
with giant maples and oaks, until she could be bred again 30
The mare and her foal returned to Kentucky in July, but not
before the flaxen-tailed rascal had left his mark. Farm owner
Josh Pons's wife, Ellen, five months pregnant, was walking Solar
Slew and her son from one field to another one day when the colt
suddenly cow-kicked her in the stomach and knocked her down.
When Joseph Pons III was born four months later with a single
dimple on his cheek, no one thought much of it, but the origins
of the mark have since become a part of family lore. Five months
after that, back in Kentucky, the colt nearly killed himself
smashing through that fence, and a year after that, scarred but
sound, he was galloping around the fields with Mac Carr on his
"He was a pretty thing," Carr recalls. "A big, high-headed,
high-striding horse. Covered the ground good. But he was just
another horse, another son of Palace Music. I remember thinking
before he went to the track, I'd like to have this horse when he
comes back home. He'd make a real good lead pony."
Over the next three years--until that fateful fall day in '94
when Mott finally switched him from the grass to the dirt--the
only long-term future he had was as a pony. Alex Hassinger took
over his training at Santa Anita when he was a baby, but he
never raced as a 2-year-old. "A big gawky horse with structure
but no mass," Hassinger says. The catchiest thing about him was
the fineness of his head and the curious white marking on his
forehead. It looked like a little aerial photo of two white
sandy islands. That and his name, which he didn't have until he
was a year old. Paulson names many of his horses after aviation
checkpoints around the world, and Cigar is somewhere in the Gulf
of Mexico between Tampa and New Orleans.
The colt won his first race on the dirt as a 3-year-old--in his
second start, at Hollywood Park, on May 9, 1993--but Hassinger
wheeled him back on the turf, where his Palace Music pedigree
insisted he belonged, and he staggered home fourth after leading
deep into the stretch. So there was never any thought of
entering him in the Triple Crown races, a series run exclusively
on the dirt. The colt raced with laudable consistency on grass
that year, placing in two minor stakes and failing only twice in
nine starts to earn a check, but he chipped a knee in his final
start as a 3-year-old, in the Hollywood Derby on Nov. 20, and
soon after underwent surgery. Mott took him over in January, and
for the next six months he did what he does best: He fussed with
Cigar, waited for him to come around, fiddled with him and
waited some more. The colt was found to have stress-induced
ulcers, and Mott had him treated for that.
The ulcers were not caused by overwork. Pedigree be damned,
nothing could cure the colt of his coldness toward the grass.
Mott started him four times on the sod as a 4-year-old, and each
time the colt grew closer to being Mac Carr's lead pony. "Every
race was worse and worse," Mott says. Finally, out of
exasperation he dropped Cigar into a main track mile at Aqueduct
on Oct. 28, 1994. Voila! He won by eight, under a stunned Mike
Smith, who rode on cruise control. "A remarkable turnaround,"
Thus began, on that autumn afternoon in Queens, N.Y., the most
extraordinary transformation of a racehorse (from the highly
suspect to the truly sublime) in the recent annals of the turf.
Jerry Bailey had ridden Cigar six weeks before that victory,
when he got beaten by nearly nine lengths at Belmont Park, but
Bailey had left early that October day at Aqueduct and had not
seen him run. That night, at the Meadowlands, Smith asked
Bailey, "Remember that horse Cigar? You wouldn't believe the
race he ran today. He was off the screen."
Mott swung Cigar back in the Grade I New York Racing Association
Mile on Nov. 26, but Smith was committed to ride another horse,
Devil His Due, so he lost the mount to Bailey. Mott was in
Fuchu, Japan, that day, waiting to run Paradise Creek in the
Japan Cup, and that night he called the racing secretary's
office in New York to see how Cigar had done. "Won by seven," a
voice told him.
Mott was shocked. "You're kidding!" he blurted.
It was about this time, down at Country Life Farm, that Mary Jo
Pons figured out the origin of her grandson's dimple. "That's
where Cigar kicked him," she told her daughter-in-law.
Back when Cigar was a baby, Paulson gave him to his wife,
Madeleine, but he does not remember why. "Lots of times she
leans on me to give her certain horses, and I do it," he says.
Now he inquired, alas, whether he could have Cigar back. "I'll
trade you," she said. "Cigar for Eliza."
Paulson winced. Eliza was his champion 2-year-old filly of 1992,
now a valuable broodmare prospect. "I sort of had second
thoughts," Paulson says. No matter; he made the swap anyway. The
man had spent a king's ransom seeking to buy or breed that one
surpassing horse, and he suspected now that he might have found
him in Cigar. In fact, Paulson repurchased Cigar's mother from
Argentina shortly after the 1995 New Year for $150,000.
Mott, meanwhile, wasted no time cranking up Cigar in Florida. In
his first race as a 5-year-old, he whipped a field of allowance
horses at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 22, 1995, winning by two, and
20 days later he came back to face Holy Bull, the 1994 Horse of
the Year, in the Donn Handicap. They were running head and head
down the backstretch, Smith on the Bull and Bailey on Cigar,
when Bailey heard Smith cry out, "Oh, no, Jerry!"
Bailey glanced right, in time to see Smith standing in the
saddle. The gray was pulling up lame (he would be retired after
the race with strained ligaments in his left front ankle). Cigar
swept on to win by nearly six lengths. The rest of the year
belonged to him as well. In the Gulfstream Park Handicap, his
first try at 10 furlongs, he was parked six wide but laughed
home, winning by 7 1/2. Six weeks later, in the Oaklawn Handicap
at Hot Springs, he pulverized perhaps the strongest bunch of
horses to compete all year. And this despite Dale Cordova, the
rider of second-place Silver Goblin, accidentally striking Cigar
in the face as he ranged to Cordova's right at the top of the
stretch. "He just shook his head and got mad," Bailey says. He
scored by 2 1/2. Cigar closed his spring campaign with two of his
breeziest victories--in the Pimlico Special by 2 1/4 and the
Massachusetts Handicap by four--and here Mott decided to call for
Paulson did not want to stop now, and he urged Mott repeatedly
to fly the horse to California for the Hollywood Gold Cup on
July 2. Mott resisted. Seductively, the track raised the purse
from $750,000 to $1 million. Mott shook his head. "Mr. Paulson
called me every day," he says.
"How's the horse doing?" Paulson would ask.
"He's doing fine," Mott kept saying.
"Then bring him out here!" the owner said.
All of Mott's most conservative instincts told him not to go,
and he conjured up every argument to make his case--that the
horse needed time, that they needed to point him for the
Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall, that horses often do not do
well shipping east to west in the pits of summer. At one point
Mott told Paulson that he once trained a filly named Heatherten,
who had won eight in a row, and that he got her beaten by
shipping her to California for a race. "She got beat by 29
lengths," Mott told him.
"We're not talking about Heatherten here," Paulson told him.
"We're talking about Cigar!"
Paulson kept the pressure on, of course, finally breaking Mott
down by reminding him of a favorite business adage: "The risk is
measured by the size of the reward. No risk, no reward."
So it was here that Mott gave in. Cigar was simply indomitable
at 10 furlongs that day. On the first turn a flying clot of dirt
struck him on the head. He shook it off, grabbed the bit and
sailed for the lead. Going down the backside, Cigar was pulling
so hard that Bailey was standing nearly straight. "Like I was
waterskiing on him," Bailey says. "Then I just couldn't hold him
anymore. He was pulling so hard that I couldn't feel my fingers
until I turned him loose. I twirled my stick, and I didn't think
I had it in my hand. It was numb."
Cigar won as he pleased, by 3 1/2 lengths. As he hit the wire,
Mott threw his arms around Paulson and yelled, "Thank you! Thank
The Hollywood Gold Cup was, along with the Oaklawn Handicap,
Cigar's greatest performance of the year. It was also the most
grueling of his races, leaving him with an inflamed ankle and no
interest in doing much of anything, but Mott gave him the time
he needed and brought him back. Of course, Paulson called each
day to check on Cigar's condition--ever on the muscle, the man
wanted Cigar to run in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar
on Aug. 13--but the horse had problems now, and there was no way
Mott would force him back until he could withstand the pressure.
By the time he returned, in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park
on Sept. 16, Cigar had been away 11 weeks and was into the bit
again. The break was just the seltzer that he needed. He went on
to win three straight at Belmont Park, the Woodward, the Jockey
Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic, and they crowned a
rarity for the highest levels of any sport: a perfect year.
Of course, 1995 represents Mott's signature year as a horse
trainer--the season in which he brought the finest racehorse in
America through an unflawed campaign waged over 10 months at six
tracks. He and Paulson decided not to go through that again in
1996. "We've already proven what he can do here," Mott said last
winter. "We are looking for new challenges."
They found more than they had bargained for. Cigar launched his
'96 campaign in the Donn, winning easily by two, and he was
heading for the Santa Anita Handicap in California on March 2
when Mott found the horse one morning standing in his stall and
pointing his right toe. That abscess had formed on the inside of
his right foot. Ultimately, Mott pulled off the shoe himself and
lanced the abscess with a farrier's paring knife. The horse
never left the shed for nearly two weeks, and the injury forced
them to pass on Santa Anita. Mott had all he could do to get him
ready for the cup, and that he chose to make the Dubai trip at
all was a measure of his and Paulson's confidence in the horse.
"If any horse can do it, Cigar can," Paulson said. "Dubai, here
The horse left Miami on March 16, shortly after blazing through
a seven-furlong workout in 1:23 3/5 at Gulfstream, but he had
problems acclimating to the desert, 7,000 jet-lagging miles from
home. He was off his feed and not moving comfortably on the
deep, tiring track at Nad Al Sheba. But Cigar gradually came
around after Mott arrived on March 22, and by the morning of the
race, he was trying to run off with his exercise rider, Tim
Jones. "Cigar is back!" Mott crowed.
And just in time. Exactly 12 hours later, in front of a roaring
crowd of more than 20,000 souls, in a part of the world that is
the ancestral home of all thoroughbreds, there was this sleek
and gritty bay making one last charge for the wire and defining
for us all the very highest standard of the breed. Cigar was
bearing history as well as Bailey on his back that night. He
was, indubitably, the Horse of the World.
DON'T LOOK BACK
Cigar is closing fast on the record held by Citation (above) for
consecutive victories by a U.S. thoroughbred in the modern era,
but other great racehorses have also run off brilliant streaks.
Number 1 of all time is Cameraro, who won 56 in a row in Puerto
Rico in the 1950s. A nose behind is Kincsem, the Hungarian race
mare who retired undefeated after 54 races in the late 1800s.
Here are the leading winning streaks of American thoroughbreds
in the 20th century.
WINS HORSE (date of streak)
16 Citation (1948, 1950)
15 Buckpasser (1966-67)
14 Man o' War (1919-20)
13 Personal Ensign (1986-88)
12 Morvich (1921-22)
Spectacular Bid (1978-79)