The Garden Party and Other Cigar Stories

Any discussion of Holy Bull and the era of the mid-to-late ‘90s would not be complete without talking about Cigar and Skip Away. What follows are several behind-the-scenes stories about Cigar that, it is hoped, will take the readers to places they have never been.

Everyone is well aware of the remarkable accomplishments of both horses, so there is no need to rehash them. In order to keep this installment at a reasonable length, stories of Skip Away will have to wait for another day.

I was always close to these two great stars, mainly through my friendship with Skip Away’s owners Sonny and Carolyn Hine (I actually worked for Sonny at Monmouth Park for a DRF feature titled “Life on the Backstretch”), and my frequent visits in 1995 and ’96 with my then 11-year-old daughter to Bill Mott’s barn, where she posed for pictures with Cigar and Bill, who would let her ride his pony in and around the barn.

During a Blood-Horse online chat a year or two ago, someone asked me what was my most special moment in racing. Well, needless to say, there are dozens to choose from. But the one I came up with actually did not occur at a racetrack -- or a training center or a farm. It occurred at, of all places, Madison Square Garden.

Shortly after Cigar’s retirement, Madeleine Paulson announced that the horse would be honored and paraded at the National Horse Show at the Garden on Nov. 2. She had a close association with the Equestrian world and wanted to show Cigar off to her “horsey” friends and to a whole new audience.

No one knew how they were going to react, not being followers of Thoroughbred racing. But they were horse lovers first and foremost. Mott was not exactly enamored with the idea of vanning Cigar into the heart of Manhattan, and for good reason. It surely had never been done before. Most everyone else was skeptical to say the least about this wild idea.

Madison Square Garden went all out to pull this off. They invited Bill Cosby, members of the New York Rangers and Knicks, and brought in the Knicks’ cheerleaders and the Budweiser Clydesdales to lead Cigar’s van through the streets of the city to the Garden.

Cigar was given a police escort, as he traveled from Belmont Park to Manhattan in a full-sized van, with a huge color mural on both sides depicting Cigar in action. Next to the mural in large blue print with white stars was the name “Cigar.” Above it against a red background were the words “Champion and Horse of the Year,” and below it, “America’s Racehorse.”

The van met up with the Knicks cheerleaders the Clydesdales, and other participants on a quiet side street several blocks from the Garden. There, the proceedings were organized by MSG officials. Lining the street were a number of fans, several holding posters and banners. One of the posters read: “To the Great Cigar. Thanks for the Memories.” Outside the Garden were groups of school children waiting to get a glimpse of the great Cigar.

Inside the Garden, more than 16,000 people awaited Cigar’s entrance prior to the Horse Show.

By now, Seventh Avenue was closed for about 10 to 15 blocks. It was an eerie sight looking down one of New York City’s busiest avenues and seeing nothing, not a single car. When everyone was organized the Cigar parade commenced. With bagpipers, the Knicks cheerleaders, the New York City Mounted Police Corps, and the Clydesdales leading the way, the procession turned down Seventh Avenue to the quizzical looks of passersby.

At the Garden, Jerry Bailey posed for photos with the children. Finally, the van arrived, and Cigar, after peering out at the strange surroundings, was led into the bowels of America’s most famous arena by Mott and assistant trainer Tim Jones.

At 2 p.m., Bill Cosby came riding in on a horse. After dismounting, he held a microphone directly in front of ringmaster Barry Kiger’s coach horn. As a musical crescendo filled the Garden, the crowd erupted in applause in anticipation of Cigar’s entrance.

When Cigar made his appearance, with Bailey aboard, everyone rose and saluted the champion. Bailey then rose slightly in the saddle, and Cigar, as if on cue, broke into a graceful canter worthy of any show horse. The crowd went wild. With Cigar striding majestically around the arena as if part of the Horse Show, the public address announcer bellowed: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cigar!”

Bailey then brought Cigar to the middle of the arena, where he was draped in a blanket of red, white, and blue flowers and then presented with baskets of carrots and apples by members of the Rangers and Knicks, including Hall of Fame Ranger Rod Gilbert. After the speeches, Bailey dismounted and Cigar was led around the arena by Mott, as a flurry of flashbulbs popped all around the Garden.

Mott turned the horse over to Jones, who continued to lead him around. Then the lights in the arena went dark, and a single spotlight shone down on Cigar. When a solitary trumpet began playing “Auld Lang Syne” I have to admit I lost it. Soon after, the entire band joined in, adding to the emotional impact. Standing on the floor of the arena, in front of the crowd, I tried to wipe away the tears before the lights came back on. When they did, I turned around, and almost everyone in the seats was wiping their eyes. That was the single most emotional moment I’ve ever experienced in racing, perhaps in part because Cigar, those closest to him, and myself, were so far removed from the world of racing that the moment transcended the sport and seemed surreal.

Afterward, Jones said. “It was all I could do not to break down. The whole experience brought me to tears. I really believe he knew what was going on and he put on quite a show for everyone. When they played that song it was a joyous moment. But it was also very sad because I knew this was really the end.”

It was Jones who had accompanied Cigar to Dubai and supervised his early training for the inaugural Dubai World Cup. I was there, covering the event for the Daily Racing Form. The Maktoums put on a show that was unlike anything ever seen before, from the outrageous party in the desert to the raucous rock concert to the dazzling pre-race festivities. On race night, a salmon pink and golden sunset, combined with the floodlights from Nad al Sheba, illuminated the ornate mosques off in the distance, making them sparkle like Disney’s Magic Kingdom at twilight.

I watched the race at the top of the small grandstand with Ray Paulick, then the editor of the Blood-Horse. When Cigar battled back after appearing to be beaten to win by a half-length, Ray and I jumped up and down like school kids and hugged each other, and then tore through the crowd down to the winners’ circle. Needless to say, that was an unforgettable moment as well.

But it was earlier that year at the 1996 Eclipse Awards dinner at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego that I really became close to Cigar. Not only was I assigned to cover the event, I was also flying from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale that same night on Allen Paulson’s Gulfstream 4 jet, which at the time held the speed record for traveling around the world. The following day, Cigar was scheduled to make his 6-year-old debut in the Donn Handicap.

The other passengers included Allen and Madeleine Paulson, Madeleine’s beloved Jack Russell terrier Oliver, Bill and Tina Mott, Jerry and Suzee Bailey, and my DRF colleague, the legendary Joe Hirsch. My first thought was, if the plane went down I’d be a mere footnote at the bottom of the story.

Normally, Paulson would fly the plane himself, but because of the overnight flight, scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale at about 5:30 a.m. and the big day ahead, he decided to hire a crew and go as a passenger. After boarding the plane, Paulson undid his suspenders, rolled up his sleeves, and took a seat in the front row. Soon after takeoff, Madeleine, reverting to her days as a flight attendant for Pan Am, took drink orders and put out plates of cakes and pastries and platters of food.

Mott and Bailey sat up front handicapping the Saturday card. Mott turned to me and said, “Well, what do you think, Steve? This is a tough assignment, but I guess somebody’s gotta to do it.”

About 100 miles west of Tampa, the plane was scheduled to fly over Checkpoint Cigar, for which the horse was named. “Do you want to go up to the cockpit when we fly over it,” Madeleine asked me. “You can go up there anytime you want.”

After beginning to doze off, I looked up through half-closed eyes to see Madeleine covering me with a blanket, bless her heart.

When I awoke, the lights were off and everyone was asleep. Although Cigar would be a heavy favorite in the Donn, Mott was cautiously optimistic. Here he was going to Cigar’s debut and having to stare at the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award that was sitting right in front of him. “I don’t like this scenario of getting all these Eclipse Awards, and everyone is happy, and then, all of a sudden, it’s D-Day again in less than 24 hours,” he said. “We’re setting ourselves up for a bunch of long faces.”

At 4:20 a.m., Paulson began to stir. He walked to the back of the plane and told me were getting close to Checkpoint Cigar. About 55 miles from Sarasota I made my way to the cockpit, having to gingerly step over Oliver. The view of the Florida coastline was magnificent, as if we were in a simulator. Although the lights got closer it was as if we weren’t moving. “Isn’t that beautiful?” the pilot asked. “It’s like a big video screen. We’re flying 80% the speed of sound, but this plane flies faster than this.”

We quickly passed over the darkness of the Everglades and descended on the lights of Eastern Florida. The landing was smooth as silk, and after the plane came to a halt, Paulson got up, put his suspenders back on, rolled down his sleeves, and said to Mott, “Ready to go to work, Bill?”

Several yards from the plane, Paulson’s limo awaited to take us all to our respective hotels. As I stepped down from the plane, Paulson reminded me, “Well, you just flew in the fastest plane in the world.”

It was only appropriate, because later that day I’d be watching the fastest horse in the world.

These have been three of my most memorable and unusual experiences in racing, and they all involved Cigar. This horse had style, class, and charisma, and was one of the most intelligent horses I’ve ever been around. It’s been fun looking back at those days, and I hope everyone got a chance to see a side of the sport they’d never seen before.

View the Cigar Slide Show

Watch Video of Cigar at the Kentucky Horse Park 

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