Have Another Cigar

Because our first Cigar experience brought numerous and passionate comments, we’re going to light up another one.

To fully appreciate the fire that burned inside Cigar, we have to go back to when he was a mischievous foal at Country Life Farm in Maryland, where his dam, Solar Slew, had been sent to be bred to Corridor Key. It was there that the colt’s misadventures began. One morning, Ellen Pons, wife of farm co-owner Josh Pons, was leading out Solar Slew and the one-month-old Cigar. Ellen was almost six months pregnant, but felt it was safe enough leading out a mare and foal. While walking them to the paddock, however, the foal stepped in front of her, and before she knew it there was a tiny leg lashing back at her. The unthinkable had happened. Ellen was kicked just below her stomach. There was an initial feeling of panic, but fortunately, no damage was done.

After being sent to Allen Paulson’s Brookside Farm in Versailles, Ky., the colt became known as “The Hammer,” because of the way he’d get up on his hind legs and a strike out if anyone touched him on the forehead or around his ears. If there was trouble, he’d usually find it. One day, several deer found their way into his 15-acre paddock. Frightened by these strange intruders he took off and ran smack into the V-mesh fence, ripping it off its panels. When assistant farm manager Mac Carr showed up after receiving a frantic call from the foreman, he found the colt standing there with his chest torn open, almost to the bone. The wounds were stitched up, but the stitches rotted and didn’t hold, so they had to use hydrotherapy (water hosing) and a scarlet oil spray known as red coat that causes tissues to granulate from the inside out. The colt healed up well and matured into a professional athlete, ready to conquer the world.

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One of my fondest memories of Cigar was the day he arrived at Belmont Park following his historic victory in the inaugural Dubai World Cup. He hadn’t felt a cool breeze in his face in four months, having been in Florida and then Dubai. Now he was back home, walking up Secretariat Avenue, passing rows of trees and grassy paddocks, and hearing the occasional crowing of a rooster and the chirping of sparrows, as a brisk April wind ruffled his mane.

Judging from the way he pulled assistant trainer Simon Bray and groom Seth Gregory while returning to his old home, Barn 25, after 36 hours in quarantine, there was no doubt he was happy to be back in familiar surroundings.

Although he had lost a little weight and a bit of shine to his coat, it didn’t seem as if the long trip to Dubai, the hot, humid days in the desert, and his gut-wrenching victory in the Dubai World Cup took too much out of him.

Leaving the quarantine barn, Cigar continually gnawed away on his lip chain. The farther he walked the more on the muscle he became, bouncing along on his toes and trying to prop on occasion. This was the first blast of cool air to hit him in months and he was loving every minute of it.

“Man, this horse is pumped; he’s really pulling on me,” Bray said.

As they turned down one of the horse paths, a van blocked the way and Bray and Gregory had to walk Cigar in circles until the van driver could be located. He finally emerged from a nearby barn, and as he got into his van, a truck pulled alongside. The driver of the truck opened the window and shouted to the van driver: “You gotta move that van for the mighty Ceeegar, the greatest horse of all time.”

When Cigar arrived at Bill Mott’s barn, he was reluctant to go in his stall, balking several times. That was the last place he wanted to be, but finally he gave in. “There you go, buddy, back in stall 3,” Bray said to him as he removed his lip chain and gave him a friendly whack on the rear end.

Once free, Cigar let it all out, rolling several times in the straw, grunting and squealing. After getting up and pawing at the ground, he charged the webbing and thrust his head out the stall door, scattering whoever was standing nearby.

As Bray and Gregory returned to the quarantine barn to get Cigar’s pony, Snowball, who had gained fame himself while in Dubai, Cigar stood at his stall door with his head up and ears cocked, staring out the barn window and up and down the shed with that familiar white eye.

“You got your favorite window and your favorite stall back,” said day watchman Jimmy Camic. “I’m just glad he’s back safe, thank God. I’ll sit here with a two-by-four if I have to, and God forbid if any s.o.b. gives me a hard time.”

Soon, Gregory’s parents and brother arrived at the barn to take their son back to a hero’s welcome in their hometown of Garrattsville, N.Y., 16 miles from Cooperstown. Gregory had accompanied Cigar to Dubai when the horse’s regular groom, Juan Campuzano, was unable to get his visa processed in time.

“Seth, the guys at the pharmacy all said to send their congratulations,” Gregory’s mother told him. “I was in there yesterday and they were so excited. They can’t wait to see you.”

“I don’t know why I’m such a hero,” Gregory said. “He did it all.”

But Cigar had a way of making heroes out of all those close to him.

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Tom Durkin’s voice bounced off the walls in resounding fashion. “Cigar! Cigar makes his move and he sweeps to the lead with a dramatic rush…the invincible, the incomparable, the unbeatable Cigar.”

This historic call of the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic wasn’t being heard at a racetrack or a simulcasting facility or any place even remotely associated with racing. On this occasion, three months after the race, pant legs trembled, shirt buttons popped, and ties stiffened at the sound of Durkin’s unforgettable call. You see, the race was being shown in the men’s department at Sears in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Following the race, Cigar’s presence seemed to be everywhere – from department stores, helping to sell team apparel, to Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” issue, to GQ, to Cigar Aficionado magazine, to a full page ad by Macanudo Cigar Co. in the New York Times, which read: “From One Cigar to another. Macanudo salutes the winner of the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic on his 12th consecutive victory.” The cost of the ad: $58,000. 

The world loves perfection, and in 1995, Cigar was the epitome of perfection, as he traversed some 12 miles of racetrack real estate, traveling nearly 10,000 miles by van and plane, while visiting six racetracks in six different states. Whether on fast, wet-fast, or muddy tracks, all Cigar’s rivals saw of him were the black and gray streaks of his tail. Among those inhaling Cigar’s smoke were the winners of the 1995 Kentucky Derby, Belmont, Travers, Santa Anita Handicap, Pacific Classic, Whitney Handicap, and the Juddmonte International and Eclipse Stakes in England, as well as past winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Santa Anita Handicap, Pimlico Special, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Oaklawn Handicap.

And through it all, Bill Mott was the perfect host, granting interviews to anyone who asked and handling everything with class. While the entire Cigar experience and the 16-race winning streak would have stressed out  many trainers, Mott might as well have been sitting on a rocking chair back in Mobridge, South Dakota whittling away on a piece of hickory. If ever a horse and trainer fit each other it was Cigar and Mott.

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Speaking of Mott and interviews, you have to remember that he is shy by nature and often feels uncomfortable in front of a camera or in a large group.  For as many years as he’s been a kingpin in New York, Mott is still pretty much a country boy from South Dakota, and on occasion will use a defense mechanism when in an awkward situation. That mechanism is to get the jump on people with a slight and harmless tinge of sarcasm to break any tensions that might exist. Such was the case when members of the British press converged on his barn one morning following Cigar’s final work before the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Brits congregated outside the barn as Mott went about his chores. Even when there was a lull, with Mott was standing just a few feet away, they wouldn’t dare intrude out of force of habit. The British press does not have the type of relationship American journalists have with trainers. Some British trainers are very adept at putting the fear of God in the media.

When one of Mott’s final sets returned, and training was pretty much winding down, I walked over to Mott just to chat informally. Finally, the four or five British reporters who were there sheepishly entered the barn to join in the proceedings.

That’s when Mott turned to his defense mechanism. Instead of waiting for a question or any introductions, he said in a raised voice and in his best country bumpkin imitation, “Good morning, good morning. I’m here from South Dakota. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this race, either. He had a nice little five-furlong breeze. I asked the rider to go in about 1:01 and he went in 1:00 4/5. You don’t deal with times, but we sometimes work them against the clock just to see how fast they’ve gone. What I’m telling you is that we got the type of work we were looking for and I hope it was the right thing.”

Jerry Bailey was standing nearby and both of us could see that Mott was having a good time with the Brits.

When one of them asked about the length of Cigar’s tail and why Mott didn’t crop it like they do in England, he answered, “In fly season we like them to have a good fly swatter.”

Then came a question that Mott jumped all over before it was completed: “When he ran here a fortnight ago, was that the first time he ran on….”

“Now, tell me what a fortnight is,” Mott interrupted. “Is that a week and a half?”

When Mott excused himself to go out with the final set, the Brits, thoroughly entertained, huddled around and discussed which of Mott’s lines they liked the best. It was a wonderful moment, with two worlds colliding and everyone walking away with a smile on their face.

As an aftermath of the ’95 Classic, the following morning when Mott went in his office to check his phone messages, there was the familiar gruff voice of his old boss and mentor Jack Van Berg. “Billy Mott, this is your old buddy Jack Van Berg, I just wanted to call and congratulate you. I’m very proud of you; VERY proud of you. You did a helluva job.”

Later that morning, Jerry and Suzee Bailey stopped by Cigar’s stall with their then 3-year-old son Justin. “Say hi to Cigar,” Suzee said to Justin, who seemed more interested in seeing his friend Bill and being given a pony ride around the shedrow. Suzee said that when she and Jerry returned home after the race they found their house decorated with balloons and signs

But perhaps my favorite image and comment were provided by Adrian Beaumont of the International Racing Bureau. All week, the IRB and the British press were hailing the European phenom Halling, owned by Godolphin, as a potential superstar who could dethrone the mighty Cigar. The morning after the race, there was Beaumont walking around wearing a Cigar cap. 

“I haven’t been able to wear it all week with the Halling crew around,” Beaumont said. “Now that they’re gone I can finally put it on.”                                                     
 
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Fast forward to the following year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was Cigar’s final race, and the script called for him to go out a winner. But a nose and a head separated him from the storybook ending. The sun had just begun to descend behind Woodbine’s clubhouse turn as Cigar walked off the track for the last time. Shafts of light beamed down on him from an amber sky, creating a setting that was meant for a triumphant farewell. But Cigar’s weary legs and cracked feet, that had carried him some 25,000 miles across the United Stakes and to Dubai, could not carry him those final few inches.

Back at the barn, Cigar stood facing the back of his stall. Allen and Madeliene Paulson stopped by for a final visit before heading off to dinner, but Mott remained. For several minutes, he stared almost hypnotically into Cigar’s stall. When he spoke, his voice couldn’t hide the emotions that were obviously swelling up inside him. This was no time to be dwelling on defeats or having any regrets that Cigar’s career did not end in triumph. The only images Mott was seeing as he stared into the stall were of cheering crowds and magnificent victories.

“There’s nothing I can say about Cigar that can tell you how I feel about him and the whole experience,” Mott said in a quiet monotone voice. There’s no reason that getting beat a short head would make me feel any differently about him. I’d be pretty damn greedy if I did or if I had any ill feelings about anything. When we decided to run him again this year I knew as a trainer that trying to have a repeat year was going to be tough task come Breeders’ Cup time. He just lost that little step, that little turn of foot, and that’s been the difference. Before, he could have overcome having to go five-wide. Today, he just couldn’t – he couldn’t overcome it.”

Just then, 82-year-old Georgia Ridder, owner of the victorious Alphabet Soup, came over to Mott, who congratulated her.

She replied, “Congratulations on the greatest horse of many years. It was just our luck today.”

“Well, you had a good day and I’m happy for you,” Mott said. “I hope you have many many more.”

So ended the remarkable career of Cigar. In “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Ernest Hemingway wrote: “But did thee feel the earth move?”

Cigar’s greatness was felt as much as it was seen. Just ask anyone who was there when Cigar rocked the grandstands at Arlington Park, Suffolk Downs, and Belmont Park. Just ask anyone who was there when Cigar made the sands of Dubai shake. Just ask anyone who was there when Cigar jolted the hallowed walls of Madison Square Garden.

Although Cigar’s accomplishments and statistics speak of greatness, they are just one aspect of his legacy. He took the torch passed to him by Holy Bull and made thousands of new racing fans around the world. He made believers out of skeptics. He made poets and artists out of 7-year-olds and 70-year-olds. He made people cheer and he made people cry.

But most of all, he made the earth move.

View the Cigar Slide Show

Watch Video of Cigar at the Kentucky Horse Park

 

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