10/25/2014 6:40PM

Family ties run deep for Cigar Street

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Breeders' Cup Classic contender Cigar Street, winner of the Homecoming Classic last out, represents the efforts of multiple generations of horsemen.

Family ties run deep in the Bluegrass.

Legendary Thoroughbred operations, the likes of Claiborne and Darby Dan, continue to seamlessly raise top-flight runners as they pass from hand to hand through the years, new generations being born into the business. Great sires continue their dynasties through their sons and grandsons; the line passing from Bold Ruler to Boldnesian to Bold Reasoning to Seattle Slew to A.P. Indy …

As their stories are woven over years and then decades, time marches on inexorably, the wheels continuing to turn in the Thoroughbred industry as summer blends into fall. In one quiet corner of Lexington, the trees are ablaze over a mound of still freshly turned earth, a few fallen leaves adding to a riot of color – flowers and loops of ribbons left on the final resting place of the great Cigar, who died Oct. 7.

The two-time Horse of the Year, who resided at the Kentucky Horse Park, never launched his own dynasty – the son of Palace Music was sterile. But his family’s impact still has ties here. His remaining half-sisters and their daughters still wander the fields in Kentucky, producing wobbly-legged foals each spring.

The horse’s story might even echo in the air at this year’s Breeders’ Cup.

Cigar Street – whose dam is an unraced half-sister to Cigar – is among the contenders for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, to be contested Nov. 1 at Santa Anita Park. The multiple stakes winner is trained by Bill Mott, who sent out Cigar to win the 1995 Classic.

The ties run deeper than that, as Cigar Street’s arrival on the scene represents the efforts of multiple generations of horsemen. The horse was bred in partnership by and raised at Brookdale Farm in Versailles, Ky. Patriarch Fred Seitz founded the operation in 1983, and sons Joe, the director of sales, and Freddy, general manager, have followed him into the business (daughter Anna works in client relations and marketing for Fasig-Tipton). Cigar Street is now owned by longtime friends Jake Ballis and Rashard Lewis; Ballis also followed his father, who campaigned champion Groovy, into racing.

“It is special,” Fred Seitz said. “Whenever we’re lucky enough to breed a good horse, it’s a collaborative thing. We’re all in this together, and it’s working.”

Family development

Solar Slew’s family ties were enough to catch the eye of Allen Paulson in 1984. The Seattle Slew filly was out of Argentine Group 1 winner Gold Sun, also eventually the dam of Irish classic-placed globetrotter Jungle Gold.

Paulson purchased Solar Slew for $510,000 out of the California Thoroughbred Breeders March sale of 2-year-olds, making her the most expensive juvenile filly of the year. However, she earned back only $5,856 of that on the track, failing to win in seven starts before joining the broodmare band.

The mare’s second foal was Mulca, who was named champion imported 3-year-old filly in Puerto Rico. Two years later, at the Pons family’s Country Life Farm in Maryland, Solar Slew delivered Cigar, who placed himself among racing’s legends by carrying Paulson’s colors to 16 consecutive victories from 1994 to 1996, including the Classic and the inaugural Dubai World Cup. Mott still reflects fondly on the Classic score.

"I think since time has passed and I look back, that had to be one of the most gratifying wins that I've had in my career," Mott said. "What it did for him was culminate a perfect season.  He was 10 for 10 that year, and we were going into it, and, of course, everybody's come together.  You're going a mile and a quarter and, of course, the track came up sloppy on that particular day and we didn't know really how he'd handle the mud. We had made the transition from turf to dirt with him, and he was doing quite well, but I'd never run him on an off track and I'd never really even breezed him on an off track, so I wasn't sure how he was going to do. And just to have him pass that test on that particular day and end the year 10-for-10, and, obviously, he earned a championship and a Horse of the Year trophy, so it was pretty special. Really, pretty special.”

Paulson died in July 2000, and Solar Slew, in foal to Brookdale sire Deputy Minister, was offered as part of a dispersal of his stock at the 2000 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. Fred Seitz purchased her for $1.3 million on behalf of himself and a group of partners.

“We stood Deputy Minister at the time and that fit, and the dam of Cigar certainly fit,” Seitz said.

The purchase wound up being fortuitously timed, as the resulting filly, Arcadiana, was Solar Slew’s final foal. The mare died in 2004 and is buried at Brookdale.

“We got this beautiful Deputy Minister filly, who, as a late suckling – probably three or four months old – was very correct,” Seitz said. “We were just delighted with her. [But then] she got some crushing of the growth plate of her left front ankle. She just became quite crooked, very quickly. ... And just went through this unusual growth period.

“We didn’t even break her,” Seitz continued. “She was a poor sales candidate, and, we thought, a poor racing candidate. So we bred her. She was a big, strong, good-looking thing, and we knew that genetically, she had been correct.”

Several of Solar Slew’s daughters have indeed gone on to productive broodmare careers. Unraced Forli’s Slew produced Grade 3 placed Barbara Orr, the dam of stakes winner Rock Me Baby; as well as Dorei, dam of stakes-placed Sun Spun. Another daughter, Corridora Slew, is the dam of Grade 3 winner Laura’s Lucky Boy and of Back to Earth, dam of stakes winner E B Ryder. Life’s Pleasures, a winning full sister to Arcadiana, produced Grade 2-placed Hard Life.

Arcadiana has now produced five winners from as many starters. For the mating that produced her most accomplished runner, Freddy Seitz, in conjunction with Brookdale’s partners Marvin Delfiner and Ted Folkerth, was drawn to first-year stallion Street Sense, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby – a double not replicated before or since.

“He was a big rarity,” Freddy Seitz said. “That's a heck of an accomplishment. I'm always impressed by stallions who [had] good 2-year-old form plus later form. That's what turned me on the most. We went to see Street Sense when he retired, and he was just gorgeous. I liked him a lot.”

The Seitzes decided early on that Arcadiana’s colt would make a better 2-year-old than a yearling sales prospect. Prior to leaving the farm, the young Cigar Street was under the eye of Freddy Seitz, who worked with the yearlings.

“Physically, he was a big, beautiful horse. Everyone always thought very highly of him,” Freddy Seitz said. “He was always really mellow, easy to get along with, kind of a fun horse to be around.”

Cigar Street was broken by Niall Brennan and was consigned to the 2011 Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale. There, another member of the Seitz family fell for him – Freddy’s wife, Sarah.

“She actually worked for the consignor that sold him for us as a 2-year-old. She was calling me from the track and telling me, ‘This is a really nice horse, here,’” Freddy Seitz said. “In the end, she was his biggest fan. We all liked him, but she really loved him."

Family and friends team up

Jake Ballis’s introduction to racing came at the highest levels of the sport, as his father John campaigned champion Groovy, either solely or in partnership, for the majority of the standout sprinter’s career. The horse won 12 stakes over his career, including the Vosburgh Stakes and two editions each of the Forego Handicap and Tom Fool Stakes. With Angel Cordero as his regular pilot, Groovy won all but one of his starts in 1987 racing for John Ballis and subsequent owner Prestonwood Farm, the only loss being a second to Very Subtle in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Despite that, he earned his divisional Eclipse Award.

“We had Groovy stuff all over the house – even his halter," Jake Ballis said.

In 2003, upon graduating from college, Ballis’s father gifted him with a trip to Saratoga. There, he reconnected with Cordero, now agent to John Velazquez.

A few years later, Ballis decided to buy horses in partnership with longtime friend Rashard Lewis, a two-time NBA All-Star. Ballis and Lewis met as teammates in a summer basketball league and have remained close.

“When you have a partner who is your best friend, that makes it a lot more fun,” Ballis said.

With Cordero serving as adviser, Ballis and Lewis entered the racing business. Their first horse, purchased in 2008 with brother Reed Ballis and friends Reagan and William Swinbank, was Join in the Dance, a graded stakes-placed runner by Sky Mesa who took the team to the Kentucky Derby, leading at early points of call before finishing seventh behind Mine That Bird.

“Join in the Dance was fun, because we had several guys involved,” Ballis said. “We knew we didn't have a shot in the Derby – but saying that, a 50-1 shot did win that same year, so anything can happen."

Two years later, Ballis and Lewis were shopping the Keeneland April sale for additional prospects. John Ballis, noting a connection to champion Cigar, had already advised his son to look at the young Cigar Street.

"My dad has a shortlist based on pedigree,” Ballis said. “I had Angel Cordero with me, and he looks at all the horses. We hadn't looked at [Cigar Street] yet, but from a distance, Angel sees a horse, and says, “We've got to go look at that one.” So we go over there, and it just happened to be this one on my dad's list.”

Cigar Street had one of the slower breezes of Keeneland’s under-tack show – clocking at 11 seconds for one furlong – meaning commercial interest wasn’t strong. Cordero, not dissuaded by the time, advised Ballis and Lewis to make the purchase. With Hidden Brook acting as agent, the partners landed the colt for $130,000.

Coming out of the sale, Cigar Street had bucked shins and was given time off. The colt debuted early in his 3-year-old season, winning his maiden in his second start for trainer Steve Margolis. He headed straight to the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, where he was fourth, beaten just over two lengths. An injury then sent him to the sidelines.

During the layup, Ballis and Lewis decided it was time for “a change of scenery” and elected to send the horse to Mott, prompted by the success he'd had with Cigar as an older horse.

“I had never met Bill before we sent him this horse,” Ballis said. “Seventy-five percent of [my decision] was because he did train Cigar, and we thought it would be a neat story to have Bill train Cigar Street. He's well known for training older horses and for being successful. At the same time, you can't categorize Bill. A good horseman can train [anything]. His approach is different than most trainers. But mainly, it was because of the bloodlines – and Bill’s one of the nicest, most honest guys I’ve ever been around.”

Cigar Street came back off a layoff of nearly nine months to win his first three starts for Mott, capped by a two-length score over Take Charge Indy in the Grade 3 Skip Away Stakes in March 2013. A variety of ailments then sent him back to the sidelines until August, when he finished second in his return at Saratoga, and the 5-year-old subsequently delivered his virtuoso performance to date, winning the Homecoming Classic on Sept. 27 at Churchill Downs.

“[The ups and downs] make it a lot more special,” Ballis said. “We always knew Cigar Street had the talent and ability to compete at that level, but he hadn't had the chance to showcase it yet. So it makes you appreciate horse racing more in general, when you have a real good one and you give them the time. We were patient with him, and hopefully it’s going to reward us."

Crowded into the winner’s circle were several members of the Ballis family, along with Lewis. Lewis was able to attend because he's recovering from knee surgery; otherwise he'd be gearing up for the NBA season.

“My best memory is I have a winner's circle picture when I was 7 and my brother was 8 of [Angel Cordero] and him and myself,” Jake Ballis said. “So now you go 20 years later, and we're in the winner's circle with Angel, my brother, and my dad again. So it's pretty neat.”

‘It brings the family together’

Good horses bring people together – as evidenced by the number of signatures, scribbled by visitors from scattered backgrounds, crowding a memorial banner tacked to the fence of Cigar’s former paddock at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The Seitz family and the Ballis Racing partners, connected by a horse from the champion’s family, speak highly of one another.

“We wish them all the best,” Fred Seitz said. “We’ll be together watching rooting really hard for them.”

Cigar Street’s future exploits will continue to be a group affair, as Ballis says he and Lewis will bring 35 family members and friends to the Breeders’ Cup.

“Horse racing brings family together,” Ballis said. “With our family, everyone gets together on Christmas and Thanksgiving, or at a horse race. So it brings the family together a lot more than anything else, which makes it more fun.”