10/08/2014 2:25PM

Hovdey: From mane to gray tail, Cigar was perfecto

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Bill Mott kept Cigar at top-of-the-world form for two full years.

Too much horse. Too many memories.

June 30, 1995. Late morning. A van pulls up to the barn nearest the Hollywood Park backstretch racing office, and out comes Cigar, on a run of eight straight wins, led by groom Juan Campuzano and accompanied by assistant trainer and exercise rider Tim Jones. The backstretch is nearly deserted. There are no camera crews. Cigar whips his gray-streaked tail as a gust of warm California wind catches his long mane. Two days later, the Hollywood Gold Cup becomes win No. 9.

Oct. 28, 1995. Twilight. A small group gathers behind Bill Mott’s Belmont Park barn, hours after Cigar has capped a perfect 10-for-10 season with his 12th straight win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Stablehand Gilda Libero has written a moving poem about Cigar, and the crowd demands that Mott read it aloud. Mott does fine until he gets to the last lines, and then something gets in his eye.

March 27, 1996. Sunset. Cigar on his way to the saddling enclosure for the first running of the Dubai World Cup, flanked on both sides of the pathway by Sudanese Muslims on their knees in prayer. This Westerner, observing from the edge of the Nad Al Sheba grandstand, is momentarily confused. Half an hour later, the desert night is filled with a different kind of worship, as Cigar beats Soul of the Matter in a thriller. A British commentator says, “It isn’t just class. It’s courage.”

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

May 31, 1996. Lunchtime. Cigar has arrived at Suffolk Downs for his second appearance in the MassCap, his winning streak now at 14. Signs like “The Second Coming” and “Cigar for President” greet him as Mott leads Cigar to his stall. A congregation forms outside the shed row, dozens strong, out of sight of the horse but encamped as if awaiting a transformational message. A patient Tim Jones emerges to cordon off a buffer zone with yellow police tape.

July 14, 1996. Early afternoon. Cigar is back in his stall at the old Greentree barn at Saratoga, fresh from his 16th straight win in the Citation Challenge at Arlington Park. Juan Campuzano emerges from his stall and warns a visitor that the horse is full of beans, which is why I am leery when a small girl, the daughter of a stablehand, ducks under the webbing. Cigar reaches down and sniffs her hair.

Aug. 8, 1996. Morning. Southbound on California’s Interstate 5, somewhere around Camp Pendleton, with Bill Mott and Jim Bayes in the backseat sawing logs after an overnight flight from New York. One lane over, the horse van carrying Cigar to Del Mar for the Pacific Classic has a California Highway Patrol motorcycle escort front and back. I pull alongside and catch a glimpse of Cigar’s white-rimmed left eye peering out the open van window, a good soldier under orders, wondering where he’d be fighting next.

Oct. 28, 1996. Late in the day. I’m walking with Bayes, farrier extraordinaire, as we follow Cigar from the Woodbine barns down a long path around the clubhouse turn to the paddock for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. No matter what the speculation, it will be Cigar’s last start, and there is hope in many hearts that he can erase the taste of the two brave but uncharacteristic defeats in his last three starts. As we follow the gray-streaked tail, the slabbed and powerful haunches, the high white Bill Mott rundowns behind, Bayes goes quiet for a moment and then says, “He doesn’t have to win this.”

He was right, of course. Cigar already had done more than any horse, still equipped to breed, since the days of Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, and before them Dr. Fager and Tom Fool. But Bayes, so close to the animal and to the fine lines etched in stone between winning and losing a horse race, knew that the foot trouble plaguing Cigar on and off for the past year – since his domination of the ’95 Classic over a packed, sloppy track – had deprived the champion of just enough to bring him back to a first-class field like the one he would be facing that day.

Bayes was right. Cigar did not have to win, but not winning to Cigar meant doing everything but. The difference in not winning that last day was the nose of Alphabet Soup and the head of Louis Quatorze after a wide trip during which Jerry Bailey knew he was riding only a shadow of the Cigar who had dominated the game for two solid years.

And what a shadow. Older horses since Cigar have paled by comparison. Mineshaft, Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, Invasor, Tiznow – close, but no Cigar. Only Skip Away could claim such durability. Only Curlin was as adventurous. To the end, Cigar hit every traditional high note of Thoroughbred excellence, as well as a few that had never been sung before.

May 5, 2000. A soft Kentucky afternoon and a pilgrimage with my father to the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. Cigar had been there for a year, still fully equipped, neck cresting and coat shimmering with springtime glow.

You came bearing Starlite peppermints for Cigar, or you paid a price. We fed him his treats, and he posed for a steady stream of visitors. He was a horse who connected intimately with only a few special people, but on this day, you could have taken him home to mother.

He was by then a creature of some curiosity, being a sterile stallion who had baffled the experts and cost an insurance company a small fortune. Without commercial value, Cigar became a paragon of the Thoroughbred racehorse, standing on his record and his record alone. There was hand-wringing over his lack of offspring. But really, did it matter?

After all, there was never going to be another Cigar.