10/10/2014 1:59PM

Hovdey: Measuring Cigar against history

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NYRA photo/Bob Coglianese
Spectacular Bid's undefeated season in 1980 was capped off by his walkover win in the Woodward.

Lists are a lazy writer’s way of admitting that the idea machine has temporarily run dry. I could list the reasons why that happens, but why compound the problem?

Then again, a clean, well-lighted list can provide both depth and context, especially at a time like this in Thoroughbred racing, when the death of Cigar has hearts and minds focused on his remarkable record. Beyond his victory in the first Dubai World Cup and his record earnings, Cigar’s 10-for-10 campaign in 1995 was his signature achievement, accomplished with nine stakes wins over six different tracks in California, Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts. I get winded just writing the list.

Was it the greatest season ever for an older racehorse, facing all comers at classic distances, defying the challenges of travel, weather, and racing luck? Of course it was ... or maybe not. There have been too many good horses through the decades who made a particular year their very own, reducing all others to supporting players.

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

It has not been that long since Curlin, for instance, began 2008 with a romp in the Dubai World Cup, took the Stephen Foster, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and finished second in the Man o’ War in his only grass try, splitting Breeders’ Cup Turf winners Red Rocks and Better Talk now in the process. Only the mystery of a synthetic surface that year at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic kept Curlin from a Cigar-like campaign.

No one in their right mind would leave Spectacular Bid’s 4-year-old season of 1980 off the list. He began with six wins in California, including the Santa Anita Handicap under 130 pounds, then worked his way east through Chicago and New Jersey before a coronation at Belmont Park with a walkover in the Woodward to go 9 for 9.

Both Spectacular Bid and Cigar echoed the 1953 season of Tom Fool, who won 10 of 10, nine in stakes, including the seven-furlong Carter under 135 pounds and the 10-furlong Brooklyn under 136. The iconoclast would note that in his final four races, Tom Fool faced a total of six opponents while carrying a relatively modest 126 pounds, and that he never had a chance to prove himself against Native Dancer, the other elephant in the room at the time. But that would be nitpicking.

Perfection is encouraged but certainly not required, otherwise it would be a very short list. Good luck if you can name Dr. Fager’s lone loss against seven wins in 1968 (okay, it was the Brooklyn), when he was acclaimed champion in three separate divisions, something never done before or since. Ack Ack lost his first race of 1971 in the six-furlong Palos Verdes, which was a shock to everyone except Johnny Longden, Jungle Savage’s trainer. After that, Ack Ack was untouchable, winning seven straight on turf and dirt, from 5 1/2 to 10 furlongs, under as much as 134 pounds.

A slow start with two feeble losses at Santa Anita in 1979 is the only thing that tarnishes Affirmed’s 4-year-old campaign, when he went 7 for 9 and beat Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Swaps was 8 for 10 as a 4-year-old of 1956, when he set time records at three different tracks and carried 130 pounds in seven starts. He lost one on the grass and the other when Bill Shoemaker let down his guard in the Californian and was caught by Milo Valenzuela and Porterhouse.

Kelso, Forego, and John Henry, the three great geldings of the last half of the 20th century, raced in parts of 22 seasons between 1959 and 1984. Only “The Fantasticks” had a longer run.

Kelso’s best year arguably was 1963, when he won nine of 12, losing a rusty first start in the Palm Beach, the Widener under 131 pounds, and the Washington, D.C., International by half a length at 12 furlongs on grass. Forego was so good for so long that it’s hard to pick a year, but by 1976, they were making him carry everything but owner Martha Gerry, and still he won the Met Mile, the Nassau County, the Brooklyn, the Woodward, and the Marlboro Cup, and missed the Suburban by only a nose.

For his part, John Henry redefined the all-around racehorse in 1981 by winning the Santa Anita Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup on dirt and six major stakes on grass, going 8 for 10 in California, Chicago, and New York.

By comparison, Cigar in 1995 was one-dimensional in that he won all the time, collecting all the main-track prizes that good horses were supposed to win since time eternal – or at least the 1930s. The list included the Pimlico Special, the Massachusetts Handicap, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

In 1942, Calumet Farm’s Whirlaway – Mr. Longtail to the headline writers of the day – won the Pimlico Special, the Massachusetts Handicap, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup along with seven other wartime events, including the Brooklyn, the Trenton, and the Narragansett Special. In an era when weight beat horses as much as their competition, Whirlaway raced 22 times at 12 different tracks in seven different states during 1942 and never finished worse than third.

Wherever he raced, Whirlaway was the main attraction, and his appearances helped raise money through the sale of war bonds. Racing writer John Hervey described Whirlaway as having “legs of steel and heart of oak,” with a “determination to struggle to the bitter end that was heroic.”

The same could be said of Cigar, Dr. Fager, Tom Fool, or any of the others named above. Thanks to them, this is one list that should last a while.