08/02/2002 12:00AM

Mr. Grace Under Pressure

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DEL MAR, Calif. - "Sweet 16" screamed the headline in Newsday, six years ago this summer, after Cigar equaled Citation's modern record of consecutive wins.

The date was July 13, 1996. The place was Arlington Park. And the sight of more than 34,000 demanding Chicago fans jammed into the handsome, cantilevered grandstand was inspiring to behold, especially from the passenger seat of an ascending helicopter piloted by Allen Paulson, the man who bred and owned Cigar.

Down below, Arlington was still vibrating from the drama that had just transpired. The ground was already hallowed, anointed by the memorable appearances of Secretariat, Damascus, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, and even Citation himself. Cigar, however, brought something different to the party.

He was a throwback hero in the age of overnight stars. Cigar had no Kentucky Derby to call his own, no Triple Crown experience at all. Before his victory in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park, he had never appeared on network TV, and only a few times on cable.

Then, when he won the Classic for his 12th in a row, the skies parted. Morning shows lined up to tell his tale. The people behind Macanudo Cigars bought a page in the Living Arts section of the New York Times to offer their congratulations. Jack Nicholson, to his credit, was already a Cigar fan.

By the time Cigar arrived in Chicago, it had been 21 months since he had lost a race. Imagine going nearly two years without making a mistake. He had traveled back and forth from his New York homestead to Los Angeles, Hot Springs, Miami, Baltimore, Boston, and Dubai, holding his form every step of the way, resisting serious injury, bringing skeptics to their knees.

The winning streak ended 28 days later at Del Mar, when Dare and Go beat Cigar in the Pacific Classic before a crowd of 44,181. But by then the legend was etched in stone. Cigar had transcended the narrow boundaries of the game to become an American sports celebrity. And now, more than anything else, the streak has placed Cigar in the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

It was a slam dunk, a no-brainer, a first-round romp if there ever was one. With Cigar on a wall of the Hall of Fame, enshrined in bronze, visitors will be able to savor his accomplishments in the context of equals, of like-minded Thoroughbreds who retained their male components and were allowed to race into their full physical maturity.

Cigar, when he was 5 and then 6, was the model racing warrior. Strapped for battle, wearing nothing but a D-bit and rundowns, waving his multi-colored tail, he arrived in the paddock with his wild mane flying and his white-rimmed left eye looking for a fight.

He displayed a scar on his chest from a collision with a fence as a weanling. He had a waffle pattern of white hairs on a hock from a freeze-firing at age 2. At some point a fist-sized whorl of odd hair developed on the left ridge of his neck - it's gone now - while the right side bore the distinctive thumbprint of Allah, a dent developed in the womb of his dam, Solar Slew.

In action Cigar was coldly efficient, anxious to get on with the task. Jerry Bailey's hands would go numb while trying to hold him back during the early stages of a race. Then sometimes - the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Gulfstream Park Handicap come to mind - there was a wonderful abandon to Cigar's dominance, as if he was truly enjoying his work.

After a career that lasted four seasons and 30 starts, the list of people who played a part in the Cigar saga is long. They all deserve front row seats at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion on Monday, when the Hall of Fame ceremonies will be held.

Bill Mott will be there, of course, as well as Jerry Bailey. They both preceded Cigar into the Hall, but until now it has been lonely without him.

Madeleine Paulson will accept the plaque on behalf of her husband Allen, who died two years ago. Her guests will include Ted Carr, who guided the young Cigar through his early lessons at Brookside Farm in Kentucky, and Cathy Roby, who cares for the robust, retired Cigar today at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The rest know who they are. Everyone else should, too.

Josh and Ellen Pons of Country Life Farm in Maryland helped bring Cigar into this world, but it was Richard Harris who was there in the wee hours of April 18, 1990, when Solar Slew delivered her Palace Music foal.

Mac Carr, Ted's son and right hand, once jumped bareback on the yearling Cigar to show his crew how kind a classy young Thoroughbred could be.

Dick Lundy and Alex Hassinger trained Cigar in California before Mott took charge, but they both give Lee Ricci a ton of credit for her hands-on care of the young colt just learning the game.

Once in New York, tucked away in Belmont's Barn 25, Cigar could count on the incomparable Bill Mott crew: Tom and Fonda Albertrani, Ralph and Judy Nicks, Tim Jones, Simon Bray, Dave Wallace, Gerard Guenther, Gilda Libero, Erma Scott, and the champion's groom and constant companion, Juan Campuzano. Jim Bayes worked miracles with Cigar's wounded feet. Steve Selway and Jim Prendergast cared for his veterinary needs.

It took them all, at one time or another, to provide a world in which Cigar could fulfill his destiny. He began as merely one in a crop of 44,143 North American foals, one of 100 exquisitely bred babies at the Paulson farm, one of 60 professional racehorses in the Bill Mott barn. Then he became Cigar.

If Hemingway was right, and courage is defined as grace under pressure, then consider the courage displayed by Cigar. Sixteen straight times, most often in the toughest competitive arenas, he was asked to win and did not flinch.

Cigar's best race, in fact, was not his most brilliant. But it was his most courageous, when he was asked to fly halfway around the world, recover from the stress of the journey, and then reproduce his form on deep, sandy soil in front of white-robed strangers and in the face of a talented younger horse named Soul of the Matter who was running the race of his life.

On the morning after that first Dubai World Cup, in March of 1996, Madeleine Paulson and Bill Mott stood near the quarantine barns of Nad Al Sheba Racecourse watching Cigar basked in the desert sun. His victory streak stood at 14. Chicago still lay ahead.

"I wonder now if people will realize just how great he is," Paulson said.

After Monday, the answer will be in Saratoga Springs.