11/21/2013 5:26PM

No 'butts' about it: Cigar was untouchable during two-year reign

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Barbara D. Livingston
Cigar, ridden by Jerry Bailey, won the 1994 NYRA Mile, a Grade 1 race at Aqueduct that now bears his name.

As Cigar turned into the stretch of the sixth race at Aqueduct on Oct. 28, 1994, with a five-length lead, track announcer Tom Durkin, high in his perch atop the grandstand, trained his binoculars on the heretofore unknown and modestly accomplished horse widening his lead with every stride. Just behind Durkin, on his desk in the announcer’s booth, the cursor on his Apple Macintosh laptop flickered at the end of a catchphrase he had composed earlier that day just in case what was transpiring before him should come to pass.

As the horse flashed across the finish line under Mike Smith, well in hand and eight lengths to the good, Durkin bellowed across the public-address system, “It’s Cigar, no but[t]s about it.”

Wordlessly, Durkin put down his binoculars, strode over to his desk, and, shaking his head, hit the delete button on his keyboard repeatedly until the scripted phrase disappeared from the screen.

It would not be the last time Durkin would call Cigar’s name first to the wire. However, the need for superlatives would become greater.

Little did Durkin, or anyone, for that matter, know that the race he had just witnessed was a conception point in Thoroughbred racing history.

That night at The Meadowlands, Smith ran into Jerry Bailey, a regular patron of Cigar’s trainer, Bill Mott. “Do you remember that horse Cigar we were talking about?” Smith said to Bailey. “I rode him today at Aqueduct.”

“Yeah, how did he do?” Bailey replied.

“He ran off the screen,” Smith said.

Four weeks later, Mott, who instinctively switched the turf-bred Cigar to the dirt for the Aqueduct allowance after his grass form began to decline, boldly entered him in the Grade 1 NYRA Mile, where he would face the top handicap horses Devil His Due and Bertrando.

Despite the impressive allowance victory, Cigar was the sixth choice at almost 9-1 in the field of 12. Though it was a steep rise in company, Cigar – this time under Bailey, subbing for the previously committed Smith – dispatched his Grade 1 opponents with the same haughty disdain he had the allowance field just a month earlier.

Mott put Cigar away for the winter. He knew he had a real horse on his hands and prepared him for a major campaign in 1995. He brought him back to the races Jan. 22 at Gulfstream Park against a quality allowance field, and despite a little bit of rust, Cigar won by a clear margin.

Next up, however, was a far steeper climb than even the NYRA Mile had been. Cigar was entered in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream, where he would face reigning Horse of the Year Holy Bull, who coincidentally had made his own 1995 debut on the same card as Cigar and had looked much more impressive. Cigar was once again pooh-poohed in the wagering, going off as the clear 4-1 second choice but still 13 times Holy Bull’s 3-10 odds.

Whether Cigar was the equal or better than Holy Bull that day will never be known. Turning down the backstretch while challenging Cigar for the lead, Holy Bull broke down and was pulled up. Cigar shook off a stretch challenge from longshot Primitive Hall and scampered off to an easy victory.

“It was like the baton had been passed” from one Horse of the Year to the next, said Durkin, who also called the races that afternoon at Gulfstream.

Cigar went from strength to strength, barnstorming around the country and picking off Grade 1 victories along the way. There wasn’t a track he couldn’t handle: Oaklawn, Pimlico, Suffolk Downs, Hollywood, and Belmont all were his playground, and the competition fell before him.

When he got to his season finale, the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park, he was in rare form. That fall, he had already knocked off the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and a win in the Classic seemed a foregone conclusion. There was, however, a major, unforeseen stumbling block he would have to surmount.

Intermittent rain had been falling throughout that Breeders’ Cup day. Cigar had raced infrequently on wet tracks, and it hardly brought out the best in him. He had never raced on a track worse than good, and the surface was deteriorating as the Classic was about to be run. The official track condition was muddy.

But as he had done nine times before that year and 11 times stretching back to that allowance win at Aqueduct, Cigar methodically, imperiously disposed of the competition. As Cigar ran by L’Carriere in midstretch, Durkin girded himself for the coup de grace.

“I was thinking before the race what would be the right word to describe him,” Durkin said. “Unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable ...”

He went with all three. Almost in cadence with the horse’s powerful strides approaching the wire, Durkin delivered one of the most recognizable finish calls in racing history: “The unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable ... Cigar!”

The great horse seemingly had no worlds left to conquer, but Mott and owner Allen Paulson had other plans. They were wooed by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, to race in the inaugural running of the $4 million Dubai World Cup. Despite being forced to miss his final prep, the Santa Anita Handicap, with a quarter crack, Cigar showed incredible tenacity to hold off Soul of the Matter and win the richest race of all time, a mere half a world away from his stall at Belmont Park.

Cigar’s winning streak was now at 14, putting him just two wins away from the immortal Citation’s longstanding modern-day record of 16 consecutive victories, recorded almost a half-century earlier. Though carrying a rare 130-pound impost in both the Massachusetts Handicap and the Citation Challenge, Cigar had encountered little trouble winning either race. All that stood between him and breaking the DiMaggio streak of Thoroughbred racing was the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

It could have been the trip to Dubai, the steady three years of training, or the fact that at age 6, Cigar had passed his peak as a racehorse. But certainly chasing fractions of 1:09 and 1:33 in a 1 1/4-mile race did not help his chances. Cigar’s streak was over, done in by the vastly inferior Dare and Go.

Perhaps it was poetic that the streak ended with Cigar in a tie with one of racing’s greats. The remaining three races in his career were admirable if not anticlimactic. In his penultimate race, the 1996 Jockey Club Gold Cup, he lost narrowly to Skip Away, who symbolically took the baton from Cigar and ran with distinction over the next two racing seasons.

Cigar ended his career with a gallant defeat, succumbing in a three-way photo in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine.

The next year, when fall came around, Aqueduct ran the NYRA Mile for the ninth time but with a new name with a nice ring to it – the Cigar Mile.

Infertility denied Cigar a stud career when his racing days came to an end. Cigar, now 23, spends his days in the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park, where he is regularly paraded before throngs of visitors. One of them this past spring was Mott.

“He’s finally showing his age,” Mott said. “For so long, he looked massive but athletic, like you could throw a saddle on him and he’d be like any other 7-year-old.”

For two years following that fall afternoon at Aqueduct, there were none like him.