Cigar's success smokes all foes

October 22, 1995|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN SPORTS COLUMNIST

BEL AIR -- Long before his celestial talent bloomed this year, the thoroughbred named Cigar stood out among the thousands of horses that have come and gone over the years at Country Life Farm in Harford County.

"When he was a baby here, he kicked my wife in the stomach when she was six months pregnant with our first child," said Joseph P. "Josh" Pons Jr., whose family has owned and operated Country Life since 1933. "We would have remembered Cigar if he'd never won a race."

A mediocre talent until late last year, Cigar has won 11 straight races against top competition since his trainer switched him from grass to dirt racing.

With one race left on his 1995 schedule, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park next Saturday, he is a lock to become the first Maryland-bred in 55 years to win racing's most prestigious award: Horse of the Year.

Until the past year, the infamous kick -- which injured neither Pons' wife, Ellen, nor their son, Josh III -- was Cigar's only claim to fame at the farm where he was foaled in April 1990 and where he spent the first two months of his life before returning to his owner's horse farm in Kentucky.

Now, suddenly, Cigar's Maryland citizenship is the stuff of racing history.

It comes at a time when the state's breeding industry is on a palpable upturn after nearly a decade of decline. The Maryland-bred foal crop was up 7 percent in 1994, and a recent yearling auction at Timonium was a huge success, with prices up 62 percent from last year.

A boost for Maryland pride

Although they owe more to luck than any other factor, Cigar's Maryland roots are a nice topper to the run of good news.

"Even though it is largely a symbolic achievement, it reinforces the notion that Maryland is a place where top-class horses are bred," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "There is a general sense of optimism right now, with people becoming more interested in owning horses again. Cigar fits in nicely. It is something we all take pride in."

Such pride is admittedly tenuous. Cigar's owner, Allen Paulson, bases his breeding business at his farm in Kentucky. Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott, is based in New York. Cigar has made only one of 24 career starts in Maryland.

But as players in a sport that is nothing if not a triumph of reality, in which bad news always outweighs good, Maryland's racetrackers are not about to downplay a connection to a horse having the best season since Spectacular Bid in 1980.

"Every time he wins, they say he's a Maryland-bred, and all of us look that much better," said Pons, 41, who also is president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

"And I'm a little defensive about people saying we just got lucky. Because we were prepared to get lucky."

It is true that luck wasn't the only factor allowing Maryland and Country Life Farm to share in Cigar's glory. The story is also one of personal triumph and sound horsemanship rewarded.

Country Life's comeback

Country Life -- a 113-acre spread on a hill overlooking Route 1 -- has touched history before. In 1957, an Ohio racetracker named Jack Price had a mare named Joppy stop at the farm on the way to Florida for a $500 breeding session with an aging stallion named Saggy.

The result, improbably, was a Kentucky Derby winner named Carry Back.

Carry Back's success guaranteed Country Life a place in racing history. But the farm declined in the '70s. Pons' father, Joseph P. Pons Sr., was a guileful horseman but an alcoholic.

"Things kind of fell away and the farm was not in good shape," Josh Pons said. "There are five kids in our family and none were here. When your boss is a drunk, it's not a good working situation."

The elder Pons stopped drinking in 1982 and his children returned to the farm. All five live and work there today. Joseph Pons Sr., 73, still offers counsel.

"However Country Life is perceived today, it is because Dad got sober in 1982," Josh Pons said.

It is perceived as one of Maryland's most successful commercial horse farms, a place at which 50 foals are delivered annually and more than 300 mares are bred to the five "house" stallions.

Hard-won success

But such success didn't come overnight once the Ponses decided to rebuild the farm in the '80s. The farm failed to generate business with three stallions before succeeding with Carnivalay.

Seeking to further increase business after that, Country Life purchased two stallions from Paulson: Allen's Prospect in 1987 and Corridor Key in 1988.

Both horses had raced for Paulson. The chairman of Gulfstream and one of the most active horse owners in the world, Paulson has spent tens of millions on bloodstock.

"Mr. Paulson sent Allen's Prospect and Corridor Key to us because of the farm's history of standing good stallions, which dates to 1933," Pons said.

"They do a good job there," said Ted Carr, Paulson's farm manager and bloodstock adviser.

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