Cigar send-off lights up talk of Dubai Cup Recovered horse to race in Middle East

March 15, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. - America's horse, the Maryland-bred Cigar, departs tomorrow for the Middle East and the race that might transform him into the world's horse.

Perhaps the greatest thoroughbred since Spectacular Bid, Cigar has recovered from a bruised foot and is ready to compete March 27 in the world's richest horse race, the $4 million Dubai World Cup at the Nad Al Sheba Race Course in the United Arab Emirates.

Yesterday, the 1995 Horse of the Year lounged in his stall here at Gulfstream Park, oblivious to not only the grueling trip awaiting him, but also the hubbub surrounding the Florida Derby. Featuring some of the nation's top 3-year-olds in a clash of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, the Florida Derby takes place about 4: 30 p.m. tomorrow. About six hours later, Cigar, who is 6, is to board a DC-8 equipped with stalls for a marathon journey to the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven independent Arab states at the south end of the Persian Gulf. Kuwait is at the north end.

The trip, from barn to barn, is to take about 20 hours. The objective is a winner's purse of $2.4 million and Cigar's 14th straight victory. He is approaching Citation's modern record of 16 consecutive wins.

Designed as a world championship middle-distance race, the inaugural running of the 1 1/4 -mile Dubai World Cup attracted horses from six countries. Are the best in the world competing?

"Obviously, they got the best," said Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott. "They got Cigar coming."

That wasn't a sure thing until Mott saw Cigar's recent sure-footed workouts over Gulfstream's milk-chocolate-colored dirt track.

On Feb. 22, Mott cut into Cigar's right front hoof to drain a painful abscess. Mott still doesn't know how Cigar bruised his foot; perhaps the horse had stepped on a stone.

Cigar spent 11 days in his stall, missing the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap March 2 and casting doubt on his globetrotting sojourn to the Middle East. But the imposing, bay-colored horse responded to treatment and then to an accelerated training regimen, Mott said.

Although highly respected, Mott has received some criticism here for perhaps asking too much of his horse.

"If I didn't think he was up to it," he said tersely, "he wouldn't be going."

One Marylander watching closely is Josh Pons, manager of Country Life Farm in Harford County. Cigar was born there April 18, 1990.

The pride of the Pons family breeding farm is now also the pride of the state. Cigar is the first Maryland-bred in 55 years to win horse racing's most prestigious award: Horse of the Year.

"We cheer like hell for him," Pons said in a telephone interview. "Cigar's success sustains a lot of people in the horse business.

"This is a business predicated on a dream, and that dream is having a great horse. A lot of people hold out hope that their next foal will be another Cigar."

Pons said he, too, is concerned about Cigar's approaching adventure.

"I tend to think it's asking a lot of the horse," Pons said. "But he's a lot of horse.

"You'd hate for him to pick up some African sleeping sickness or something. But life is full of risks. And the greater the risk, the greater the reward."

Despite his injury, Cigar will be the overwhelming favorite in the Dubai, said Alastair Donald, director of the England-based International Racing Bureau, which is helping promote the race. But still, said Donald, speaking on his mobile phone from the United Arab Emirates, Cigar will face "serious opposition."

Cigar is one of four American horses entered. The other three are L'Carriere, runner-up to Cigar in the Breeders' Cup Classic; Soul of the Matter, fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic; and Dare and Go.

The top challengers from other nations, Donald said, are England's Pentire and Australia's Danewin. Danewin was his country's top 3-year-old for the 1994-95 season and the winner of five Group 1 stakes.

"If Cigar wins the Dubai World Cup," Donald said, "he can claim the title of best middle-distance horse in the world."

Post time for the March 27 race is 7 p.m. local time. That's 10 a.m. on the East Coast.

Laurel Park will broadcast the race live, and then replay it throughout the day. Because of limitations in the satellite link, only Laurel not Pimlico or the off-track betting outlets will show the Dubai.

Laurel will offer no betting on the race, which is also the case in the United Arab Emirates. Donald said that although 25,000 fans are expected for the Dubai, and 7,000 to 8,000 turn out for a typical night's racing, they do not bet.

"It's essentially a question of the religious faith of the Arab people, basically Muslims," Donald said.

So Marylanders will be forced to watch America's horse on the same terms as the Arabs in Donald's words, "for the sport and the spectacle."

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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