Cigar rises out of dirt to stardom Streaking: With 14 straight wins, Cigar is two short of record, but faces stern test today, carrying 130 pounds.

June 01, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

BOSTON -- The moment of transformation caught even the astute trainer by surprise.

On Oct. 28, 1994, the ever-vigilant Bill Mott casually walked an undistinguished, though intriguely named, racehorse to the paddock at Aqueduct in New York. After watching the horse struggle through four dismal races on the turf, Mott had decided to give him a chance on dirt.

And that day, a Maryland-bred named Cigar, until then destined for a career of numbing third- and fourth-place finishes in throw-away allowance races, turned into a racehorse destined to become one of the greatest thoroughbreds in history.

That day over Aqueduct's one-mile dirt course, Cigar sizzled to an eight-length victory.

L "Our jaws dropped open after the race," Mott said this week.

That was just the beginning. Cigar won his next 13 races in a row -- all on dirt and at eight different tracks, including one halfway around the globe against the best horses in the world.

Today, the 6-year-old Cigar seeks his 15th straight in the $250,000, 1 1/8 -mile Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs. A victory would place him within one of Citation's 20th-century North American record.

Cigar's opposition is a quintet of ordinary horses. Yet he faces a formidable task. For the first time he must carry 130 pounds -- jockey, saddle and lead weights used in handicap races for older horses. That is 19 to 22 pounds more than his opponents will carry today.

Cigar already has raced and won with 128 pounds. So what difference can two pounds make?

"Every horse has a breaking point," said Cigar's jockey, Jerry Bailey. "It's like a weightlifter who can jump up 15 pounds with no problem. But that 16th pound might be an impossible task."

Citation, who in 1950 won his 16th straight race, lost his bid for No. 17 when, for the first time, he carried 130 pounds.

That probably wasn't the only reason Citation faltered. He had just resumed racing after missing all of 1949 because of an injury.

Cigar returns to competition after his own travails: A foot injury and the most punishing race of his life, the $4 million Dubai World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. Cigar's courageous run March 27 down that long homestretch in the desert left even cynical racing fans in tears.

AFor the first time since that jaw-dropping win at Aqueduct, Cigar confronted a serious challenge in the stretch and, for one sinking moment, looked as if he would lose. But, in the words of Ted Carr, who oversaw Cigar's care as a youngster in Kentucky:

"He reached down into his heart, and he found another gear. He looked that other horse in the eye as if to say, 'Let's go. You're not going to pass me no matter how many times we go around this track.' "

Carr is manager of Brookside Farm, about 20 miles west of Lexington, where an unnamed, unimposing colt resided in 1990. The "tough little son of a gun," in Carr's words, arrived that year in July after spending his first three months at his birthplace, Country Life Farm in Harford County.

Humble beginnings

Cigar was born in Maryland, even though both sire and dam were owned by the aviation tycoon and Kentucky horse breeder Allen E. Paulson, 73. Paulson had sent one of his broodmares, Solar Slew, a daughter of the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, to Country Life Farm in February 1990.

Solar Slew was pregnant, and after giving birth she was to be bred to one of the farm's stallions. On April 18, Solar Slew gave birth to a son of Palace Music, an undistinguished stallion who had raced mainly on turf.

The foal, who in Maryland always will be "the Maryland-bred Cigar," returned in July to Brookside Farm, where he was conceived.

"He was a nice colt," Carr said, "but you wouldn't look at him and say, 'This is going to be a world beater.' We figured he was just an average yearling in the group."

But he was tough. Once, apparently spooked by a deer, he ran into a fence, ripped open his right shoulder, took 30 stitches and acted as if it all was standard operating procedure.

And he was rough. The farmhands nicknamed him "Hammer."

"I guess he thumped a few of them on their heads; pawed them, you might say, when they were working on him," Carr said, laughing. "Yeah, he had some fight in him."

"Hammer" got a name when Paulson, an avid pilot, named the colt after an aviation checkpoint, "Cigar," in the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Tampa.

Cigar did not race as a 2-year-old because he was gawky and lacked muscle development. And then as a 3-year-old in California, he raced mainly on turf, as his father did, but with little success.

That is why Cigar never competed in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes -- races on dirt for 3-year-olds. And that is why many Americans, who cannot name a horse race outside the Triple Crown, never heard of Cigar, even as his string of victories inched toward the historic.

Mott takes over

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