On heels of a legend Citation: The great horse's string of 16 straight wins, which Cigar can tie tomorrow, is anything but forgotten nearly 50 years later.

July 12, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

As the revered Cigar surges down the homestretch in tomorrow's historic race at Arlington International Racecourse, watch carefully. At the wire, just ahead of the era's greatest champion, you might glimpse a soaring reddish-brown form, striding powerfully down through the ages.

You might glimpse the ghost of Citation.

Although the Maryland-bred Cigar, unanimous choice for Horse of the World, races tomorrow against living, breathing foes, he also chases the ghost of the legendary bay colt who, nearly a half century ago, reeled off 16 wins in a row.

Tomorrow, Cigar tries to equal that streak in the $1.05 million Arlington Citation Challenge, a 1 1/8 -mile race created to lure the 6-year-old superstar to a region of the country not yet treated to a Cigar event. Arlington International Racecourse is near Chicago.

But regardless of whether Cigar wins this race -- and he will be hugely favored -- and regardless of whether Cigar wins three or four more races before his probable retirement at the end of the year, he never will catch Citation's fleeting ghost.

Citation holds one card Cigar cannot trump. Three of Citation's 16 straight wins took place in the classic American races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes -- the Triple Crown. Those are the races for which horses are immortalized.

Through no fault of his own, Cigar spent most of his 3-year-old campaign, when thoroughbreds confront the Triple Crown challenge on the famous dirt tracks of Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park, plodding anonymously on turf. Only when his trainer shifted him to dirt late in his 4-year-old year -- in the 14th race of his up-to-then mediocre career -- did Cigar suddenly become invincible.

Citation suffered no such slow start.

On April 22, 1947, he won his first race as a 2-year-old -- at the old Havre de Grace track in Harford County. He won 27 of 29 races, including the Triple Crown, before suffering an ankle injury in December 1948.

Victory in comeback race

After convalescing all of 1949, he won his comeback race -- his 16th straight -- on Jan. 11, 1950, at Santa Anita Park.

The willing Citation raced 15 more times that year and next, winning only four. He was not the same, domineering force as before, but the courageous agent of a man possessed with the notion of owning the first racehorse to win $1 million. Warren Wright, owner of Calumet Farm, owned Citation.

"There are levels of greatness, like anything else," said Joe Hirsch, 68, the eminent turf writer for the Daily Racing Form. "And while Cigar is a great horse, I wouldn't put him in the same category as Citation, Man o' War and Secretariat.

"I'd rank him with the second level of greatness, with the Kelsos, Foregos, Seattle Slews and Spectacular Bids. Citation was at another level, I think."

During his 16-race win streak -- the 20th-century record for a horse based in North America -- Citation won at distances from three-quarters of a mile to two miles. He crushed older horses. He broke track records. He won on the lead and won from off the pace.

"At the height of his racing career in 1948," wrote M. A. Stoneridge in "Great Horses of Our Time," "it did indeed seem that anything any other Thoroughbred race horse could do, Citation could do better."

Citation's trainer, H. A. "Jimmy" Jones, and jockey, the irascible Eddie Arcaro, say unequivocally that Citation was the greatest horse of their long careers.

"Was he the greatest horse I ever trained?" said Jones, 89, repeating the question. "He was the greatest horse anybody ever trained, in my opinion.

"Citation, up to the time he got hurt, was practically unbeatable. After that, he shouldn't be judged."

Jones, who lives in Parnell, Mo., about 100 miles north of Kansas City, says now that Citation should have been retired after his slow recovery from an osselet -- a bony growth resulting from inflammation due to a bruise or strain -- detected on his left front ankle at the end of 1948.

"Now I do, of course," Jones said. "But this is 50 years later, you know. At the time he was so close to a million dollars. That looked like a big amount then.

"Mr. Wright was kind of on his deathbed, and that's what he wanted to do," Jones said. "And it was his horse."

Arcaro, now 80 and living in southern Florida, says Citation was the greatest, no doubt about it.

"He would do anything you wanted him to do," Arcaro said. "Take him back, and then start riding him a little bit. Cluck to him, and he'd take off like a brand new Cadillac. He'd accelerate and almost jump out from underneath you."

Arcaro rode Citation in 14 of his 16 straight victories. However, his first ride aboard the mighty colt, on April 12, 1948, resulted in the loss that preceded the streak -- and Citation's only loss of his 3-year-old season.

Again, that race took place at Havre de Grace. Although it was 48 years ago, ask Arcaro about it and duck. He launches vulgarities like guided missiles. Even Jones remains incensed. (See accompanying article.)

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