With final run, Cigar races off to good life Farewell: The Maryland-bred horse, one of the best-known in the world, shows his form for one last time at Churchill Downs as he prepares for life at stud on a Kentucky farm.

November 10, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In his farewell appearance before beginning a life at stud, Cigar thundered down the famous Churchill Downs homestretch yesterday all alone -- a position familiar to the great, beloved Maryland-bred champion.

For nearly all of the past two glorious years, Cigar was untouchable. His powerful hoofs pounded down racetracks near and far, and when the competition swung around the final bend into the homestretch, there was Cigar -- all alone.

He ran himself into the history books. He became the most popular horse in the world. He epitomized what it is about this sport that infects a person's blood for a lifetime:

It's the horse, not the gambling, not anything else but the horse -- whether he's straining in full stride at Pimlico, enjoying a bath on a sun-streaked morning at Saratoga or peering out of his stall at Belmont making you wonder what in the world is going on in that compact brain of his.

"Cigar is the perfect example of what you want a horse to be," said Bill Mott, his trainer, before leading the glistening dark-brown horse from his stall on the backstretch onto the track for the farewell show. "He's been so giving. He was beaten, but he never stopped trying."

Cigar was retired after winning 19 races in 33 starts and earning $9,999,815, more than any horse in the history of racing.

But he'll be remembered for a 21-month span -- from October 1994 to July 1996 -- when he won 16 races in a row, matching Citation's 46-year-old record. He'll be remembered especially for traveling halfway around the world in March to win a $4 million race on the desert sands of the Persian Gulf -- and in the process becoming the sports' first international superstar.

Yesterday, when the weather in no way resembled that of a desert, 12,443 fans braved the bitter chill to say goodbye to Cigar. With temperatures in the 30s and a biting wind whipping Churchill Downs, Mott and Cigar's groom, Juan Campuzano, led Cigar at about 3: 45 p.m. from the backstretch, around the first turn and in front of the fans cheering under the famous twin spires.

Draped in a white blanket with letters that read "CIGAR WORLD CHAMPION," Cigar stopped every now and then, pricked his ears and looked into the crowd. "Looking good, boy!" one fan hollered. "Have fun next year!" shouted another.

After the horses had been saddled for the seventh race, Mott and Campuzano led Cigar into the paddock, where adoring fans stood several deep, applauding, snapping photographs, gazing at the racing legend.

Mott saddled the horse, and then led him around and around the walking ring, stopping frequently so everyone could get a good last look.

"We love you, Cigar!" they yelled over and over.

After the jockey Jerry Bailey had changed silks from the seventh race -- which he won aboard the Mott-trained Claudius -- he hopped on Cigar for the trek out to the track.

There, he galloped Cigar up and down the homestretch, and then unleashed him at nearly full speed from the final turn, down the stretch, across the finish line and into the first turn.

The crowd watched the powerful demonstration in awe, and then roared in appreciation.

A table and microphone were set up on the track. Team Cigar -- Mott, Bailey and Cigar's owner Allen E. Paulson and his wife, Madeline -- were given personalized Louisville Slugger baseball bats by Denny Crum, the University of Louisville basketball coach, and a basketball from Rick Pitino, the University of Kentucky basketball coach. They were presented a proclamation declaring yesterday "Cigar Day."

And then Tom Meeker, president and CEO of Churchill Downs, explained that this really wasn't a farewell to Cigar, but a welcome to "Cigar's new Kentucky home."

With that, the University of Louisville band struck up "My Old Kentucky Home."

Finally, the ceremony over, Mott and Campuzano started Cigar back to his barn as the band played a slow version of Queen's "We Are The Champions." Just as Cigar crossed the finish line, it began to snow.

As early as today -- Mott said it will be today or tomorrow -- Cigar will be vanned to his new home, Ashford Stud near Versailles, Ky., to begin his second career. Paulson sold a 75 percent interest in his horse to the Ireland-based Coolmore Stud (its U.S. branch is Ashford Stud) so that Cigar would have access to the best mares in the world.

Josh Pons, manager of Country Life Farm near Bel Air, where Cigar was born six years ago, said that Cigar probably will be test-bred this fall.

"They'll probably introduce him to a mare, a gentle old matronly type who can tolerate a lot of foolishness," Pons said. "It'll be a brand new thing for him, but it's a natural thing."

But still, Pons said, he must learn -- just as he learned about getting saddled or entering a starting gate -- that "certain manners are expected of him. He can't be permitted to be unruly in the breeding shed, or he could hurt himself."

After five years spent mostly in a stall, Cigar's new life will be cushy, Pons said.

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