Cigar died last week from complications following surgery for severe osteoarthritis in his neck, which sounds like a very painful condition for a horse. There are probably not that many 24-year-old thoroughbreds who undergo neck surgery, but this was Cigar, and he more than paid his own way. He won almost $10 million on the racetrack in 1995 and 1996, and later cashed another $25 million in insurance money when he proved to be infertile; his one payout at very long odds. No bettor ever lost more on a single horse than Assicurazoni Generali S.P.A. lost on Cigar, but that’s why equine insurers are the bridgejumpers of the financial services world.
Until last Tuesday I hadn’t really thought about Cigar for a long time. Maybe that’s what happens when horses are infertile and there aren’t any cigarillos running around reminding people that none of them could hold a candle to the old man. But as I got to thinking more about him, I realized that – for several various reasons – he always left me a little cold.
It started for me with his second race in 1995, which was the fourth consecutive of his remarkable and record-tying sixteen straight wins. I was living up in Putnam County and my horseplaying was suffering from being more than two hours away from all three NYRA tracks. When races were televised I could stay home and watch them, but then I couldn’t bet. So I was spending lots of Saturday afternoons at an OTB parlor in relatively nearby Dutchess County. That’s where I was for the 1995 Donn Handicap.
The ’95 Donn was the last race in Cigar’s career where he was not the favorite, owing to the presence in the starting gate of the 1994 champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year Holy Bull. Cigar broke well, and with jockey Jerry Bailey not about to let Holy Bull get an easy lead the two of them hooked up early. As they raced in tandem down the backstretch, Holy Bull’s left foreleg made a popping sound, and Mike Smith smartly and quickly pulled up the great gray champion, while Cigar rolled to an easy victory.
There was an excited corner of the OTB parlor because a woman had keyed Cigar on top of the entire field in the trifecta for a dollar and won about two grand when two bombs filled it out. Meanwhile, the feed from Gulfstream delivered not a shred of information about the condition of Holy Bull, which seemed to me a totally unacceptable situation (it wasn’t until I read the Sunday paper that I found out he would be OK). I didn’t have a dime on the race, but the combination of the woman cashing a signer only because Holy Bull had broken down, and the seeming total lack of concern as to his condition, put me into a foul mood that lasted well into a bottle of tequila back in Putnam County. This was my introduction to Cigar.
I’m not saying that Holy Bull would have won that race without the bad step, or that Cigar would not have gone on to win his sixteen straight races. But as the year played out, I knew damn well there wasn’t another horse around that could have given Cigar the kind of test that would have been provided by a healthy, 4-year-old Holy Bull. [In the next eight races that completed Cigar’s “perfect 10 for 10” 1995, he topped exactas over Pride of Burkaan, Silver Goblin, Devil His Due, Poor But Honest, Tinner’s Way, Star Standard, Unaccounted For and L’Carriere.]
There was an inevitability to Cigar’s victories that year that made backing him the equivalent of going to the Coliseum in Rome, laying a ton of points, and rooting on the lions. Both Bill Mott and Jerry Bailey had their best years for wins in 1995 and 1996, and owner Allen Paulson won the Eclipse Award both years as top owner. And all of Cigar’s wins in 1995 were cut from the same cloth (break well, grab an easy early lead or sit just off the pacesetters before putting the thing away at the top of the stretch). If he was so good, I figured, couldn’t he at least hand the field a spot every now and then and find a way to make it interesting? But, no. Ten daylight wins, with his one-length victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup being the only one with a winning margin of less than two lengths.
While I will now give Allen Paulson a lot of credit for the way he campaigned Cigar – making him perhaps the most well-traveled champion since Seabiscuit – at the time I did not like the guy at all. Alas, I have some “acutely judgmental” coding in my DNA, and have always been disapproving of the way that certain owners make the naming of their colts and fillies more about themselves, rather than about the horses. Cigar, by Palace Music out of a Seattle Slew mare named Solar Slew, was named for an aeronautical navigational checkpoint in the Gulf of Mexico. This was how Paulson, who had once owned Gulfstream, the private jet manufacturer, came up with names like Cigar; Arazi (in the Arizona desert); and Azeri (in Azerbaijan).
These bits and fragments from the days when Cigar ruled the handicap division are in no way meant to diminish his accomplishments, but more to show how, sometimes, not everybody loves a winner. I did have a hell of a lot of respect for Cigar. Sheet players marveled at this horse who ran nothing but fast figures and never bounced. I remember being on a Belmont return train where a drunken loser was demanding to be told how Andy Beyer could have possibly had a good day at the track when his figures stunk, to which Beyer replied with a sort of beatific air “I really liked Cigar!”
This past week has shown that Andy Beyer has company. A whole lot of people really liked Cigar. The folks at the Kentucky Horse Park, where Cigar spent his last years as the star attraction, will certainly miss him. Those who were lucky enough to see him as he criss-crossed the country in ’95 and ’96 know that they were witness to a special part of racing history. And since Cigar never finished out of the money after Mott put him back on the dirt, it’s a pretty safe bet that all of the bridgejumpers out there will miss him too. Well, except maybe for Assicurazoni Generali S.P.A., who must know better than anyone that Cigar was a one-of-a-kind horse, and that we won’t be seeing the likes of him again.