A race horse’s place in history tends to fade in time. New runners come along, records are broken, memories get replaced. Every now and then, though, there is a horse who climbs his way to the top and stays there. Cigar, who died in October at age 24, was one of those horses. Amanda Duckworth knew him for many years. This is her story.I was just returning home from attending the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe when the news reached me that Cigar was gone. He died from complications following surgery for severe osteoarthritis in his neck. I had gone to see my old friend shortly before I left for France, and the fact he needed the surgery was not in question. His hind end was betraying him, but his white-rimmed eye was still proud, his bearing as regal as his failing body would allow.
His death was world-wide news. So was his racing career.
Twenty years ago, Cigar was making headlines for his historic victories while under the tutelage of trainer Bill Mott, and it is not surprising that he was deemed the Racehorse of the Decade for the 1990s. Cigar’s racing accolades are numerous and include winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup. Not to mention, he won those two races while in the midst of a 16-race win streak that lasted from 1994-96.
Before he became Cigar, though, the son of Palace Music—Solar Slew was born at Country Life Farm in Maryland. Cigar’s owner and breeder, the late Allen Paulson, had close ties with the farm, which is owned by the Pons family. Paulson had owned the airplane manufacturer Gulfstream and was an avid aviator. As such, many of his runners— including Cigar—were named after the five-letter-long names given to intersections on aeronautical navigation charts.
Cigar did not have the most notable start to his career. The bay colt did not race as a 2-year-old and was not overly successful racing on the turf as a 3-year-old. When he was 4-years-old, he was transferred into Mott’s barn. Cigar was switched back to dirt and the rest, as they say, is history. His first Grade 1 score came in the 1994 NYRA Mile, which was renamed the Cigar Mile upon his retirement, and it would be almost two years before Cigar tasted defeat again.
“He was a very, very charismatic horse,” said Jerry Bailey, Cigar’s regular jockey. “For the first half of my career, until Cigar, I had like a doctor-patient relationship. I rode the horses. I worked them out in the morning, and I went home. There was nothing else – until Cigar. He made me fall in love with horses.”
In all, Cigar won 15 stakes races, 11 of which were Grade 1s, at eight different tracks, and retired with earnings of $9,999,815. That earnings mark was the highest of any U.S.-based horse, until Curlin, who also won the Classic and the World Cup, came along and bested it in 2008.
“Cigar was used to having his picture taken in the winner’s circle and never lost his ego when it came to looking good for the camera. Ears up, neck crested. That was true, even at the end. In the last photo I took of him, two weeks before his death, his ears are up”
Keep in mind, Cigar’s World Cup is not included in his Grade/Group 1 tally, as it takes time for a race to reach black type status. However, his half-length victory over Soul of the Matter helped give credibility to the race. In 1996, it was worth “only” $4 million. Today, the purse stands at $10 million, making it the richest horse race in the world.
“Cigar remains the standard for greatness among Thoroughbred racehorses of the past quarter-century,” said Alex Waldrop, the president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “He attracted massive crowds from Boston to Los Angeles, including untold numbers of new fans mesmerized by his immense power and unmatched consistency. Not since the Triple Crown years of the 1970s have we seen such a talent.”
When Cigar retired at the end of 1996, he was so popular that he had a retirement ceremony in New York City’s Madison Square Garden during the National Horse Show. He then entered stud at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Kentucky but was unable to a single mare in foal.
Eventually, a $25 million policy was paid by Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali, which took over ownership of the two-time Horse of the Year. In 1999, he was sent to the Kentucky Horse Park to serve as an ambassador in its Hall of Champions.
It was there that his path and mine crossed. While I was getting my degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky, I worked in the Hall of Champions. It is an experience that forever shaped my life. I was simultaneously a groom and a showman, and it was my job to keep the horses happy and healthy while teaching the public how amazing they really were.
Whatever “it” is, Cigar had it in spades. He was handsome, friendly, curious, and kind. The only thing he loved more than the attention from fans was the treats that many of them brought just for him. Cigar never met a mint he didn’t like, and he would lick the stall door in satisfaction whenever he conned one out of a guest.
Cigar was used to having his picture taken in the winner’s circle and never lost his ego when it came to looking good for the camera. Ears up, neck crested. That was true, even at the end. In the last photo I took of him, two weeks before his death, his ears are up.
All of his attributes went a long way in educating an American public, who more often than not equated greatness with winning the Kentucky Derby and nothing else. I was asked often when he won the Derby, and when a guest was told he didn’t, nine times out of 10, they would ask why he was considered great then. With Cigar, it was easy to show that great race horses are more than just one race, and great horses are more than just their race record.CIGAR April 18, 1990-Oct. 7, 2014
Sire: Palace Music
Dam: Solar Slew
Race record: 33: 19-4-5
Owner/Breeder: Allen E. Paulson
Trainer: Bill Mott
Awards: • Horse of the Year and Champion Older Male, 1995 and 1996 • Inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 2002 Notable: His 16 consecutive wins from 1994-96 tied Citation’s record among elite North American Thoroughbreds in non-restricted races.
In some ways, Cigar is responsible for my career. His final race, the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic, was the first that I chose to watch. The fact that so many people desperately wanted him to win, my father included, captured my imagination. The fact that he was still admired and applauded after checking-in third that day captured my heart.
Then, I never could have imagined that someday I would get to take care of the mighty champion. Now, I am still struggling with the fact he left us at the relatively young age of 24. Somehow, he was a horse I thought would magically live forever. I don’t think I am alone in that.
When news broke of Cigar’s death, I received letters and texts and phone calls of sympathy from around the world. What stood out was how many of them included a line that went something like this: “I will never forget the day you let me get my picture taken with Cigar.”
To meet Cigar was to love him.
Cigar’s pedigree was solid but not spectacular. The odds that he would have succeeded in the cutthroat stallion market of Central Kentucky are rather high. He was not precocious and got better as he got older, which is not exactly what American breeders crave.
Instead, he taught millions about the joys of horse racing. The sportsmanship his owner Allen Paulson showed in campaigning him is something we are likely to never see again, and the Hall of Champions may never have a better ambassador than the handsome bay stallion who, in the words of famed race caller Tom Durkin, was best known as “the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar.”
This story was published in Gallop Magazine, Winter 2014.