AMERICA'S $75,000 VALENTINE

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
A horse called Cigar went like smoke through his racing career and became an American sporting legend. Now, in his new role as a stallion, the slow burn begins. At his peak as an athlete, the big dark bay thoroughbred was simply the best, but he will find retirement to stud a whole new ball game, if you'll pardon the expression.

Cigar, who notched up 19 wins and earned more than pounds 6 million in prize money for his owner Allen Paulson, has swapped the frenzy and adulation of the racetrack for the more tranquil setting of Ashford Farm in the Kentucky bluegrass country, the heart of the bloodstock breeding industry in the States. In the future, Cigar's fleetness of foot will matter not one jot; it will be by the qualities of his offspring that he will be judged. And the first of them will not be running until the year 2000.

This week, though, marks the start of the creation of that new generation. The thoroughbred mating season officially opens on 15 February, but despite the date's proximity to Valentine's Day, there are few hearts and flowers involved.

Cigar may be an equine heart-throb, but there is little room for sentiment in what is a multi-million-dollar business. The actual sex act - or "covering" - will be conducted under strict conditions, and stallions like Cigar are too valuable even to be allowed to do their own courting. His initial overtures to a mate will be delivered by a lesser horse known as a "teaser", whose thankless task it is to establish a mare's readiness - and risk her kicks of rejection - before leaving the stage to the superstar.

Cigar, now owned by a partnership of investors at Ashford, the Kentucky arm of the mighty Irish-based Cool-more breeding empire, has 75 blue-blooded mares lined up, whose owners will stump up a fee of $75,000 each on production of a live, suckling foal. Even a runner of Cigar's calibre, though, is statistically more likely to fail than succeed in his new job as progenitor; only time will tell whether the little cigarillos who arrive next spring will take after their sire.

The search for the mix that creates a champion is one that has occupied those in the horse-breeding business for close on three centuries, but no one has yet come up with a foolproof formula. Cigar himself is a living example; his sire, Palace Music, was a high-class runner, but was judged a failure as a stallion in the States and given a one-way ticket to Australia while his only famous son was just a year old. Even less was thought of Cigar's mother Solar Slew, who was sold to Argentina after he was weaned. Both his parents, though, owned the potential for excellence in their bloodlines and their genetic endowment clicked in his case with spectacular results.

Whatever the quality of Cigar's offspring, there are three years in which to dream before any illusions may be shattered - as well as in which to market Cigar's exceptional career. The form book records that he was unbeaten between October 1994 and July 1996, a 16-run sequence that equalled the 20th-century US record of another legendary galloper, Citation.

But Cigar had more than a fluid, ground-devouring stride. In competition he owned a mental capacity rarely found in equines. Whether it could be called a will to win is debatable, for horses have little concept of the arbitrary piece of wood we call a winning post, but it was certainly a determination - a desire even - not to be passed when the crunch came.

That quality was never better illustrated than in his epic head-to- head battle with Soul of the Matter in the Dubai World Cup last March. Cigar, accustomed to having things his own way, had to dig deep that hot night in the desert as he looked his rival in the eye and came up with the answers.

Ultimately, America's superhorse was beaten, but not before there was a nationwide outbreak of Cigarmania as he racked up the miles and delivered the performances. His fans now make the pilgrimage to Ashford to pay homage to their hero, who still accepts it all as his due; even in repose, Cigar still has that glint, the aloof, distant expression that horsemen call "the look of eagles". !

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