reports from New York
Walter Swinburn overslept the morning Shergar won the Derby but he was probably too angry to get his head down last night.
This afternoon "the Choirboy" goes head to head, as they say in these parts, with a man who greatly disparaged his skills at the Breeders' Cup two years ago. Halling takes on Cigar in the Classic, but, more tellingly, Swinburn tries to replace Jerry Bailey's words from whence they came.
Bailey is from JR Ewing country and he appears to have the same knack for making friends. In 1993 he won the Classic on Arcangues (he has won the race for three of the last four years) and then rubbished the riding technique of one of the men he passed, Swinburn on Ezzoud. "He was just kinda flopping around there," he said. This shocked many people including Pat Eddery, who thought it ugly that leading figures from the sport should be criticising each other.
By beautiful coincidence Swinburn may now be able to reply in an event that in great understated American fashion is being billed as the race of the decade. He knows, however, that his work is cut out.
"The American jockeys I've spoken to about Cigar have come up with descriptions like monster and awesome, which he is for sure," he said. "I've seen videos of Cigar but I hope I don't get to see much of him in the race and he'll be looking at Halling instead. It's going to be tough but if any horse can do it, it's Halling."
Swinburn has had no luck in the Classic before, returning from battle with the signs of spray over his features. "I've had a lot of dirt in my face in the Breeders Cup but I'm very happy with Halling," he said. "I've only ridden him twice and every time I've pressed the button I've got an answer. I've been very fortunate to ride some truly great horses and Halling definitely compares with them."
Bailey cannot be all bad. He has contributed purse winnings (and a car once) to the Jockeys' Guild Disabled Fund, yet he has also mastered the art of giving European observers a pain in the gullet. He has been under a television camera light for much of the time here this week, and some have felt that his performance and words have been far too close to the cocky.
It may be though that he has found a horse to back up the bravado. Cigar, for many in the United States, is the real deal (as they say), a horse to be mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat and Seattle Slew.
If he fails today, Bailey will be rigid with disappointment. "I wouldn't take anyone lightly but if Cigar runs like I expect him to run, nobody will beat me," he said. "If they do, it will shock me. He's been training well. I haven't got to the bottom of him yet, but if he gets beat, we will all be at the bottom."
Not least of Cigar's skills has been his ability to see off pretenders in various locations. As his exercise rider, Fonda Albertrani, says "He's just like a businessman with a briefcase getting off a plane, doing his job and then getting back on the plane."
Bailey himself thinks he has the opposition covered. "I haven't seen any new faces to worry about," he said. "We've gone round the country looking for new faces and we've not ducked anybody. We've run against all of the good horses that have wanted to run against us. I'd go anywhere to ride this horse, even the moon and back. Riding him is like getting in a car and having the accelerator stuck."
By the bare means of statistics, Cigar is already one of the great horses. He has won 11 in a row, more than even Secretariat ever achieved, and he is closing in on Citation's unmatched sequence of 16.
Victory here would make him the first major stakes-racing horse to go unbeaten in a year since Spectacular Bid in 1980. "You just don't see that," Bailey said. "Horses today don't last that long. Good horses, even great horses, get beat along the way. But he rises to the occasion."
Eighty horses have been beaten by Cigar along the streak and he now has the aura of a beast that is impossible to beat. Nick Zito, who takes him on with Star Standard, certainly thinks so. "I don't know what's more impossible," he said, "getting Brooke Shields to marry me or beating Cigar."