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Legend that rose out of the dirt

A horse who has taken racing beyond the bounds of the track is poised to create history. Sue Montgomery reports: close-up: Cigar
The search for the qualities that make a superhorse is one that has occupied man for something like three centuries and cost countless millions in any currency, and still no one has come up with an infallible formula. So when one of these paragons does appear, it is perhaps best not to analyse, just enjoy the moments.

Cigar, a horse with the attitude of Steven Redgrave, the neck and shoulders of Donovan Bailey, the stride of Michael Johnson, has provided 16 of them in the past 20 months. The great American galloper, who has his own PR firm, is unbeaten since October 1994, and on Saturday, in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, California, will bid to extend his winning sequence to a 20th-century US record.

That Cigar, a six-year-old entire, has superior athletic ability goes without saying. But he has something else, a mental capacity rarely found in equines. Whether it can be called a will to win is debatable, for horses have little concept of thepiece of wood we call a winning post, but it is certainly a determination, a desire even, not to be passed when the crunch comes.

That quality was never better illustrated than in his epic head-to-head battle with Soul Of The Matter under the floodlights of Nad al Sheba in the Dubai World Cup in March. Cigar had to dig deep thathot night in the desert, and his trainer Bill Mott said: "He had to reach down and use something he had never used before. And when that other horse looked him in the eye, he looked right back and answered all the questions."

Cigar was foaled on 18 April 1990 at his owner-breeder Allen Paulson's Brookside Farm in Kentucky. His sire Palace Music was a smart enough performer, with top-level victories on both sides of the Atlantic, but was not rated as a sire in the United States, and was given a one-way ticket to Australia while his most famous son was still a yearling. Even less was thought of Cigar's dam Solar Slew, who was sold to Argentina after he was weaned. Both his parents, though, owned the genetic potential for excellence - Palace Music is a son of the Derby winner The Minstrel and grandson of Northern Dancer, and Solar Slew a daughter of the American Triple Crown hero Seattle Slew - and their endowment hasclicked with spectacular results.

But greatness has come to Cigar late in life; at the beginning he was just another horse. He did not even run in the Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Preakness Stakes.

He joined Mott's barn in New York early in 1994 as the winner of two of his nine races in California at three. He had just had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, so his return to action was delayed. When it came, he was beaten in his next four runs. Then came the decision that has created a legend. Up to then Cigar, as the son and grandson of horses who made their names running on grass, had been campaigning on that surface. The switch to dirt racing brought instant success, and started the roll. Cigar won by eight lengths on his dirt debut for Mott, and despite niggling injuries has since repelled all-comers.

One who knows him as well as any is Fonda Albertrani. The wife of Mott's former assistant Tom, who was head-hunted by Sheikh Mohammed for his successful Godolphin team last year, Fonda, now based in Newmarket, rode Cigar in his homework for two years, and felt him grow from an edgy, out-of-sorts performer to a consummate professional. "As an individual, he is quiet and reserved," she said. "You hardly know he is around.

"But when he first arrived with us, he was uncomfortable mentally. While he was recovering from the surgery, he just went out jogging each day. At that stage I thought he was a pain in the butt, but I understood his predicament. He was better, and became a lot of fun to ride, once he started full training. But he didn't fully relax until he started on the dirt. When he was running on grass, he didn't seem to put everything into his racing, so didn't get enough out of it. But once he could express himself fully on the track, he came to peace with himself."

Like many great horses, Cigar is judged to have above-average nous about the game and changes when the big moment arrives. "He knows the difference between training and racing, and picks up on the differences in routine in the build-up to a race, and composes himself accordingly,"Fonda Albertrani said. "He's controlled, knows when to fire, but even in training he won't let another horse go by him."

Cigar is by no means a softie - Fonda still bears a small scar on her face, the legacy of a bite - but he has the respect and admiration of all who have worked with him. "He keeps himself to himself," she said, "and asks of nothing. But he gives you everything."

Without wishing to devalue Cigar's achievements, they should be put in perspective. His repertoire, though brilliantly executed, has its limitations; while he beat Europe's best on the Dubai sand he could not do so on their own turf. His wins have been from a mile to a mile and a quarter, all bar one on fast ground; the old American champ Citation, whose 46-year- old mark he equalled three weeks ago at Arlington, scored from 6 to 13 furlongs, on all types of going. And as the roll of honour (indicative of quantity, but not necessarily world-class quality) shows, he is still seven races short of Leviathan's all-time US record, and the length of Route 66 behind Camarero and Kincsem.

But a long winning run in any sphere is a focus of fascination and excitement, and this aloof, dark bay athlete, with his white-flashed forehead, his long sweeping tail and that certain glint in his eyes has achieved something rare in America. Like Red Rum and Desert Orchid didhere, he has taken racing beyond the bounds of the track. Cigar fever has swept the country; any of his races is an instant sell-out, he gets dozens of letters a day, and Paulson has put his rights in the hands of the promotions company CMG Worldwide, who handled names like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart, and another legendary horse, Secretariat.

The willingness of his dream team - Mott, Paulson and the jockey Jerry Bailey - to keep pitching him in there in a sport where so many are paranoid about defeat has set the standard for modern thoroughbreds. For those who fail to approach his feats in future it will be a case of close, but no Cigar.

A brief history of unbeaten runs in racing

56 wins: Camarero, foaled in 1951 in Puerto Rico, where he raced, holds the world record for most successive wins.

54: The Hungarian-bred Kincsem (1874) was unbeaten in four seasons. She travelled by train all over Europe, winning the Goodwood Cup on her only visit to England.

39: Galgo Jr (1928), another Puerto Rican thoroughbred, notched up his wins in the space of a year.

23: Leviathan (1793) holds the record for an American-raced horse. Nine of the grey gelding's wins were in four-mile heats.

21: Meteor (1783), Bond's First Consul (1798) and Lottery (1803). Meteor, a tiny son of Eclipse, holds the British record. Second in the 1786 Derby to Noble, he won 30 of his 33 starts over five seasons.

20: Filch (1773), Fashion (1837) and Kentucky (1861). Filch holds the Irish record.

19: Skiff (1821), Boston (1833), Sweetmeat (1842), The Hero (1843), Desert Gold (1912) and Gloaming (1915). Desert Gold and Gloaming share the New Zealand sequence record.

18: Eclipse (1764), Sally Hope (1822), Light (1856), Hindoo (1878), Ajax (1934) and Karayel (1970). The legendary Eclipse and Karayel, Turkey's best-ever, were both unbeaten. Light holds the French record, Ajax the Australian.

17: Careless (1751), Boston (1833), Harkaway (1834), Beeswing (1835), Alice Hawthorn (1838), Hanover (1884), Dudley (1914), Mainbrace (1947), Sir Ken (1947) and Gradisco (1957).