Racing: Cigar chases immortality

When he steps on to the track at Del Mar this Saturday, America's superhorse will carry the weight of a nation's expectations. Richard Edmondson profiles a champion chasing his 17th consecutive victory
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Wherever they watch horses, from the pastures of England's sport of kings to the scrub of an Australian bush track, the single quest is always the same. Everyone, just once in their lives, wants to see the superhorse.

There have, of course, been many claimants to this title down the years, many thoroughbreds that have sent voltage through those who have gathered to applaud them. But at Del Mar this Saturday, just north of San Diego on the Gulf of Santa Catalina, racegoers will see possibly the greatest of them all attempt to place himself in the record books.

Cigar, the dark, menacing bay, goes for his 17th straight victory when he lines up in the Pacific Classic, a success that would take him past Citation's 20th-century American streak, and past Ribot's similar run in Europe. If he wins, Cigar will be the first to have his features carved when the Americans get round to creating the equine Mount Rushmore.

The great beauty of Cigar (apart from the obvious one to the eye) is that he has not always been bruised by backslappers. His sire was Palace Music, who won the Champion Stakes at Newmarket in 1984, and, with this lineage, Cigar was expected to race on turf. This he did initially, with a conspicuous lack of success.

Bred in Maryland and sent to race in California, he won just one of his first 13 races for Alex Hessinger and then had to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his knees. His recuperation was spent on the other coast with a new trainer, at Bill Mott's winter barn in Florida. "He came with a good reputation and we thought a lot of the horse by watching his work," said Tom Albertrani, Mott's assistant at the time and now an influential figure in Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation. "But we were a bit disappointed with his performances because while he always worked well on the dirt, he wasn't carrying it through on turf."

A series of disappointments later, the men behind Cigar began to suspect this might be a Thomas Muster of a horse, an athlete who gave two very different performances on turf and dirt. Cigar seemed to be only half doing the job, like a cat plopping a twitching bird triumphantly on the kitchen lino. "We noticed after four races on grass that he was coming back in too full of himself," Albertrani said. "The races never took anything out of him and we knew we weren't getting all the potential from him in his races."

The decision was made to try Cigar on dirt in an allowance race at Aqueduct, New York, on 28 October 1994, a date that has become rather significant with the passage of time. It was a day the clockers thought their timepieces had been affected by atmospheric interference. "The difference was incredible the first time we put him on the dirt," Albertrani said. "He set down some blazing fractions at Aqueduct and the horse showed just how good he was. But we had to try him again to make sure it wasn't a one-time deal. But again, he cruised the whole way in the NYRA Mile, which is a Grade One." From that moment, grass became the sort of dirty word in the Cigar camp that it is in the underworld.

Since that beginning it has been a 16-time deal, with the horse racing all over America and, in March, at the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race. No other beast has matched Cigar's successful coverage of the atlas but, despite this, he is a relative unknown in Britain and he will certainly never race here. All these islands hold in terms of all- weather tracks are Wolverhampton, Lingfield and Southwell, and asking him to appear there would be like expecting the Queen to run a kebab stall on a Friday night.

What has characterised Cigar throughout these times, and he is now six, is "the look". His wide eye stares threateningly, both into the crowd before races and at any horse that has the temerity to range into view. It is the sort of road rage expression that leads receivers to wind up the windows and lock the doors.

Connections, however, will tell you the horse is a pussycat at home. When Cigar is not travelling (which is not very often) his residence is Barn 25 at Belmont Park in New York, where enthusiasts used to visit before Bill Mott decided the queues were getting too long. Cigar, nevertheless, still gets about 10 letters a day and his fame is such he has his own PR firm, CMG Worldwide, which also handled James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart.

Mott is unique in that he trains Cigar and calls reporters "buddy". There is no need for that kind of thing in Britain. He may be 43, but the trainer looks nearer preppy age and, with his spectacles, neat look and quiet manner, it does not take a wild leap to imagine him sitting by a pile of books in a college library. Mott first trained horses with money he earned raising cattle and pigs and was initially in the winners' circle aged 15, when a $320 mare called My Assets won. They have not seen much of him at the market since.

Cigar's owner, Allen Paulson, is another who could lend his life quite cosily to the American Dream. The small-town Iowa boy was formerly a flight engineer for Trans World Airlines but is now the head of an aerospace empire. Paulson holds global air-speed records, plays golf and gin rummy, and can be seen at one end of dog leads with his snow-white standard poodles Frosty and Lucky at the other. He is 74 and does not waste his time on false modesty. When his horses run, it is in a striking red, white and blue livery dominated by a huge monogram of his name. The names of Paulson's horses invariably represent aeronautical checkpoints and Cigar is no different. In that respect, at least.

The third man is the Texas-born jockey Jerry Bailey, who will be 39 later this month. He has handled Cigar expertly, but during press conferences he does not get thanked for piloting the horse. Rather, he expresses gratitude to connections for letting him ride.

The most memorable moments for Team Cigar have probably been the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont last October and the Dubai World Cup, in which he had the recent King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner, Pentire, among the stragglers.

In the Breeders' Cup, the horse paraded his talents, under dark skies, on the biggest day in world racing, while at Nad al Sheba, on an unusually cloudy Arabian night in March, he lent some justification to the crown of world champion. Burt Bacharach's Soul of the Matter came alongside that memorable evening in the Emirates. He got the look.

At Del Mar on Saturday, there will be more eyeballing from an increasingly cocky horse. "Every time he wins he gets so much confidence in himself," Albertrani said. "I'm sure a horse of his calibre certainly feels proud of himself and his confidence level gets boosted after his accomplishments."

Mott reports that his horse has been working well in the build-up to the Pacific Classic, and Del Mar may in future be known more for a horse that is a smoking item than for the crooner who formerly used one, Bing Crosby, the course's first president.

After this race, Cigar will contest either the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park or the Jockey Club Gold Cup at the same track. Neither are for peanuts. Indeed, these targets will give Cigar an opportunity to add to his $8.8m prize money total. Only Narita Brian has collected more, and he earned his in Japan, where they just about give a horse pounds 1m if it finishes its breakfast.

Cigar has earned so much because of brilliance allied with longevity. It is sobering for those who are fed European principles that the horse only started showing his great ability when he was a four-year-old. In Britain, good horses of that age are at stud and there are others that are being prepared for a career over obstacles. Cigar could have ended up at Cheltenham, in the Triumph Hurdle, had he run within these shores.

As it is, we can look forward to both this weekend and Toronto in the autumn, when Cigar will attempt to become the first horse to win consecutive Breeders' Cup Classics in his last race. The course at Woodbine is 10 miles north-west of Toronto's city centre, with weeping willows in the paddock and a general greenery which lends a European flavour. It lies close to the airport runway and seldom before has there been a promise of a horse who could follow the shadows so closely.

When he has raced his last, Cigar will be used as a stallion, and if he remains in the United States it is likely to be in the surroundings of Paulson's 1,600-acre Brookside Farm stud near Versailles, Kentucky. He will take with him a skip-load of memories.

"I don't know how you compare with the past, but this horse has beaten the best of whoever has been around," Mott said. "Horses like Citation have done similar things before and it would be difficult to say Cigar does not belong with them. He's a horse who has gone everywhere, run on different racetracks, and I can't tell you how many stakes winners he's beaten.

"It's all been pretty special and we've tried to enjoy it. I don't think I'll get another Cigar again, and I don't think many other people will, for that matter."