Racing: Cigar ready to roll on to California

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The Independent Online
Smoking is little short of a criminal offence in the United States these days, but when it comes to Cigar, they are prepared to make an exception. It is not just headline writers who have taken to the horse who has burned and glowed his way through American racing for more than 12 months, and after his record-equalling 16th straight win at Arlington on Saturday, Cigar's public-approval rating has reached a level which any politician would sell their grandmother to achieve.

"The race-track at Arlington, you just couldn't get another person in there," Tim Jones, assistant to Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott, said yesterday. "It was a huge crowd, the sort you get on Kentucky Derby day but other than that is pretty unusual." Not so unusual, though, when Cigar is racing - the 28,000 tickets for his previous race in Massachusetts sold out in two hours.

It will be a similar story at Del Mar on 10 August, when Cigar attempts to claim outright the record for the longest winning streak in the Grade One Pacific Classic. Del Mar is in California, while Cigar is stabled several time-zones away at Belmont Park, New York, but an indifference to travelling is just one of the qualities which make him such an exceptional horse.

"We went out there twice last year, and in all he's won at nine different tracks," Jones said, a total which of course includes Nad Al Sheba in Dubai, where Cigar won the Dubai World Cup, the richest race on Earth. "I really don't know what makes him so special, though of course he's got a lot of heart. We're just really lucky to be around him."

Nothing is taken for granted, but thoughts at Mott's yard are already turning to the autumn of Cigar's six-year-old season. "There's two spots he can go after Del Mar, the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Woodward Stakes, which are both here at Belmont. Last year he won both, though I'm not sure we'd do that again." The ultimate prize remains a second success in the Breeders' Cup Classic, though if and when Cigar arrives at Woodbine in November, he will have little still to prove.

There will be British horses banking some serious air miles in November too, if the efforts of the Victoria Racing Club to attract European runners to the Melbourne Cup prove successful. Celeric, Double Eclipse, Luso and Court Of Honour are those most likely to head south from Britain, while Vintage Crop, winner of the Flemington race in 1993, is expected to travel from Ireland once again.

Yesterday, Les Benton, general manager of the VRC, appealed to the competitive and patriotic instincts of trainers to persuade them to try their luck in the pounds 1.1m race. "I wouldn't like to think the English have not got the bottle to take on the Australians on their own ground," Benton said. "If they think they have the best horses they should bring them over and show us how good they are."