Racing: Warhorse primed for his final battle

Richard Edmondson in Toronto hails Cigar, who runs his last race tonight in the Classic
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The Independent Online
If Cigar wins his final start in the Breeders' Cup Classic here at Woodbine today, he will take his career earnings to a world record $11,599,815 (pounds 7.4m). The warrior has rewarded connections gloriously, but enriched nobody more than those who like to see equine history living and breathing on four legs.

Cigar is already one of the truly great horses, an animal whose achievements will for ages spill out of the mouths of those fortunate enough to have seen him go to war. And Cigar does go to war. He visibly hates both the opposition and the thought of being vanquished. When he suffered a rare defeat at Del Mar in August, for weeks afterwards he refused to take the boiled peppermints that are his delicacy. The six-year-old felt he had to suffer a penance.

Yonge (pronounced Young) Street is not only the main artery here in Toronto, but is also, according to the locals, the longest street in the world (they like being the biggest in anything in North America). The almost permanent inhabitants are pimps, hookers, and blasphemous street people, and in the bordering bars this week the almost permanent talk has been of the Breeders' Cup and Cigar. He's that sort of horse - an animal that is a conduit into the greater sport.

Bill Mott and his team are shepherding not so much a horse as a reputation these days, and they are sharply aware of how a horse's last race can put a spin on its entire career. They want an elongated drum roll and a huge crash of cymbals to announce Cigar's final efforts. "I want to win it absolutely, it's very important," the trainer said. "I'm not saying it's okay if he gets beat because he's done enough in his career. He has, but since we've made the decision to run him in the Classic, we're here to win, we're not here to watch him get beat.''

The portents are that he will not succumb. Cigar is a different animal from the tired bag of bones that returned from defeat at Del Mar and he appears to have enjoyed his revolutions of Woodbine beneath his exercise rider, Gerard Guenther. The body language has also pleased Mott. "I can tell he likes it here by the way he swings his rear end when he's on the way home," he said, "he was prancing, he liked the air, liked everything about the place."

Nevertheless, the big horse now looks vulnerable after defeats on either American coast. Mott, however, considers a mathematical equation to put the hero's feats into perspective. "I don't think of him losing two of his last three, I ponder about winning 17 of his last 19,'' the trainer added. "He doesn't have to prove anything because he's withstood the test of time. The question is has he got one more big one in him, and to me he's every bit as good as he was last year approaching this same race. I don't see anything I don't like."

By his deeds alone Cigar has made Jerry Bailey a very rich man, but the jockey who has marshalled the horse with no little skill sees his collaborator as more than his meal ticket. He likes him and his career will be diminished when it is time for Cigar to go.

"I'm sad to see this all winding down," he said after partnering the bay in his final serious preparation. "It was emotional going out there today, knowing it might be his last work.

"Cigar has run so many great races that you start taking him for granted, you assume he's going to run the same way every time, but he has a lot of miles on him and every horse only has so many races in him. There are things a jockey can do to help a horse and now is the time for me to help Cigar. He's carried me all this time."

It is apposite that Cigar's career ends here as Woodbine was also the terminus for another great horse, Northern Dancer. His blood is still sloshing around in many of today's supreme animals, including Cigar himself, who is a great grandson.

Northern Dancer was foaled near here at Eddie Taylor's Windfields Farm at Oshawa, and was so insignificant and puny as a youngster that he failed to attract any bids at auction. This was no reliable precursor, however, as the little colt went on to capture two legs of the American Triple Crown before becoming the most potent lothario the breeding sheds have ever contained. In January of 1985 a nomination to the then 24-year-old stallion for a single sexual delivery went for $1m. We have him to thank, in part at least, for Cigar.

Northern Dancer bowed out after bowing a tendon here in the Queen's Plate, and is just one of the celebrated figures to have graced Woodbine's rich turf. When the ghosts come out to play on the big oval, they are also transported by the likes of the Big Red himself, Secretariat, Dahlia and Snow Knight, the only Derby winner to develop into a telling force in North America.

To that list we now have to add Cigar. For the last time, the six-year- old will be led to battle, from Woodbine stall 14, growl his way around the weeping willows of the paddock, and then take his macho shape out for the final conflict. It will pay those who witness this display to savour it because Cigar, like the other horses already in the pantheon, will be truly appreciated only after he has gone.