On March 27, 1996, Cigar added to his growing credentials by winning the inaugural Dubai World Cup at Nad al Sheba Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates. The victory was the 14th in his famous 16-race win streak, and part of a career that included two Horse of the Year titles and a 2002 induction into the Hall of Fame. After proving sterile as a stallion, the fan favorite was a popular attraction at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington for his remaining years until his passing in 2014. The story of his life and those around him is eloquently detailed in Jay Hovdey's Cigar: America's Horse, which includes more than a mention of Alex Hassinger, who was instrumental in the initial portion of his career.
Although perhaps best known as the legendary Cigar's original conditioner, Hassinger enjoyed a relatively brief but overwhelmingly productive career, the likes of which others only dream about.
Hassinger has vivid memories of getting to know Cigar when he arrived at Allen Paulson's Brookside Farm in California as a newly minted 2-year-old. Hassinger's role was preparing young horses and readying sidelined older runners for Paulson's racetrack trainers. He ran horses under his name and also prepared horses to go to trainers such as Bill Mott, Ron McAnnally, and Bill Shoemaker.
Cigar caught Hassinger's attention early on in part for sentimental reasons. While working his initial racetrack job as a groom for Charlie Whittingham, Hassinger took care of his sire Palace Music.
“Cigar was the kind of horse that did everything you asked,” Hassinger said. “He was friendly and easy to be around. He was a horse with a personality who was looking to talk to somebody. He had a beautiful shoulder, head and neck and beautiful eyes. One of the grooms gave him root beer every morning. I was always impressed with how he walked and how he looked. He swaggered; he had a great look.”
He won at second asking on May 9, 1993 at Hollywood Park on the dirt for Hassinger, who keeps the win picture in his home office in New Braunfels, Texas. Because of his turf-style pedigree and minor soundness problems, Cigar made his next seven starts on grass, where he chalked up another win that season.
“I am known as 'the guy who ran Cigar on the turf' but there was a method to the madness,” Hassinger said.
Cigar went to the sidelines after finishing 11th in the 1993 Hollywood Derby (Grade 1) in his final start for Hassinger. Considered a top prospect for the East Coast, he joined other Paulson-owned horses with Mott for whom he went winless in his first four turf starts. He returned to dirt on October 28, 1994 at Aqueduct with the first of his 16 consecutive victories.
Hassinger continued his association with Paulson—for whom he had won the 1992 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) with Eliza—even after relocating to Kentucky to accept additional clients. They parted ways when he accepted a private position with The Thoroughbred Corp., which led him to victory in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) with Anees. After Anees finished unplaced in the 2000 Kentucky Derby (G1), Hassinger worked as an assistant to Laura DeSourex when she had Azeri for the Paulson family. He then was a key member of Godolphin Racing under Eoin Harty and began selling LubriSyn part time. As sales increased, he turned his full attention to the business around 2005 and is now Vice President of Business Development for the company.
Gateway was Gaines
Hassinger grew up in New Jersey, where he excelled on the show jumping circuit and competed all the way through high school. His gateway to the Thoroughbred world was his uncle, the visionary John R. Gaines, who is renowned as founder of the Breeders' Cup and for his Gainesway breeding operation in Lexington. Hassinger started working for Gainesway on the farm and at the auctions as a teenager and worked in the stallion division for two years after graduating from Lexington's Transylvania University. From there he launched his racetrack career at Whittingham's barn.
These days, Hassinger spends much of the year promoting LubriSyn at trade shows, tracks on major racing days and competitions including the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas. He married his wife Anne, a fellow racing enthusiast in 2001, and the couple often hit the road together.
“Being around the horses is the biggest thing I miss about the track,” he said. “I loved being in the barn all day, especially the quiet times when nothing was going on. I liked watching the horses—seeing how they ate, how they rested.”
Hassinger treasures his star-studded track memories, trophies and pictures but has no regrets with changing careers.
“I won two Breeders' Cup races, ran horses in all three Triple Crown races and traveled the world with The Thoroughbred Corp. and Godolphin Racing,” he said. “I kind of did it all. If I hadn't done all that, maybe I would still be chasing that dream at the racetrack.”
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