Remembering the ‘Unconquerable, Invincible, Unbeatable’ Cigar

by | 10.08.2014 | 2:09pm
Cigar, with Jerry Bailey up, wins 1995 Breeders Cup Classic at Belmont Park. (

Thanks for the memories.

I may have seen better horses than Cigar in my racing lifetime, but no horse took me to places like he did or allowed me to experience the range of emotions this game can bring us.

So on the occasion of his death, at the age of 24, allow me to take a little trip down memory lane.

I was in Japan covering the 1994 Japan Cup for Blood-Horse magazine when I first became aware of Cigar.  Bill Mott was also there, saddling eventual male turf champion Paradise Creek for his final career start.

There was no streaming video or even a yet, but I'd gotten an email early on the morning of the Japan Cup that a horse named Cigar, trained by Mott, had won Saturday's Grade 1 NYRA Mile as an 8-1 longshot carrying just 111 pounds. Later that day, after Paradise Creek lost the $4 million Japan Cup by a nose to a Japanese horse named Marvelous Crown, I ran into Mott back at the hotel in Tokyo.

“Close, but no Cigar,” I quipped.

Mott winced at the bad pun. “I think he might be a pretty good horse,” he said.

I would soon learn this quiet South Dakotan and future Hall of Fame trainer was a master of understatement.

Until that day, however, Cigar was just another horse in the powerful stable of Allen and Madeleine Paulson that had produced Breeders' Cup winners like Arazi, Eliza, Opening Verse, and Fraise, and an Eclipse Award as 1993's Outstanding Breeder.

Cigar had won only three of 14 starts, beginning his career on the dirt for trainer Alex Hassinger in Southern California and then switching over to turf for 11 races, including three frustrating losses in New York for Cigar's second trainer, Bill Mott.

Mott with Cigar, 1996 (

Mott with Cigar, 1996 (

Mott, with encouragement from Cigar's exercise rider Fonda Albertrani and Hassinger, decided to try the horse on the dirt again. He ran off to an eight-length victory in an allowance race that would serve as a prep for the NYRA Mile (a race since renamed the Cigar Mile), starting a streak of 16 consecutive wins.

After taking an allowance contest in his 1995 debut at Gulfstream Park as a 5-year-old, Cigar played second fiddle to reigning Horse of the Year Holy Bull in his next start, the G1 Donn Handicap. Holy Bull, the 3-10 favorite, was battling head to head with Cigar down the backstretch when Mike Smith suddenly pulled Holy Bull out of the race with an injury. I was sitting in the grandstand that day with my family, and there was a loud gasp from the crowd and a sick feeling in my stomach that this might be the end for the popular gray champion.

I soon learned the injury was serious enough to end Holy Bull's career but not his life. He was retired but went on to a long and productive career at stud at Jonabell Farm and Darley, where he has been pensioned since 2012.

In analyzing the Donn, I began to wonder if maybe Cigar was the better of the two horses that day, even if Holy Bull hadn't been injured. That's how good he looked to me, drawing off by 5 ½ lengths. It's one of those questions we'll never be able to answer, but it later became clear that the torch was passed from one champion to another on that February afternoon in South Florida.

Cigar kept winning … and winning. He added seven more Grade 1 victories that year before the Breeders' Cup, then shook the grandstand with his unforgettable Breeders' Cup Classic win to the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable” call of Tom Durkin.

Ever the sportsman, Allen Paulson accepted an invitation from Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed to send Cigar halfway around the world for the inaugural Dubai World Cup on March 27, 1996. He prepped for that with his second Donn Handicap win and his 13th straight since Mott made the move from turf to dirt.

I can't describe the emotions I felt that night in Dubai, standing atop the Nad Al Sheba grandstand with my Blood-Horse colleague, Steve Haskin, as we watched Cigar and Jerry Bailey lead a 1-2-3 sweep for America in that first World Cup (Soul of the Matter finished second, with L'Carriere third). I suppose deliriously happy and proud of American horse racing would be my best description.

It's safe to say Cigar made the Dubai World Cup with that performance.

I was fortunate to be at many of Cigar's other landmark races. Huge crowds turned out for him at Suffolk Downs for both of his Massachusetts Handicap victories. Then there was his 16th consecutive win in a specially made race at Arlington Park, the Citation Challenge, on July 13, 1996.

Early that year, Arlington owner Richard Duchossois invited me to tag along with Mott on a flight aboard his private plane from Lexington to Chicago for a pre-season luncheon Duchossois threw for the local media at a fancy Michigan Avenue eatery. Mott was the guest speaker. On the flight back from Chicago, I listened in as Duchossois made his pitch to Mott. Would he consider coming to Arlington if the winning streak remained intact and a special race was put together for the occasion? Mott didn't answer immediately, and I was sworn to secrecy about the event until it was officially announced.

Cigar waits for the start of what would be his 16th straight victory, July 13, 1996

Cigar waits for the start of what would be his 16th straight victory, July 13, 1996

That turned out to be a spectacular afternoon for Arlington and horse racing. More than 34,000 were there to see if Cigar could equal Citation's longstanding record of 16 consecutive wins. Of course, he could, especially given the weak competition that showed up to challenge him.

The fans didn't care. After Cigar waltzed home the easiest of winners, the crowd erupted into a loud ovation that seemed to last forever. And so I thought Cigar's win streak would, too.

But that came crashing down the next month at Del Mar, when the unheralded Dare and Go upset Cigar by 3 1/2 lengths in the G1 Pacific Classic before another huge crowd. This time there was only stunned silence after the horses crossed the finish line. The streak was over.

Cigar bounced back, winning the Woodward by four and then narrowly losing the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic at Woodbine. He was never quite the same horse after that trip to Dubai — at least in my opinion — but he was still very good, even though the time had come to send him off to stud as a soon-to-be 7-year-old. That stallion career never materialized, however, as Cigar was found to be sterile the following year.

There would be one more public appearance for Cigar before going to Kentucky.

Alan Balch, who as marketing executive at Santa Anita Park had helped bring the 1984 Olympic equestrian events to the Southern California track for the Los Angeles Summer Games, had in 1995 moved back to the show horse world where he had previously worked. He was in his first full year as president of the National Horse Show Association when he approached Madeleine Paulson about the possibility of bringing Cigar to the National Horse Show finals for a retirement ceremony. The National Horse Show was returning to Madison Square Garden in New York City that November after a lengthy absence.

She loved the idea, in part because her daughter Dominigue was doing well as a show jumper and Madeleine Paulson had a horse named America I in competition who might be good enough to make the finals. Allen Paulson beamed at the thought of Cigar being on the same stage as the New York Knicks and other sports celebrities. Mott, however, balked at first because of concerns for Cigar's safety. A visit with Balch to the Garden and a close look at the logistics convinced the trainer to give his approval, and plans were set in motion, even before Cigar's win streak was broken at Del Mar.

“It was amazing how cooperative New York was,” recalled Balch, who credited longtime horse show stalwart Sallie Wheeler with contacting the office of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and getting approval for a parade down Seventh Avenue from Times Square to Madison Square Garden.

“When we got everybody together, the police told us, ‘Whatever you want, we can do it,'” said Balch, now the executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers. “Anything we wanted within reason, we were able to do. It was based on promoting the city, welcoming the National Horse Show back to New York. It was a great, great experience of logistics and cooperation. It was mind-boggling.”

The parade included the Budweiser Clydesdales (Wheeler was an heir to the Anheuser-Busch fortune), pipe and drum corps, mounted police and Cigar, poking his head out of the window of a large horse van, his name emblazoned on both sides. People lined both sides of Seventh Avenue, some of whom were curious onlookers and others racing or equestrian fans who had seen the parade heavily promoted in New York media.

When they arrived at sold-out Madison Square Garden, Mott led Cigar onto the floor of the horse show's darkened arena, Jerry Bailey aboard, a spotlight following their every move.

Cigar's long list of accomplishments was read to the crowd. Bailey dismounted and the announcer said, “Now Cigar will be unsaddled for the last time.” There were flowers presented, and a trumpet played Auld Lang Syne while Cigar was circled around in the spotlight one last time. Tears flowed freely.

It was a sendoff the likes of which we'll probably never see again.

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