“Unbeatable” is how many people viewed and described the great Cigar. By the time the seemingly invincible 6-year-old arrived at Del Mar to contest the 1996 Grade 1 Pacific Classic, he had traveled the country – even the world – while winning an unprecedented 16 consecutive races. The previous year, Allen Paulson's Cigar had gone 10-for-10 during a stellar Horse of the Year campaign that culminated with an easy victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which prompted track announcer Tom Durkin to describe him as “the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!”
Cigar was as good as ever in 1996, with a win in the inaugural Dubai World Cup among his biggest achievements. Later that summer, he would win a special event at Arlington Park called the Citation Challenge, a race with a purse of more than $1 million that was designed as the perfect spot for Cigar to equal Citation’s modern-day record of 16 straight victories. When Cigar cruised to victory by 3 ½ lengths, he seemed poised to take sole ownership of the record in his next start, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
The race was expected to be an easy one for Cigar. The Bill Mott trainee would be facing just five rivals – fewer than usual – and he was a perfect 4-for-4 at the Pacific Classic’s 1 ¼-mile distance. Bettors, expecting another romping victory, sent Cigar off as the overwhelming favorite at odds of 1-10.
But there was one factor – a wild card, if you will – that few had anticipated. The California-based trainer Richard Mandella also had his eye on the Pacific Classic, and he would send out a talented two-pronged assault on Del Mar’s biggest race. The better-known of his two runners was Siphon, a Brazilian-bred runner who had won four straight races, including the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in gate-to-wire fashion. Mandella’s other runner was Dare and Go, who had reached the pinnacle of racing 1 ½ years earlier when he had won the Grade 1 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita Park. But in 1996, Dare and Go had won just once from five starts, and that lone victory had come in a minor stakes races five months earlier. When he’d faced Siphon in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Dare and Go could only manage a distant fifth-place finish.
Yet together, Siphon and Dare and Go would race as a team to bring about one of the most legendary upsets in racing history.
With a large crowd of 44,181 watching and waiting for history to be made, Siphon and Cigar got off to quick starts and sprinted to the front. Siphon, flashing his trademark early speed, led by a length as the field came past the stands for the first time, running the opening quarter-mile in :23.01 seconds.
But Cigar was close behind, staying right within range, with jockey Jerry Bailey reportedly intent on keeping Siphon from getting away with an easy lead. Dramatic Gold, a longshot, was also close to the pace, racing just outside of Cigar and putting the heavy favorite in an awkward position. If Cigar tried to settle behind Siphon, Dramatic Gold could shift inward and box Cigar along the rail with nowhere to run. Yet if Cigar tried to hold his position, he would have to run hard and get involved in a fast pace… maybe too fast of a pace.
In the meantime, Dare and Go had settled calmly in fourth place, some four lengths behind the leaders, racing alone with the other two runners much farther back. Dare and Go was saving ground, maintaining a perfect position, with jockey Alex Solis waiting to see how the pace unfolded in front of him.
It could not have unfolded any better. With Cigar keeping the pressure on Siphon, and Dramatic Gold keeping the pressure on Cigar, the second quarter-mile was timed in a rapid :22.95, faster than the first. That produced a testing half-mile in :45.96, and the relentless pace would barely slow down at all down the backstretch as Cigar began to advance, moving closer to Siphon and pushing his front-running rival through three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.29, a sprint-like time rarely seen in 1 ¼-mile route races.
Cigar needed to slow down, needed to take a breather and save something for the long run down the homestretch, but with Siphon still leading there was no choice but to go for broke, seize the initiative, and take the lead. To the roar of the crowd, Cigar made his move, surging past Siphon and assuming command as the field flew around the far turn and approached the homestretch.
But the pace was still fast, so fast that the opening mile was timed in 1:33.66, just 0.46 seconds off the track record. And behind Cigar, closing fast on the outside, sweeping into contention with ground-devouring strides, was Dare and Go.
Just as quickly as Cigar had taken the lead, he found himself in a battle to maintain it – a battle he would ultimately lose. With Cigar’s strides shortening – he was clearly exhausted after sprinting so hard early on – Dare and Go cruised past at the top of the stretch, extending his lead to a length, then two lengths, then three, and finally 3 ½ lengths as he crossed the finish line in 1:59.85 seconds. The few brave bettors who had played him to win were rewarded with a payoff of $81.20 for every $2 bet – Dare and Go had been sent off as the second-longest shot in the race at nearly 40-1.
Even Richard Mandella was surprised by the outcome. “Realistically, I though Siphon had the best chance to beat Cigar, but I thought Dare and Go had a legitimate chance to get a part of it,” Mandella was quoted as saying in the Aug. 11, 1996 edition of the Los Angeles Times. “But I didn’t think Cigar would get beat, honestly.”
Bailey knew that Cigar would be vulnerable about halfway through the race. “Down the backside, Cigar wasn’t full of run like he usually is,” Bailey said in the Aug. 11 edition of the Chicago Tribune. “At Arlington he wasn’t either, but he came on by the time he hit the far turn. Today, he was working very hard when he took the lead.”
Although Cigar’s win streak had come to an end, he would rebound in his next start to win the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes by four lengths en route to a second Horse of the Year title. Dare and Go would never win another race, but that hardly mattered. By beating the unbeatable Cigar when the lights were brightest, Dare and Go secured forever his place in racing history.