It was an unusual notion. A championship horse race, the richest ever run, held at a huge track called Nad Al Sheba in the deserts of Dubai. They called it the Dubai World Cup, and with an unprecedented purse value of $4 million, it was the event everyone was talking about at the start of the 1996 racing season.
The race would attract starters from around the globe, but its conditions –1 ¼ miles over a sandy track – would be most favorable to horses based in North America, where 1 ¼ miles on dirt has long been the classic test for champions. And in a horse named Cigar, America had a heavyweight champion worthy of tackling such an extraordinary race.
A 6-year-old son of Palace Music owned and bred by Allen Paulson, Cigar had seemingly run out of challenges stateside. Going back to October 1994, he’d won a staggering 13 consecutive races without ever being seriously challenged. In 1995 alone, he’d gone 10-for-10 with eight Grade 1 victories, a streak that culminated with an effortless triumph in the 1 ¼-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic. Already, Cigar was being hailed as one of the most talented horses seen in years.
Having conquered America, Cigar’s connections set their sights on conquering the world by way of Dubai, but the task would be difficult even for a recognized superstar. Cigar successfully kicked off 1996 with a victory in the Feb. 10 Grade 1 Donn Handicap, but from there, best-laid plans began to unravel. Less than two weeks later, the seemingly invincible Cigar was lame with a foot bruise.
The injury threw Cigar’s preparations for the Dubai World Cup into shambles. A planned run in the March 2 Santa Anita Handicap was scrapped as trainer Bill Mott and his team worked to drain an abscess, soak Cigar’s sore hoof, and reevaluate their plans. No one knew how long Cigar would be out of training; “It could be two days, it could be two weeks, it could be two months,” Mott told writer Dave Joseph in the Feb. 23 edition of Fort Lauderdale’s South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Ultimately, Cigar missed 11 days of training, returning to the track in early March. The Dubai World Cup, scheduled for March 27, was still the target, but less than four weeks remained to bring Cigar back into racing shape, ship him halfway around the world, and prepare him for the most challenging race of his life.
And these were just some of the obstacles facing Cigar. Waiting for him in Dubai was a top-class field of rivals worthy of the richest horse race in history. There was Lively Mount, a three-time group stakes winner from Japan. There was Fine Needle, a British runner with three runner-up efforts in Group 1 company under his belt. Pentire was a Group 1 winner, having prevailed in the Champion Stakes in Ireland the previous year, and Danewin – the Australian hopeful – had won no less than five Group 1 events in his native country. Halling, Torrential, Tamayez, and Larrocha – the first two high-class Group 1 winners – would line up on behalf of the host nation.
But two of Cigar’s stiffest challenges figured to come from fellow Americans. L’Carriere, runner-up behind Cigar in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Soul of the Matter, fourth in that same race, would be seeking a rematch with Cigar in the Dubai World Cup. Unlike the favorite, L’Carriere and Soul of the Matter had been able to train as expected for the big race, so the door was open for one or the other to turn the tables on Cigar.
At the post position draw, Cigar was assigned the eighth spot in the gate, and Bill Mott expressed confidence that his star runner was ready to roll. “There’s nothing about the foot that bothers him anymore,” Mott told writer Bill Finley in the March 25 edition of the New York Daily News. As for the tiring trip to Dubai, Mott was not overly concerned about its effect on Cigar. “His appetite is less than what I’d like to see, but that’s not unusual with the time change. He’s eating a little more every day.”
Finally, the day of the great race arrived. But to call it a “day” isn’t quite accurate, for the Dubai World Cup was to be held at night under the floodlights, yet another new experience for Cigar. And after competing with Lasix in eleven consecutive starts, Cigar would have to go without his typical raceday medication due to the rules of racing in Dubai.
All these factors together were testing enough, but then the starting gates opened and Cigar faced yet another obstacle – a stumble at the start. “His rear end sort of came out from behind him,” jockey Jerry Bailey explained in the March 28, 1996 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He didn’t handle the track very well…”
Cigar’s troubled start left him off the pace early on in fifth place, racing wide and in between horses while Lively Mount and L’Carriere vied for the early lead. Bailey was content to maintain that position as the field traveled down the long backstretch with a gentle left-handed turn, but as they rounded the much tighter final turn, Bailey asked the champion to advance and Cigar responded with a sweeping bid that carried him to even terms with the leaders.
But the lengthy homestretch – measuring three-eighths of a mile – still remained. Had Cigar made his move too soon? Under urging from Bailey, Cigar strode past L’Carriere to take the lead, but then Soul of the Matter burst onto the scene, rallying with ground-gobbling strides on the far outside. With fully a quarter-mile left to run, Soul of the Matter appeared to have the necessary momentum to roll past Cigar and spring a huge upset.
As the crowd roared in anticipation, Cigar accepted the challenge. Like a champion, he dug deep, and found something more. Sheer brilliance and talent had carried Cigar to his previous thirteen straight victories, but this time, he would showcase a different strength – his courage and determination.
Soul of the Matter reached Cigar’s flank, then inched closer and closer. Maybe he even put his nose in front. But if he did, it was only for a brief moment before Cigar turned him away. Inch by inch, foot by foot, Cigar reclaimed a narrow advantage, grinding clear in the final sixteenth of a mile. During the preceding five weeks, he had faced an unprecedented string of challenges and obstacles that would have discouraged and defeated a lesser horse. But Cigar, gallant to the finish line, shrugged them all off and pulled away late to preserve victory by a half a length. Bailey, showing confidence in the final strides, merely hand-rode Cigar to the wire. “Nobody was going by me, even if we went around again,” he said in the Courier-Journal.
It was a tremendous race, with Cigar and Soul of the Matter pulling eight lengths clear of L’Carriere, who held off Pentire to give the United States a sweep of the top three finishing positions. But all eyes were on the winner.
“It was the most he had ever been challenged in the stretch,” trainer Bill Mott marveled in the Courier-Journal. “We had often wondered what would happen if a horse looked him in the eye. He showed that he was a true champion tonight. This just proves how good he is.”
Cigar had overcome a foot bruise, missed training, a long journey to unfamiliar track, racing at night, running without medication, a stumbling start, and a wide trip to win the richest horse race in history, and by defeating such a high-class field of international challengers, it was clear that Cigar had stamped himself as a legend in his own time; the greatest horse in training anywhere in the world. It was Cigar who put the Dubai World Cup on the map, and more than twenty years later, his legendary performance still stands as a testament to his greatness.