Recalling the years 1994 to 1996 in North American horse racing will always bring to mind memories of one of the most popular Thoroughbreds in the sport’s history, who captivated fans with a 16-race winning streak that all started with a surface switch.
1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic
Allen Paulson’s Cigar had won his second of two starts on dirt before he was pointed to turf races for the rest of his 3-year-old season and into his 4-year-old campaign in 1994. He made 11 straight starts on grass, winning once, before trainer Bill Mott moved him back to dirt at Aqueduct in October, where he promptly won by eight lengths under Jerry Bailey. In his next start, he romped in the Grade 1 NYRA Mile (now the Cigar Mile) by seven lengths, and the streak was on.
In 1995, Cigar made 10 starts and won all of them, with his closest margin of victory coming by one length. Seven of those wins were in Grade 1 stakes, the last of them coming in the 12th Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park. Tom Durkin’s race call of the ’95 Classic still sends a chill up the spine, proclaiming Cigar “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable!” as he crossed the finish line 2 ½ lengths ahead of L’Carriere.
Cigar continued the winning streak through summer 1996, including the inaugural Dubai World Cup. By the time he shipped to California for the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, Cigar stood tied with the legendary 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation at 16 victories, at the time the longest winning streak among major North American racehorses, and still appeared every bit worthy of Durkin’s Breeders’ Cup praise. In one of the greatest upsets of the modern era, Dare and Go shocked the racing world with a 2 ¾-length win over 1-10 favorite Cigar in the Pacific Classic. The 1995 Horse of the Year came right back with a dominant win in the Woodward Stakes and then lost Jockey Club Gold Cup by a head to Skip Away, but Cigar still towered over the Breeders’ Cup Classic field as the 13th World Championships commenced in November, held for the first time north of the border at Woodbine in Toronto.
Flying under the Breeders’ Cup Classic radar was longshot Alphabet Soup, a Pennsylvania-bred, California-based multiple graded stakes winner owned by Georgia Ridder and trained by David Hofmans. Alphabet Soup had been disqualified from first in his start prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Grade 2 Goodwood Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, after he drifted in soon after the start and affected both runner-up Savino and third-place Dare and Go. That, and the number 12 post position in a field of 13, made the flashy gray or roan son of Cozzene a 19.85-1 afterthought as the Classic gates opened … but the same could have been said about every other horse besides 0.65-1 favorite Cigar.
Paulson’s superstar drew post-position 7 and Bailey, who had been aboard Cigar in every race since his streak began back at Aqueduct, positioned his mount in midpack behind Atticus’ pace as the field passed through the homestretch for the first time and through the first turn. Midway through the backstretch, Bailey moved Cigar up a bit, on the outside of Alphabet Soup and Chris McCarron in sixth. To maintain his stalking position, Cigar stayed wide through the backstretch and into the far turn as Atticus led the way through the opening mile, followed by 101.10-1 local horse Mt. Sassafras, Preakness Stakes winner Louis Quatorze, Cigar, and Alphabet Soup.
The real racing began at the top of the lane, and Cigar remained five wide as Atticus finally gave way and Mt. Sassafras briefly took a lead in his bid for a staggering upset. Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze were both right there, however, and they joined Mt. Sassafrass and Cigar in a four-horse stretch battle that was not settled until a photo determined the final order: Alphabet Soup had edged Louis Quatorze by a nose, with Cigar a head back in third and Mt. Sassafras a half-length behind in fourth.
Alphabet Soup’s nose margin over Louis Quatorze was the second in Breeders’ Cup Classic history following Ferdinand’s win over Alysheba in 1987. The wide trip did Cigar no favors considering how close the finish was, but he did not have his customary acceleration through the homestretch, and after the race Paulson remarked to BloodHorse, “I guess he’s trying to tell us something. I guess maybe it’s time to go home.”
His racing days over, Cigar was celebrated several days later at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, and would be voted Horse of the Year once again for 1996. After he proved infertile at stud, Cigar was sent to the Kentucky Horse Park where he resided as one of – if not the – main attractions until his death in 2014. Alphabet Soup, meanwhile, made only one more start, a second-place finish in the 1997 Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap, before commencing his own stud career. He now resides at Old Friends in Central Kentucky, a main attraction himself.