The Incomparable Cigar: A Trainer’s Ability to Create a Champion Athlete

Cigar wins the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic to complete a perfect 10-for-10 season. (Blood-Horse Library/Skip Dickstein)

Few sports fans ever have the privilege of watching a world-class trainer cultivate a champion athlete—and even fewer fans have the opportunity to witness the development of an elite animal athlete. The transformation of Cigar from a horse that showed modest turf ability to one that developed into a legend on dirt illustrates how critical a trainer’s role can be in our sport. 

The transformation of Cigar from a horse that showed modest turf ability to one that developed into a legend on dirt illustrates how critical a trainer’s role can be.

The son of Palace Music went unraced at 2 before winning two of nine starts the following season for his first trainer, Alex Hassinger Jr. He finished his 3-year-old campaign with earnings of $89,175 but was unable to win in stakes competition.

At that point, owner and breeder Allen Paulson made the decision that changed everything. He shipped Cigar from the West Coast to the East, so he could be overseen by Bill Mott, a Hall of Fame trainer.

Mott, always one to take his time, did not return Cigar to competition until July. After a pair of third-place finishes on turf, Mott shifted Cigar to dirt. The result was an eight-length romp in a one mile allowance race at Aqueduct on Oct. 28, 1994.

The lopsided victory triggered a 16-race winning streak that allowed Cigar to succeed at various distances and match Citation for the longest such streak by a major American horse. Citation swept 16 in a row from 1948-50.

Jerry Bailey, Cigar’s regular rider, gives Mott much of the credit for that accomplishment. “My belief is that Cigar was a true, natural miler, one of the best I’ve ever been on. He reminded me of a Seattle Slew type,” Bailey said. “In Mott’s hands, he was able to stretch out to a mile and a quarter. We had to coax it out of him. Sometimes it was easier than others to coax Cigar.”

Cigar wins the 1995 Jockey Club Gold Cup. (Blood-Horse Library/Skip Dickstein)

Most fans would say that Cigar’s signature triumph occurred in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park. It capped an unforgettable 10-for-10 campaign that earned $4,819,800 and led him to be honored as Horse of the Year and champion older male.

It was almost as if Cigar understood the magnitude of the Classic because he could not wait to get to the lead. He pulled on Bailey while the rider fought to maintain a tight hold, mindful of the mile-and-a-quarter distance.

“I thought the whip was going to fall out of my hands,” Bailey sad. “In that particular race, the only reason I let him go when I did was I had no more feeling in my hands. My fingers were numb from him pulling on the reins.”

Cigar roared home in a stakes record time of 1:59.58, accompanied by a race call from Tom Durkin that will be remembered through the ages. Durkin exclaimed as Cigar powered toward the wire: “And here he is, the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!”

As gallantly as Cigar fought that afternoon, Bailey saw a very different animal when he brought his son, Justin, to the barn the following morning. Cigar put his head down and nuzzled the 3-year-old.

“He was a very charismatic and cool horse to be around,” Bailey said. “Other than race day, Cigar was soft and gentle, as warm and fuzzy as you could want.”

Cigar began 1996 with a 12-race winning streak that quickly turned to 13 when he prepped for the inaugural Dubai World Cup with a repeat victory in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in Florida. There was enormous uncertainty surrounding the World Cup, for the reigning Horse of the Year was battling foot problems and he would have to withstand a journey to a land half a world away.

Bailey’s fears eased once Cigar engaged Soul of the Matter, his primary rival. “I think he beat a lot of horses before he ever drew away from them with the way he cruised up to other horses and eyeballed them,” the rider said. “Cigar was covering the same ground with a lot more ease. I think inherently the other horse knew he could not keep up.”

Soul of the Matter could not, and the soft-spoken Mott watched contentedly as Cigar dug deep to earn his 14th consecutive triumph on an international stage. Two more victories, in the Massachusetts Handicap and in the Arlington Citation Challenge, the latter created by Arlington Park to fit the occasion, allowed Cigar to equal Citation’s mark.

That set the stage for the Pacific Classic at Del Mar near San Diego. After having things break Cigar’s way so often, nothing went right for him in the Pacific Classic. Cigar and Bailey were caught up in a sizzling speed duel with Siphon and Dramatic Gold, prompting them to go the first three-quarters of a mile in a crackling 1:09 1/5 seconds. It was ruinous for all three as long shot Dare and Go, patiently ridden by Alex Solis, swept by for the upset. Cigar was second.

He would overcome the inauspicious start to his career to win 19 times in 33 races and finish with earnings of $9,999,813. The moment Bailey remembers most, though, is his visit to Cigar in the test barn after the Pacific Classic. It had become his habit to reward him after each race with a peppermint.

Cigar, proud champion that he was, refused the peppermint.

Note: This story was originally published in November 2016 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Cigar was not named for a tobacco product but a navigational checkpoint.
  • His dam, Solar Slew, was by 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
  • According to Paulson family lore, Madeleine Paulson was the original owner of Cigar but traded him to her husband, Allen, for Eliza, the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner.
  • The New York Racing Association renamed their fall feature the Cigar Mile in 1997. Previously the NYRA Mile, the 1994 race was Cigar's first graded stakes win.
  • BloodHorse magazine ranked Cigar 18th among the top 100 Thoroughbreds of the 20th Century.
  • Cigar, who proved to be infertile, lived at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions in Lexington, Ky. in retirement until his death in 2014.

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