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Switch to dirt turned Cigar into a monster

Jerry Bailey rides Cigar to victory in the

Jerry Bailey rides Cigar to victory in the Arlington Citation Challenge, in Arlington Heights, Ill. on July 13, 1996. Credit: AP / Jane Gibson

He was the ultimate late bloomer, a royally bred flop on grass who became a world-beater on dirt at ages 5 and 6. Entering the autumn of his 4-year-old season, Cigar was a 2-for-13 underachiever. Two years later, he was an international celebrity whose 16 consecutive victories in top company equaled the feat of the immortal Citation.

Cigar traveled across this country and halfway around the world on a triumphant odyssey that made him America's Horse. Trainer Bill Mott and jockey Jerry Bailey consider their run with Cigar the highlight of their Hall of Fame careers. "He was a very, very charismatic horse," Bailey said. "Everybody knows how fast he was, how dominating he was, and the length of time he dominated."

Cigar, sired by European turf star Palace Music and a maternal grandson of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, died Tuesday in Lexington, Kentucky, at 24 from complications after surgery to relieve osteoarthritis in his neck. The Hall of Famer spent his final 15 years at Lexington's Kentucky Horse Park after being found to be infertile when bred to 34 mares in 1997.

When he completed a 10-for-10 season in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park, race caller Tom Durkin saluted him as "the incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar." Nobody, then or ever since, thought Durkin had gone over the top.

Mott received Cigar from California-based trainer Alex Hassinger Jr. in November 1993. Mott trained him until his retirement on Oct. 26, 1996, later marked by an emotional send-off at Madison Square Garden. "I think in the century he raced in, he was probably in the top 100 horses," Mott said. "Once he started winning, I think we realized he was probably the best around."

Apparently, so did Cigar. In October 1995, Mott said the adulation convinced Cigar he'd become something special, so he began acting the part.

Like Cigar, stardom came relatively late for Bailey, who wasn't an A-list rider until his early 30s. Unlike most jockeys, he wasn't obsessed with horses growing up. It was the competition that drew him to racing.

"I wanted to be a football player, but I was too small," he said. "Being a jockey was a means to an end for me. For the first half of my career, until Cigar, I had like a doctor-patient relationship with the horses. I worked them out in the mornings, I rode them, and I went home.

"There was nothing else -- until Cigar. He made me fall in love with horses."

The 1995 and 1996 Horse of the Year was 19-for-33 and earned $9,999,815 for owner-breeder Allen Paulson. Besides the Dubai World Cup, the Maryland-bred won major stakes at Aqueduct, Belmont, Suffolk Downs, Pimlico, Gulfstream, Arlington, Oaklawn and Hollywood Park.

After going 0-for-4 on turf for Mott, he was switched to dirt out of desperation in October 1994, and an eight-length runaway in an Aqueduct allowance started his streak. Despite hoof problems, he didn't lose until August 1996 in Del Mar's Pacific Classic.

"Cigar was the most talented horse I ever saw," Bailey said. "A lot of guys could have ridden him, but Billy did a phenomenal job of keeping him at that peak for such a long time."

Bailey, an NBC racing analyst, was in Lexington last Saturday and the next day he brought carrots to his old pal. "I'm blessed that I was the one picked to ride him," he said. "I don't know why, but I'm glad I was."

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