The only thing dumber than wagering against Cigar in last Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park was betting against Notre Dame on the week the pope visited the U.S. This is a remarkable horse, and the only excuse for not having known that weeks ago is that you've been sequestered in a hotel room somewhere. On a bleak, blustery afternoon, with the air full of smoke—or was that just fog?—Cigar pushed his winning streak to 11 by romping home easily in the Gold Cup. "Sitting in the box, waiting for the race, I don't think my heart rate was any faster than if I was going to sleep," said Bill Mott, the horse's easygoing trainer. "It's not that I didn't respect the other horses, it's just that I have so much confidence in him."
The race was the first meeting between the 5-year-old Cigar and Thunder Gulch, the 3-year-old whose r�sum� includes victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. The two hadn't been scheduled to meet until the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 28 at Belmont. But on the Monday before the Gold Cup, trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had been having a better year than almost everybody but Ted Turner, got a little too cocky when he looked over the weak field lined up to challenge Cigar. "There's a nationwide movement to ban smoking, anyway," said Lukas. "We're just trying to do our part."
But late Saturday afternoon, Lukas wasn't laughing as he grimly watched Cigar stalk the early pace, gallop to the lead in the turn for home and need only mild urging from jockey Jerry Bailey for a one-length victory over Unaccounted For. The winner covered the mile and a quarter in 2:01.1. a more than decent time considering the deep and cuppy condition of a track that was officially rated as fast.
Thunder Gulch threw in a rare dull race, struggling home fifth in the seven-horse field, 14 lengths back of the winner. The reason became obvious later in the barn, when the horse appeared uncomfortable and Lucas ordered X-rays, which revealed a fractured cannon bone in his left front leg. The injury will put an end to his career on the racetrack.
As Bailey jogged Cigar to the winner's circle, the crowd of 15,457—which generally was in a mood as foul as the weather because only one favorite had won in the nine races before the Gold Cup—broke into a loud ovation. "He's been doing this to good horses all year," Bailey said.
Cigar's main competitors now are the ghosts of racing's legends. Among horses who have run after 1900, Colin and Man o' War hold the record for most consecutive stakes wins (14) and Citation owns the mark for consecutive victories (16). The Jockey Club Gold Cup was Cigar's 10th straight stakes win and made him 9 for 9 this year.
Cigar's 1995 record compares favorably with any campaign put together by Kelso, a five-time Horse of the Year (1960-64); Forego, who won the sport's highest award three straight times (1974-76); and John Henry, the Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984. Of those three, only Kelso won as many as eight consecutive stakes in one year. Like the other great horses, Cigar doesn't care where or what distance he's running, how much weight he's carrying, or whether he's on the lead or in the pack. He has become America's horse, winning from Florida to Arkansas, Maryland to Massachusetts, California to New York. His average margin of victory has been more than four lengths.
Cigar is owned by airplane magnate Allen Paulson, who, at 73, still flies his own plane and likes to name his horses after aeronautical checkpoints. For example, he named Arazi, the star-crossed colt whose 1991 Breeders 'Cup Juvenile win was as electrifying as his eighth-place '92 Kentucky Derby finish was disappointing, after a checkpoint in Arizona.
So all those headline writers who like to trot out variations of the CIGAR SMOKES FIELD theme should know that the horse's name comes from a checkpoint in the Gulf of Mexico between Miami and New Orleans. As Paulson tells it, he has only tried to smoke a cigar once, when he was in the Army Air Corps during World War II. "It made me sort of dizzy, as I remember," Paulson said. Which, of course, is how he has come to feel about Cigar.
The soft-spoken, bespectacled Mott, who's known mainly for developing Theatrical and Paradise Creek into outstanding turf horses, put Cigar on the grass because he thought it would be easier on the colt's knees, from which bone chips had been removed when he was a 2-year-old. But after Cigar had only one win in 11 starts on the grass as a 3-and 4-year-old, Mott decided to try him on the dirt purely "as an experiment" (he was so sure Cigar was a grass horse that he never even considered running him in the '93 Triple Crown races). The result of that experiment is now part of racing folklore.