The unlikely road to greatness had begun in New York exactly a year earlier, so Cigar had come full circle when he was led into the paddock at Belmont Park-before last Saturday's $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the world's richest race. In only 365 days he had taken owner Allen Paulson, trainer Bill Mott and jockey Jerry Bailey on the longest journey in thoroughbred racing history. How far is it, after all, from obscurity to immortality? So now here he was, eyeballing his toughest competition yet as he was led around the walking ring, applause and whistles from the appreciative railbirds sweeping him along.
Everybody in the crowd of 37,246 knew that Cigar didn't have to win the Classic to be voted Horse of the Year. His record for 1995 was 9 for 9, the best campaign for a thoroughbred since Spectacular Bid ran the table in 1980, going 10 for 10. And he had done it as only the truly special ones do, winning at six tracks in six states, taking on all comers over all distances.
On his way from Barn 25 to the paddock, Cigar had traveled or crossed stable roads named for such immortals as Man o' War, Secretariat, Count Fleet and Omaha. It was these legends, and such Hall of Fame handicap horses as Kelso, Forego and John Henry, that he now stood on the verge of joining. With one more race Cigar could confirm that he belonged among them and eliminate any lingering doubts that, in just 365 days, he had become the superstar that racing fans have been awaiting, with increasing frustration, since Spectacular Bid's final race.
Bailey, 38, felt an inner tension as he strode through the crowd of well-heeled horsemen gathered in the walking ring before the Classic. "I wanted to show everyone how good Cigar is," Bailey said.
That, of course, is what the Breeders' Cup is all about. Although Holy Bull was named Horse of the Year last year without competing on the Breeders' Cup program, that was a rare exception. Since its inception in 1984 the Breeders' Cup has been the forum where reputations are confirmed. The purse money—$10 million spread over seven races—is so huge that everybody with a good horse wants a shot at it. Yet the fields are so deep and competitive that the best horse doesn't always win. In the first 11 Classics, for example, only three favorites won (Alysheba in '88, Ferdinand in '87 and A.P. Indy in '92). The pressure is fierce, and several Cup programs have been marred by breakdowns, the most horrible of which came in 1990, the last time the event was held in New York, when the great filly Go for Wand shattered a foreleg 70 yards from the Distaff finish and was destroyed on the track.
All last week memories of that tragedy remained in the background at Belmont. Concerns about the track condition intensified when torrential storms were forecast for Friday night and Saturday morning. It bothered the cautious Mott—whose horse had never trained, much less raced, on a muddy track—until finally, on Friday morning, he just said the hell with it. "There's nothing I can do about it," he said. "We know it's going to rain, and we know there's going to be some mud. But we're running no matter what. If he gets beat, so be it, but we're not afraid of anything."
As it turned out, the rain wasn't as heavy as predicted. The behind-the-scenes heroes were the members of the maintenance crew, who did such a good job of sealing the main track (packing the dirt tightly so that water drained off the surface instead of seeping beneath it) that the going wasn't as treacherous as it looked from the stands or on TV. The horses liked it just fine: Three of the first four dirt races yielded record times—My Flag in the Juvenile Fillies (1:42.20 for a mile and a sixteenth); Inside Information in the Distaff (1:46.00 for a mile and an eighth); and Unbridled's Song in the Juvenile (1:41.30 for a mile and a sixteenth).
As the afternoon wore on, two gorgeous rainbows accompanied the transition from overcast and drizzly to bright and warm. But the sun never shone on trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who brought seven Cup hopefuls from their Louisville base to New York and could come no closer to the winner's circle than two second-place finishes. The foremost disappointment for Lukas came in the Distaff, where Serena's Song never got the lead she so loves and finished a dull fifth, nearly 19 lengths behind the victorious Inside Information, whose 13�-length win over stablemate Heavenly Prize made a joke out of what was supposed to be the day's most competitive race. It gave trainer Shug McGaughey his second Cup win of the afternoon (the other was My Flag, with Bailey up), and McGaughey was quick to praise jockey Mike Smith, who also won the Juvenile aboard Unbridled's Song. "Mike got her into the race right away," McGaughey said. "He didn't want to let anything slip away from him."
Last year Smith let Cigar slip away. On Oct. 28, 1994, Smith was aboard when Cigar took the first steps of his historic journey. At the time, Mott was at his wit's end with the colt, whose pedigree indicated he should be a grass horse. But Cigar had won only one of 11 starts on the turf, so Mott moved him back to the dirt to see what would happen. Sent off at odds of 7-2 in a mile allowance race at Aqueduct, Cigar rolled to an eight-length victory that led track announcer Tom Durkin to scream, "It's Cigar, and no butts about it!"
In Cigar's next start, the NYRA Mile, on Nov. 26, Mott used Bailey because Smith was committed to Devil His Due. Cigar won by seven. Bailey, who had ridden Cigar in some of his turf races, was astounded by how much he had improved on the dirt, but he reserved his final judgment until May 13, when Cigar won the Pimlico Special and ran his winning streak to seven. It was then that Bailey, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in August, began calling Cigar the best horse he had ever ridden.