The official chart of last Saturday's $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar racecourse outside San Diego will forever testify that Cigar's 16-race winning streak—the one that had made him the most popular and charismatic thoroughbred performer in North America since Secretariat in 1973—ended at precisely 3:40 p.m. That was the moment when a 40-1 shot named Dare And Go, a son of Alydar whose sore hind ankles had conspired to leave him winless since March 6, reached out and strode powerfully under the wire in 1:59[4/5], 3½ lengths ahead of the game but tired champion.
Not to quibble with the historical record, but Cigar's streak had really ended, except for the groaning, almost a minute and a half earlier. That was when his jockey, Jerry Bailey, found himself caught in one of those tactical traps from which there is no easy way out—in fact, no way out at all. Fearing that he might be hemmed in on the rail if he took Cigar back, Bailey chose instead to press the fiery pace set by the second choice in the race, a reformed sprinter named Siphon. Consequently the jock got sucked into a speed duel that left Cigar with nothing in the tank to hold off Dare And Go, a stretch runner who got very brave and aggressive chasing two better but wearier horses.
"You can go only so fast and still have anything left at the finish," said Bill Mott, Cigar's trainer. "We became the victim of that today. The fact is, we finished second. It's all history now, and we can't do it over. A good horse won the race.... But I still think Cigar ranks as one of the alltime greats."
Of this there is no doubt. There may have been faster and more brilliant American racehorses in recent history—judged on running times alone, Cigar has not been the equal of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid—but such a judgment does not diminish by a whit what Cigar has done. None of those giants of the 1970s ever strung together 16 straight victories against the best horses in the world. Cigar built his streak on nine racetracks, and he won at distances from one mile to the classic mile and a quarter. In those 16 races he ran a total of 30,140 yards, earned $8,819,815, won both on the lead and from off the pace, twice carried the top weight of 130 pounds and defeated 28 Grade 1 winners.
If there was a crowning moment in the 21-month streak, it came on March 27, midway through the long stretch in the Dubai World Cup. Against the eerie, mosque-lit backdrop of Nad Al Sheba Race Course, Cigar forever secured his place in history. At the eighth pole, Soul of the Matter charged to Cigar's flanks. For an instant the bay looked beaten. Alas, he was only shifting gears. Grabbing the bit once more, Cigar battled back and went on to win by a long neck. When he returned to the winner's circle, so exhausted that his head was hanging, he was widely proclaimed the Horse of the World.
Back in the States, Cigar got two months off. Mott brought the six-year-old back on June 1, in the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs, and he won a laugher by 214 lengths. That was his 15th straight victory, one short of the modern record of 16 set by the 1948 Triple Crown winner, Citation, in 1950. When Arlington Park in Illinois offered to stage the Citation Challenge, Mott and Cigar's owner, Allen Paulson, shipped the horse to Chicago. A near-record crowd of 35,000 showed up on July 13 to see him perform. Racing five wide on two turns, Cigar bounded to the lead off the last turn, charging past Dramatic Gold and winning by almost four.
Now all he had to do was take the Pacific Classic to gain sole possession of the record. Mott shipped Cigar straight from Chicago to Saratoga, in upstate New York. The horse's growing celebrity was never clearer than it was at 6:45 a.m. on Aug. 7, when more than 5,000 people showed up to see him in his final Eastern workout. The fans were lined five deep around the clubhouse turn and along the homestretch fence. When Cigar left the next morning for Del Mar, he had never seemed sharper.
The 44,181 souls who squeezed into the track by the Pacific had come to witness a coronation. Mott had trained and managed Cigar brilliantly through his 16-race streak, and Bailey had been flawless on his back. But nothing could have prepared them for what developed on the first turn at Del Mar. Trainer Richard Mandella had a potent one-two punch waiting for Cigar—even after Soul of the Matter, his most accomplished runner, was scratched from the race on Wednesday with a career-ending ligament injury. Mandella had intended to send Siphon to the lead and save his stretch-running Dare And Go for a late charge. Cigar was stalking Siphon, the natural speed in the race, when, to make his task even tougher, Dramatic Gold ranged up on the outside. Siphon was clearly Cigar's most dangerous foe; an extremely fast sprinter, he had recently won the 1¼-mile Hollywood Gold Cup by getting loose on the lead. So Bailey was suddenly faced with a fateful choice. "I contemplated taking Cigar back at the first turn," the jockey would say afterward, but he rejected the idea out of hand. No, he would let his horse run to keep Siphon honest and to avoid being boxed in by Dramatic Gold. So Cigar began to press too heated a pace. Dramatic Gold was prompting him to run, and Cigar in turn was prompting Siphon, who was rushing through the first half mile in a blistering :45[4/5]. Mott glanced at the Teletimer. "Too fast," he said.
By the time the horses had swept into the backstretch, Bailey was committed to the duel. At the three-quarter pole, nearing the far turn, Siphon was smoking through six furlongs in 1:09[1/5], with Cigar just a half length away, and already Bailey could feel his horse beginning to labor. In the box seats Mandella could see that Cigar was caught in a suicidal fight with Siphon. "I was surprised at how fast they were going," Mandella would say later. "Siphon is too fast to chase like that." Meanwhile Dare And Go, under Alex Solis, was running loosey-goosey.
Cigar took the lead around the last turn, but by then he was as ripe as a summer melon, and Bailey knew it. They passed the mile mark in a sizzling 1:33[3/5], just two ticks off the track mark, and Cigar was flying a very wet sail when Dare And Go came to him in the stretch.