The late-afternoon sky over Toronto was a wondrous mixture of azure and gold when Cigar went to the post against 12 other horses at Woodbine Race Course last Saturday in what figured to be the last race of his remarkable career. During a two-year run to glory, he had been the savior of a troubled sport, stirring memories of the days when racing challenged baseball as the national pastime. In July, when he won his 16th consecutive race to tie Citation's modern record for a North American-based horse, the fans at Chicago's Arlington Park cheered him wildly. And at Woodbine on Saturday, a track-record 41,250 spectators waited to do the same as Cigar ran in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
The crowd sent Cigar off as the 3-5 favorite, which only goes to show that in horse racing emotion beats logic every time. The fans wanted this Cigar to be the same horse who had gone 10 for 10 in 1995, earning Horse of the Year honors in a landslide. They wanted him to be the same horse who went halfway around the world last March to run in the $4 million Dubai Cup, in which he held off Soul of the Matter to complete one of racing's most fascinating quests.
In the days leading up to this Breeders' Cup, the first run outside the U.S. since the program began in 1984, it was much discussed that two other legendary horses also had ended their careers in Canada. In 1920 Man o' War defeated Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, in a match race at the Kenilworth track in Windsor, Ont. In 1973 Secretariat bid adieu with a seven-length romp in the Canadian International Championship at Woodbine. Surely, the reasoning went, Cigar would be similarly touched by destiny. Never mind that he had lost two of his three previous starts.
Through the early races last Saturday, this Breeders' Cup was indeed one for romantics. Jenine Sahadi became the first woman to train a Breeders' Cup winner when Lit de Justice won the $1 million Sprint. Veteran jockey Walter Swinburn, who suffered such severe head injuries in a February racing accident in Hong Kong that his career seemed to be in jeopardy, won the $2 million Turf aboard Pilsudski. And those Triple Crown rivals, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito, each scored in a baby race, Lukas winning the $1 million Juvenile with Boston Harbor and Zito taking the $1 million Juvenile Fillies with Storm Song.
But most captivating of all, jockey Corey Nakatani won two Breeders' Cup races only 24 days after his younger sister Dawn was strangled to death in the laundry room of her Los Angeles apartment by an unknown assailant. Nakatani won the Sprint with Lit de Justice for his first Breeders' Cup win in 13 rides. Then, in the next race, he rode Jewel Princess to victory in the $1 million Distaff. "I've got an angel on my shoulder, and her name is Dawn," said Nakatani. "This is for her. This is for everyone—my family, my mother and my dad. This is for them."
Did anyone doubt that a day like this was made for Cigar, who would run in the final race on the card? Enter David Hofmans, the trainer of an overlooked 5-year-old named Alphabet Soup, a son of Cozzene out of the mare Illiterate. When Cigar lost to Skip Away in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 5, and then Skip Away skipped out on the Classic, Hofmans saw his chance. Alphabet Soup had been entered in both the Sprint and the Classic, but Hofmans advised owner Georgia B. Ridder to go for the big one. "We just felt we had a fresh horse," Hofmans said.
Which is precisely what the 6-year-old Cigar was not. Alphabet Soup's rider, the veteran Chris McCarron, stalked the early pace, never dropping more than a couple of lengths off the leaders, until it was time to move on the turn for home. As Alphabet Soup seized the lead from Preakness winner Louis Quatorze and Mt. Sassafras on the inside rail, Cigar, under Jerry Bailey, made his familiar power move on the outside. "A couple of strides from the wire I thought, Oh, my god, we're going to get there," said McCarron. Alphabet Soup's time for the mile and a quarter was 2:01, breaking a track record that had stood since 1972.
Louis Quatorze held on for second, a nose back, and a head behind was Cigar, a tired champion who pushed his nose into second place briefly but was unable to stay there. Cigar had done so well for so long that he had simply lost a step. "It's been a long year—a long two years, actually," Bailey said. "He's had a tough time. Going into the first turn, I was happy to be where I was. Going into the other turn, I was wide, way wide. Cigar is still a champion. He never quit."
Cigar will enjoy a well-deserved retirement at owner Allen Paulson's breeding farm in Kentucky. The immediate future of racing, meanwhile, is less than rosy. Who is the sport's next star? One candidate is Lukas's Boston Harbor, who, off his Breeders' Cup performance, will be declared the champion 2-year-old colt and the early favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby. But no Juvenile winner has gone on to make a successful Run for the Roses. Who else is there? Will George Steinbrenner, fresh from the success of his New York Yankees in the World Series, have a Triple Crown contender in Acceptable, who finished second in the Juvenile? Might Storm Song prove to be the rare filly who can run with the males? Predictions are always chancy, but one thing is clear: None of these horses have taken anyone's breath away, as Secretariat and Spectacular Bid did when they were 2-year-olds.
Racing will miss Cigar terribly. "He's the horse who carried our banner worldwide at a time when we needed a hero," said Lukas. Indeed, Cigar could not have burst on the scene at a more opportune moment—the fourth victory in his streak occurred in February 1995, in the same race in which the 1994 Horse of the Year, Holy Bull, pulled up lame—and he drew fans to tracks. Surly railbirds given to jeers and hoots showered Cigar with cheers and whistles.