Turning for home in the lights of Nad Al Sheba racetrack, his front legs rising and thrusting forward as if he were soaring over a hedge, the mighty Cigar was bounding so smoothly to the lead in the $4 million Dubai World Cup that surely all he had to do was gallop another 200 yards to win his 14th straight race. But what unfolded in that stretch run was about as stirring and memorable as anything I had witnessed in 40 years of thoroughbred racing.
Cigar had been flown 7,000 miles to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to meet 10 of the best horses in the world, and the question trailing him to the Persian Gulf was whether a sore foot had so limited his training regimen that he might not be fit enough to handle such a rigorous challenge over 10 furlongs. Indeed, it was a historic quest, and it had a colorful storybook setting. As the horses gathered in the paddock, the March sun slipped below the horizon, the parting clouds suddenly turned a salmon pink, and hundreds of Muslims, kneeling in their white robes on the apron of the track, bowed to the west.
The Middle East is the ancestral home of the thoroughbred, and in those final 200 yards Cigar could not have played to a more adoring audience. There he was, sailing on a two-length lead, when suddenly another U.S. horse, Soul of the Matter, came charging on the outside, a length away. Half a length. A neck. A head. Now the two horses were dancing cheek to cheek. A thunderous roar went up. Cigar looked beaten. But no.... Reaching and stretching, he dug in and edged away to win by half a length.
His nostrils flaring, a rubber-legged Cigar returned to the winner's circle as the first acknowledged Horse of the World. In the most touching tribute of all, the 20,000 spectators at Nad Al Sheba rose and gave him a long ovation. They knew that what they had witnessed, on that desert night, was a performance for all time.