Goodbye Champ

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The news started trickling in via racing websites and social media early Wednesday morning as I sat in the waiting area while the car got the all-important oil change and tire rotation before the trek down to Lexington.

People posted links, mainly to the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic and Tom Durkin’s iconic call.

Others wrote about how he was “the horse that got them into racing.”

And people wrote about personal moments, however distant or from afar, with the champ.

Cigar was dead.

No way.

How could it be?

How old was he?

Wasn’t it just yesterday he was transforming from mediocre turf horse to spectacular dirt horse, winning all those races, racking up all those earnings, developing and retaining all those fans?

Turns out it wasn’t just yesterday, but rather nearly 20 years ago that Allen Paulson’s homebred son of Palace Music and his mare Solar Slew, by Seattle Slew, completed his tour de force of the racing world.

The news brought back a flood of memories for this racing fan and Turf writer, too.

Of course there was the 1995 Classic, when he called the season with a 10-for-10 record and in the midst of a 12-race win streak. It was the first Breeders’ Cup I reported on and Cigar capped a day that also featured wins by Unbridled’s Song, My Flag, Inside Information and Northern Spur. Wow, big stuff.

And who could forget the inaugural Dubai World Cup? I never will, especially because I remember waking early and driving to the Capital OTB teletheater in Albany with good friend Dave “Huddie” Hudson to watch it. The simulcast feed was fairly primitive – a far cry from what goes on these days in Dubai – and there were two races shown. The first was the Dubai Duty Free and my memory said Kiaran McLaughlin. Thanks to Wikipedia – not always the most reliable source for fact checking, but I’ll trust it this time – my memory was proven correct.

Then came the World Cup. A sprinkling of other diehards came out to the teletheater that morning, to catch what to that day was nothing more than a novelty show.

By the time Cigar gutted out a thriller over Soul of the Matter, the place was alive with chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A.”

I can still hear it in my head and I’ll never forget it.

Those moments were great and cherished, but the Cigar Moment I’ll always remember was the morning of his last workout before the 1996 Pacific Classic.

The crowd that turned out on a beautiful morning was estimated at 5,000, which seems high but was a probably pretty accurate considering the appeal of Cigar. The night before was the second session of the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select sale, so I remember being pretty bleary eyed and toting along some coffee. A couple friends came, too, eager to see what all the buzz was about.

They and the thousands of others got to see what goes on every morning at every racetrack coast-to-cast. The only difference was this was Cigar and this was Saratoga.

Cigar warmed up under Jerry Bailey with trainer Bill Mott, sporting a baseball cap in the days before mandatory helmets for everyone on the racetrack, alongside on the pony. Cigar broke off on the backstretch and quickly got into his 5-furlong work. The track was eerily quiet as he did so and when he came into the stretch all you could hear were his footsteps.

Cigar galloped out well, Bailey pulled him up, Mott joined alongside and off they walked through the backstretch gap and through the barns to Greentree.

Mott was stabled at Greentree back then. It was there that this young reporter showed up one morning to inquire about the Horse of the Year, that I got the first of what would turn into many funny looks from the Hall of Fame trainer who was then – and remains today – one of the best at giving time as long as his job for the day is done.

The story for Cigar that year didn’t have a happy ending – he lost the Pacific Classic at Del Mar a few days after the workout at Saratoga in his attempt to win 17 straight races. He actually lost three of his final four starts, the Jockey Club Gold Cup to eventual champion and 1998 Horse of the Year Skip Away and the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic to Alphabet Soup and Preakness winner Louis Quatorze.

I counted myself fortunate to be on hand to write about those races.

Even though the star of the show went down in defeat, he did it with the same valor and determination he showed in his victories.

Word out of Lexington – and a few people have told me so since I arrived Thursday and I understand Bailey said the same in print – was that he met his end the same way.

So I guess there are many ways to remember the great Cigar.

Powerful, smooth and workmanlike in that early August morning breeze at Saratoga, and brave, courageous and strong until his final breath.