They can’t run a Cigar Mile in New York without wondering how the real thing is doing down there in Lexington.
“Knock on wood, he’s been real healthy,” said Wes Lanter, the man in charge of the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park, where Cigar makes his home in the same high rent neighborhood as Funny Cide, Da Hoss, and Go for Gin.
That’s not a bad bunch, able to boast two Kentucky Derbies, a Preakness, and three Breeders’ Cup trophies among them without stretching the truth an inch. For good measure, Funny Cide was a champion 3-year-old and Cigar was Horse of the Year twice. But then, the standard at the Hall of Champions is pretty high. In addition to enjoying the real-life heroes cavorting out there in large paddocks, visitors can take all the time they want at the gravesites of Forego, John Henry, and Alysheba.
“We’ve also got a very accomplished Standardbred here named Won the West, who just came to us in September,” Lanter said.
This would qualify as hardboot understatement. Won the West raced (paced?) 109 times, won 36 races, $3.9 million, two Breeders’ Crown events, and two Dan Patch Awards as older pacer of the year, in 2010 and 2011.
“He’s eight years old,” Lanter noted. “Broke a bone in his ankle at 2 and raced on it for six years.”
Sounds like Won the West will fit right in, just as Cigar did when he arrived at the Horse Park in the spring of 1999, after it was determined beyond any serious doubt that he was infertile as a stud. Since John Henry’s death in 2009, Cigar has been the headline attraction when the Hall of Champions presents its star-studded parade of famous inmates several times each day during visiting season.
And he is a sight to behold. Now 22 and every bit a stallion, Cigar carries himself like a horse half his age. He has a few more gray hairs in that trademark multi-colored tail, and the white of his rolling eye might not be quite as intimidating as it once was. But he is still muscled and fit, though retired for 16 years, and he looks enough like the Cigar of 1996 that visitors can delight in their memories without accommodating the ravages of age. Cigar is the Dorian Gray of racehorses.
“He is still a remarkable physical specimen,” Lanter said. “And like all the great horses he has an air of, ‘I know I’m special – look at me.’ ”
Lanter knows special when he sees it. His career with Thoroughbreds has taken him to Spendthrift Farm, Three Chimneys Farm, and Overbrook Farm, where he was stallion manager until the family of the late William T. Young closed up shop. When he took his position at the Horse Park as equine operations manager a few years ago it was a homecoming of sorts.
“I was here a long time ago,” Lanter said. “In 1986 I picked up John Henry at Santa Anita and brought him back here.”
Credit the New York Racing Association for getting it right when they renamed their NYRA Mile for Cigar in 1997, the year after he retired. Cigar’s first stakes win came in the 1994 running of the NYRA Mile. It was also the race that inspired breeder Allen Paulson to “buy” Cigar from his wife, Madeleine, in a trade for his champion filly Eliza and a breeding to his stallion Theatrical. The games rich people play.
Cigar’s NYRA Mile turned out to be the second win in his 16-race streak that lasted all of 1995 and most of 1996. It was also the race that convinced his trainer, Bill Mott, that Cigar was once and for all to be a dirt horse, never again to touch the turf over which he had dallied through his first year and a half of competition.
Cigar’s 10-for-10 record of 1995 was climaxed with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Such a season puts to shame the more recent Horse of the Year campaigns of horses such as Ghostzapper (4 for 4), Invasor (4 for 5) and Saint Liam (4 for 6). In fact, Cigar’s ’95 record stacks up well alongside Dr. Fager’s 7 for 8 in 1968 and before that Tom Fool’s 10-for-10 domination of older horses in 1953.
On Saturday at Aqueduct, all eyes will be on the $350,000 Cigar Mile because the exciting filly Groupie Doll will be facing a field of boys that includes 2010 winner Jersey Town, California invader Coil, and local stalwarts Hymn Book, Associate, Buffum, and Stay Thirsty.
Mott waited 15 years to finally win the Cigar Mile last year with To Honor and Serve. Soon it should be Tom Albertrani’s turn – he trains Bold Ruler Handicap winner Buffum – because it was Albertrani and his wife, Fonda, who were persistent in their counsel to go all-in with reimagining Cigar as an older dirt horse, back in the fall of 1994. At the time, Tom was Mott’s chief assistant and Fonda was Cigar’s daily rider.
“He was a challenge, but a neat challenge,” Fonda told me for my biography of Cigar. “Some horses are dead-brained and dead-mouthed. They’re gonna do their thing no matter what you want to do, and all you feel like is a passenger. I never felt like a passenger with Cigar. There was always some sort of sensitivity, a relationship, between horse and rider.”
These days, Cigar fans can enjoy that same kind of connection from the ground. Wes Lanter sees it happen every day.
“We try to give these horses a little break from the shows once in a while, but if we did that with Cigar people would be heartbroken,” Lanter said. “There are a lot of people who come to the Horse Park just to see Cigar.”