Friday, June 18, 2010

Bailey Sets Cigar Alight


Have you heard of Zenyatta? If the answer is no, you're not alone—for today’s thoroughbred champions are not nearly as famous as their predecessors of decades past. As it happens, Zenyatta is a six-year-old mare who is undefeated for her career, who last year became the first of her gender to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and whose victory in last Saturday’s Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park was her 17th in succession, breaking the record set by Citation 60 years ago and equaled by Cigar in 1996 at Arlington Park. Below is a remembrance of the latter, who (fyi) was named not after a tobacco product but after an aviation checkpoint.

     Cigar’s early career gave little indication that he was destined for greatness. He never raced at age two, and he won just two of his first 13 starts—11 of these on the grass, which his breeding suggested he should prefer. With nothing to lose, trainer Bill Mott moved Cigar back to the dirt late in his four-year-old season—and the rest, as they say, is history. Cigar won his last two starts of 1994, then went 10-for-10 in 1995. That year, he became the oldest horse to have a perfect season and earned a record $4,819,800.
     Rather than retire Cigar after his sensational 1995 campaign, owner Allen Paulson decided to keep him in training for another year so as to give the racing game a much-needed shot in the arm. Cigar won his first three races in 1996 to extend his winning streak to 15, one short of the mark established by Citation between 1948 and 1950. When a minor injury prevented Cigar from making his next scheduled start, in the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 30, Arlington Park chairman Dick Duchossois stepped into the breach. Working with Paulson’s cooperation, he scheduled the Arlington Citation Challenge for July 13, rounding up a field of nine challengers to face Cigar at a mile and an eighth for a purse of $1,050,000.
     Cigar was given a police escort from O’Hare Airport to Arlington. Mott participated in a question-and-answer session with fans on the morning of the race, and jockey Jerry Bailey signed autographs for more than an hour in the afternoon. Eighty-nine-year-old Jimmy Jones, Citation’s trainer, was on hand as well. That the weather was perfect only added to the impression that the event was more a carnival than an athletic contest in which the outcome might not suit people’s expectations.
     Cigar had drawn the outermost post position, No. 10. He had also been assigned to carry 130 pounds, thus conceding between eight and 14 pounds to each of his rivals. The crowd of 34,223 gave him a standing ovation when he appeared in the paddock to be saddled, when he stepped onto the racetrack, and when he entered the starting gate. “He really seems to enjoy it,” Mott said of the hubbub surrounding his champion, “and I’m not so sure he doesn’t know this great crowd is for him.”
     Cigar broke leisurely and was five wide around the first turn, about six lengths behind the front-running Honour and Glory. With Bailey content to remain wide and stay out of traffic trouble, Cigar gradually advanced along the backstretch. On the far turn, Dramatic Gold threatened the leader while Cigar moved into striking range, only a length from the front. “And now Jerry Bailey sets Cigar alight!” track announcer Michael Wrona exclaimed as Honour and Glory, Dramatic Gold, and Cigar passed the quarter pole virtually three abreast.
     Honour and Glory soon called it a day, but Dramatic Gold stubbornly refused to give in. By the eighth pole, though, Cigar had finally managed to get in front by half a length, and from then on he continued driving to draw off by three lengths at the wire. Bailey held his cap aloft to acknowledge the tumult of cheers as he guided Cigar back to the winner’s circle for the 16th consecutive time. “I can’t put into words how proud I am of Cigar,” he said.
     It was a thrilling day for Chicago racing fans (and one that took on added significance when Cigar ran second in his next start, thus failing to break the record he had tied at Arlington). When Paulson said that it had been an honor to bring Cigar to Chicago, racing writer Sharon Smith gently took issue with him: “It was a gracious thought,” she wrote, “but inaccurate. It was the tracks and the sport itself who were honored by Mr. Paulson’s horse in 1996, not the other way around.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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