There have been few experiences in my life which have touched me so deeply as the day I met Cigar. The horse which appeared to be almost, for lack of a better word, perfect… now stood quietly in his stall, just three feet before me. Naturally, I fidgeted with a peppermint, slightly louder than necessary, due to shaking finger tips fumbling about in my coat pocket.
You see, he was more than a horse—he was the best.
The very picture of strength and consistency, Cigar captivated the American people in a way few Thoroughbreds in modern history had done before him. Tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome, the son of Palace Music possessed the speed, stamina, and unwavering heart characteristic of only the rarest breed of champions, which Horse Racing sees the likes of every lifetime or two.
While his feats on the racetrack include multiple G1 wins, including victories in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Hollywood Gold Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Dubai World Cup, as well as Horse of the Year honors in both 1995 and 1996, Cigar’s legacy is remembered most for, not one standout win, but a body of work second to none.
His 16 race win streak which spanned 2 years, matched only that of 1948 Triple Crown Winner Citation’s— before Cigar was defeated by 39-1 longshot Dare and Go, in the 1996 Pacific Classic. After setting nye perilously fast fractions throughout, Cigar’s grit and determination were no match for the exhaustion that would hand him his first defeat in twenty-two months. He would valiantly go on to finish second, that day.
It wasn’t his first taste of defeat— in fact, Cigar won only 2 of his first 13 starts. It was not until trainer Bill Mott made the decision to run the colt on dirt that one of the greatest legacies in modern times was born. At the risk of sounding cliche, the rest was, in fact, history.
After retiring from racing in the late fall of 1996, the world was stunned to find that Cigar, a Thoroughbred like no other, was sterile. The hopes of the great horse passing on his traits to future generations, was all for not— and so, he was relocated to the Kentucky Horse Park, to live out the rest of his life where the people he inspired so deeply could enjoy him, for years to come.
I was one of those people— a child, really— yet, even I knew the significance of the horse which stood before me. I decided to disregard the “No feed” policy, approaching his stall, mint in hand. He calmly and graciously accepted the offering, and then we preceded to stand silently, together.
We continued in this fashion for a few moments… moments which, in hindsight, I realize were some of the greatest spent in my time on this Earth. At ten years of age, his body hadn’t begun the process of withering and altering— he was rather fit— the epitome of the Thoroughbred to say the least. Cigar’s eyes were bright and full of curiosity, illumined by an inner kindness and intelligence which only a horse of his stature could possess.
He stared at me—into me—as if on some frequency, he and I had the ability to communicate.
I wondered, what would he say? How many stories lived behind those eyes which had seen so very much? I then wondered if he realized the impact he had made on a sport which so adored him and embraced him… a sport which he helped to shape and define.
He was a cemented attraction at the Kentucky Horse Park, and therefore our time together was coming to a close, as there were many others awaiting their own moment with one of the greatest horses the world had ever seen. I patted his nose with a fingertip, and he playfully rumbled once more. I like to think those few moments allowed us to part ways as friends.
He would continue his stay at the horse park, until his passing at age 24, fourteen years after our brief time spent together. I cannot help but imagine all the lives he had impacted in his years there— if anyone else swells with nostalgic, child-like wonder when remembering what it was like to stand before him. There is no doubt in my mind that it was nothing less than an honor to have met him.
I still have the mint wrapper…and I always will.
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