Hall of Fame racehorse Cigar remembered for class and charisma after death at age 24

Cigar admired the painting he created for a Rerun Fundraiser at the Kentucky Horse Park on Sept. 25, 2002.  With Cigar was Tammy Siters, caretaker at the Hall of Champions.
Cigar admired the painting he created for a Rerun Fundraiser at the Kentucky Horse Park on Sept. 25, 2002. With Cigar was Tammy Siters, caretaker at the Hall of Champions. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

It wasn't part of his 16-race win streak nor one of his 11 career Grade I wins, and it didn't add to his nearly $10 million in career earnings. But the simple act of Cigar being Cigar was enough to leave Mike Pons awestruck one afternoon.

"One of the first times I saw him at Kentucky Horse Park ... there was a girl who had a baby in her stroller, and Cigar was in the ring," Pons recalled of the champion who was born on his family's Maryland-based Country Life Farm. "While the gal was talking about him, the handler just let him go and he reached his neck over the ropes so this little girl — maybe a year old — could reach up and pet him on the nose.

"It was almost like a circus act. You had to see it to believe it."

Sentiments of wonder became the go-to reaction when it came to Cigar's exploits.

The two-time Horse of the Year and racing Hall of Famer left the Thoroughbred community grieving after passing away at Lexington's Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital on Tuesday evening at the age of 24. He had complications following surgery for severe osteoarthritis in his neck.

The charismatic bay horse, bred and campaigned by Allen Paulson, was a popular resident at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions since his arrival in 1999.

Kathy Hopkins, director of equine operations for the Horse Park, said Wednesday that Cigar "had been experiencing arthritis-related health issues over the past six months," and that "medical therapies had failed to relieve the pressure that the arthritis was causing on his spine, which had resulted in instability in his hind legs."

Surgical correction was performed by a team led by Dr. Brett Woodie of Rood and Riddle, Dr. Laura Werner of Hagyard Equine, and Dr. Steve Reed of Rood and Riddle, who pioneered the special procedure.

Though Cigar initially appeared to come out of the surgery in good order, Dr. Reed said he "suffered a vertebral fracture" during recovery and died.

"Every good horse I've ever been around knows they're a good horse and knows they're special. And Cigar certainly had that," Wes Lanter, who oversees the Hall of Champions at the Horse Park, said Wednesday. "There are people who would specifically plan their vacations and time every year just to come here and see him. He loved to stand at the fence — he loved being seen.

"He will certainly be missed here. Every day there is someone here who comes specifically to see him. He means a lot to the park, a lot to the commonwealth and to us individually."

Cigar's death comes almost exactly seven years after the Horse Park lost fellow Hall of Famer John Henry. In terms of transcending the sport the past two decades, Cigar was arguably without peer.

His first nine starts were undistinguished as he toiled mostly in the allowance ranks on the turf under the care of trainer Alex Hassinger Jr. After being transferred to Bill Mott at the start of 1994, the son of Palace Music found new form when his Hall of Fame conditioner tried him on the dirt following four more losses on turf, going 1 mile in an allowance test at Aqueduct that Oct. 28.

A journey toward immortality began that day. His front-running, 8-length triumph kicked off a streak of 16 straight wins that would feature 10 Grade I victories.

Eight of those top-level triumphs came during his 10-for-10 championship campaign of 1995, a run that was capped with legendary announcer Tom Durkin famously calling him "the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar" as he hit the line 21/2 lengths in front during the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park.

"I'm the ultimate worrier. But I never worried about him because he had such quickness from the gate, had such a high cruising speed," said Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who rode Cigar in his final 19 career starts. "I could get out of any situation I might find myself in. He was never in trouble because he allowed me to use him to the degree that I was always outside in a perfect stalking position.

"I got to the point where I thought there was nothing this horse could not do."

In 1996, Cigar traveled to Dubai for the inaugural Dubai World Cup — now the world's richest race with a $10 million purse. His victory not only put the World Cup on the map as a top global race, but solidified Cigar as an international star of the sport.

"It was like there was gold dust everywhere he went and he would sprinkle it around," Pons said.

The toll of crisscrossing the country and racing at 10 different tracks over a year and a half caught up with the seemingly tireless horse in August 1996. Cigar's win streak was broken when he ran second to Dare and Go in the Grade I Pacific Classic.

He was retired after a third-place finish in that year's Breeders' Cup Classic, ending his career with 19 wins from 33 career starts and a then North American-record of $9,999,815 in earnings.

"For the first half of my career, I had like a doctor-patient relationship (with horses)," Bailey said. "I rode the horses, I worked them out in the morning and I went home. And it was nothing else. Until Cigar. He made me fall in love with horses."

Cigar's retirement was as splashy as his career. After being paraded at Madison Square Garden during the 1996 National Horse Show, he was sent to stand at Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Versailles but was moved to the Horse Park after he proved to be infertile.

The breeding shed's loss was a gain for the public as Cigar proved to be a great ambassador for the Horse Park.

"Cigar was an incredible horse who left an everlasting mark on the racing world," said Ted Nicholson, interim executive director of the Horse Park. "We are honored that Cigar was able to spend so many years of his life here at the park where he was visited by so many fans and will always be remembered."

Like the other Hall of Champions horses who died in retirement at the park, Cigar will be buried on the Memorial Walk of Champions. A public memorial service will be held for Cigar on a date to be determined.

"He's a horse who changed my life so to speak. Most horses you can't say that about," Mott said Wednesday. "Because of him, we were able to go so many places and meet so many great people, some that have remained friends today.

"He did a lot more than just win races for us."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader