Cigar Mile sparks memories of Hall of Famer

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

November 27th, 2017

Naming stakes after past champions is a fitting way to keep their memory alive, especially when the honoree has a logical connection to the race. A case in point is the Cigar Mile (G1), and Saturday’s renewal conjures up thoughts of its Hall of Fame namesake.

Added to the New York Racing Association calendar in 1988, the Aqueduct feature was inaugurated as the NYRA Mile. The new stakes filled a lacuna on the fall schedule left by the demise of the Marlboro Cup Invitational, last run in 1987. The Marlboro Cup had pitted top three-year-olds against their elders from its 1973 inception, when Triple Crown star Secretariat beat his older stablemate Riva Ridge in a world-record 1:45 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles on dirt.

The NYRA Mile got off to an auspicious start as its first winner was Forty Niner, the champion two-year-old colt of 1987, hero of the 1988 Travers (G1) and Haskell Invitational (G1), and runner-up in the Kentucky Derby (G1). The quality continued with ensuing NYRA Mile winners Dispersal (1989); Quiet American (1990); Rubiano (1991), who went on to become champion sprinter the following year; and Argentinian champion Ibero (1992), victorious in the next spring’s Metropolitan Mile (G1).

But the race is best remembered as the launching pad to stardom for its 1994 winner, Cigar.

A homebred campaigned by pilot and aerospace entrepreneur Allen Paulson, Cigar was named for an aviation checkpoint in the Gulf of Mexico. Since he was sired by the Grade/Group 1-winning turf performer Palace Music, the Maryland-bred logically spent much of his early career on the grass. He even placed in a pair of graded turf stakes for his original trainer on the West Coast, Alex Hassinger – the Ascot H. (G3) at Bay Meadows and the Volante H. (G3) at Santa Anita.

Cigar was transferred to the East Coast to join trainer Bill Mott, who kept him on the turf in his first four starts in the summer of 1994. After thorough beatings in allowance company, Mott decided to switch to the dirt, and the real Cigar lit up with an eight-length romp at Aqueduct.

Still, that was just an allowance race. Could Cigar back it up against Grade 1 rivals over the same track and trip in the NYRA Mile?

Bettors had the same question, sending Cigar off at 8-1 and favoring five-time Grade 1 winner Devil His Due at 2-1. But Cigar issued a thundering response, drawing off by seven lengths to announce his arrival as a leading player on the dirt scene.

Cigar became a well-traveled win machine en route to consecutive Horse of the Year titles in 1995-96. His perfect 10-for-10 season in 1995 was highlighted by victories in the Donn H. (G1) (a metaphorical passing of the torch from reigning Horse of the Year Holy Bull, who sustained a career-ending injury), Gulfstream Park H. (G1), Oaklawn H. (G1), Pimlico Special H. (G1), Massachusetts H., Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), Woodward (G1), Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).

Cigar’s 1996 campaign began in the same vein with a repeat in the Donn, extending his winning streak to 13.

Next came the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup (G1), then the world’s richest race with a $4 million purse, and Cigar made it an instant classic. Despite missing training time due to foot problems, he showed a champion’s heart and will to win when fighting off Soul of the Matter by a half-length.

Cigar was back on his American tour by summer, successfully defending his title in the Mass ‘Cap under 130 pounds to rack up his 15th straight. Now he needed just one more win to tie 1948 Triple Crown legend Citation’s modern North American record of 16 in a row. Arlington Park came up with the right spot: the $1.075 million Arlington Citation Challenge, where Cigar again defied a 130-pound impost to join Citation in the record book.

The skein was snapped in the 1996 Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar, thanks in part to a tactical error in embroiling Cigar in an early pace duel, and he was passed by late-running Dare and Go. Rebounding in the Woodward, Cigar was narrowly denied in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic. His body was finally wearing down after such a superlative run over the better part of two years.

Retiring as North America’s richest Thoroughbred with earnings of $9,999,815, Cigar was found to be infertile at stud. He lived out his days basking in the ardor of his fans at the Kentucky Horse Park, until his passing at the age of 24 in 2014.

While many major races and tracks can claim a share of Cigar’s legacy, it all began in the NYRA Mile. Hence the stakes was promptly rebranded in his honor ahead of the 1997 edition.

The Cigar Mile has been won by the likes of champions Left Bank (2002) and Kodiak Kowboy (2009); Congaree (2002-03), a son of past Paulson celebrity Arazi; and twice more by Mott, with To Honor and Serve (2011) and Flat Out (2013).

So when the field parades at Aqueduct on Saturday, spare a thought for the Hall of Famer aptly summarized by track announcer Tom Durkin as “the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!”

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