Paying my respects to Cigar

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

November 15th, 2014

A loyal and layered congregation of fans and admirers descended on the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions barn on Friday to pay tribute to Cigar, the two-time Horse of the Year and former leading money winner in North America, who passed away last month at the age of 24 due to complications following surgery. In death as it often was in life, a cold November afternoon served as the backdrop for a time of recognition to the Hall of Famer.

When I think back on Cigar’s 16-race win streak from 1994-96, sunshine and warmth come to mind, both in a figurative and literal sense. A majority of those wins occurred underneath the Florida palms, in Southern California, in the springtime of Hot Springs and Baltimore, in the summertime of Boston and Chicago, and in the desert of Dubai.

Cigar could relish the cold, too. It was 20 years ago this month, on November 26, 1994, when Cigar made his first national statement on a sunny but chilly day at Aqueduct by taking the NYRA Mile by seven lengths, a performance so memorable the race was ultimately renamed in his honor.

On November 9, 1996, Cigar made his final racetrack appearance at Churchill Downs with a retirement ceremony held on a brisk, overcast day. It was the only time I had the opportunity to witness Cigar in person under saddle. After a short parade, jockey Jerry Bailey had Cigar stretch his legs under the iconic Twin Spires for a quick quarter-mile dash, much to the delight of many of us in the crowd.

Nearly two decades later, Cigar now rests by his two immediate predecessors as America’s leading money winner, Alysheba and John Henry, at the entrance to the walkway that leads to the Hall of Champions. A fundraising drive is underway to have a permanent bronze statue, like those that adorn the graves of Alysheba and John Henry, cast and ready to unveil next October around the time of the Breeders’ Cup, which will be held nearby at Keeneland.

In the meantime, a headstone serves as Cigar’s marker. Wreaths, flowers, peppermints, and even a small pumpkin with the words “I love you Cigar” have been left at his resting place.

As tends to happen at moments like these, the sun began to peek through as the memorial service commenced. Among those paying tribute to Cigar on Friday were Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who rode Cigar twice early in the horse’s career, McCarron was aboard for Cigar’s maiden win and for a second-place finish in an allowance, both over the Del Mar turf.

“He was only a cigarette when I rode him,” said McCarron jokingly. “[Being based in Southern California] I appreciated how much I didn’t have to chase him.”

Robin Bush, Cigar’s caretaker for much of his residency at the Kentucky Horse Park, noted that Cigar was “aware of how gorgeous he was,” and that his “kingly poses” and “melodramatic yawning” was often a staple of his daily showings to park visitors. “He loved being around people,” she said.

Wes Lanter, the Hall’s manager, echoed those sentiments by recalling Cigar’s “ambassadorial passion, patiently waiting for a shutter to click; regal and handsome and keenly aware of who he was; running down to his corner to rear up to almost vertical, and maybe have a roll right there next to where he rests now, just giving a glimpse of racetrack glory past.”

On a personal note, Lanter is no stranger to being around champions, charismatic and otherwise. When introduced to speak and as he ascended the platform, I realized this was the same man who, on my first visit to Kentucky in 1992, kindly allowed a fledgling, teenage racing fan up-close access to Seattle Slew, Slew o’ Gold, Chief’s Crown, and Capote in his capacity as stallion manager at Three Chimneys.

Thanks again, Wes.

As has been documented elsewhere, Cigar struggled with back and neck issues in the final stages of his life. A former colleague and frequent visitor to the Hall told me that Cigar did not take well to having diminished access to his adoring fans due to his infirmities.

“When they would play the video [in the ring] and he wouldn’t be led out, he’d get mad,” she said. “He wanted to be around his people.”

A horse who loved his fans as much as they loved him? Yep, Cigar was special.