November 26, 1994.
I was 27 years old, living in a studio apartment, with a lousy job (I can’t remember which one). I had a pounding headache and some Ace of Bass song — pick one, after a while they all sound alike — from the night before going through my head as I cracked open the past performances for Aqueduct Race Course.
My morning coffee tasted like beer and my morning beer tasted like… well, not good — although slightly better than last week’s pizza, which I had to spit out when I realized that the “green stuff” was not a pepper. Peppers don’t move, right?
After perusing several nondescript races and a couple of uninspiring stakes events for two-year-olds (the Demoiselle and the Remsen) that did nothing to help my condition, I came across the featured 8th race, the Grade I NYRA Mile.
The 1996 NYRA Mile was headlined by Devil His Due, a four-time Grade I winner who was fresh off a 20-length drubbing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Bertrando, an olden day Lava Man, who was 8-of-15 in the state of California and 1-of-6 everywhere else.
But the horse that caught my eye that day was a four-year-old son of Palace Music, who was making just his second start in a dirt route after 11 consecutive — and largely unsuccessful — tries on the grass. Back then, I didn’t make pace figures in the manner that I make them today, but I knew absurdly good when I saw it — and this colt’s last race was absurdly good.
In a one-mile dirt affair (also at Aqueduct) on Oct. 26, 1994, he’d led after a half-mile in an insane 44.76 seconds (-16 ESR). Rather than fold as most pace horses do after such a daunting split, however, the Bill Mott trainee pulled away to an easy 8-length score — earning a then career-high 106 Brisnet speed figure in the process. More incredibly, he recorded a -10 LSR and an incredible 80-degree pace profile (for more information on what ESRs, LSRs and Pace Profiles are, please see my piece on the Best Belmont Stakes in History).
I enthusiastically jotted down the name of this bay colt on my list of plays that day and, later, cheered enthusiastically as he drew off to a 7-length win and paid $19.80.
As it turned out, that was the second of 16 straight wins for the horse known as Cigar. Appropriately, number 16 came in the Arlington Citation Challenge Stakes, a race specifically carded to showcase Cigar’s attempt to match the legendary Citation’s record of 16 straight victories.
And, unlike others who came after him — and also matched Citation’s record — Cigar did it the hard way. In the Citation Challenge, Allen Paulson’s stable star carried 130 lbs., spotting his nine rivals eight to 14 pounds. 10 of his record-tying 16 straight wins came in Grade I company. Among his ungraded victories was a hard-fought score in the inaugural Dubai World Cup, the richest horse race in the world.
In every sense of the word, Cigar was a champion.
Yet even the great ones are no match for the ravages of time. On Oct. 7, 2014, after surgery for severe osteoarthritis in his neck, the 24-year-old Cigar lifted his gallant head for the last time.
I’d prefer to think that, wherever he is now, Cigar is flanked by Secretariat, Man o’ War and, of course, Citation. And like three men in a barber shop they are swapping stories and padding their accomplishments — just a bit.
As for me, I’m playing old Ace of Bass songs and feeling a little sick… and it’s not just from the stale pizza.