Cigar, what greatness is all about

The very best thing about horse racing is the horses. They are the stars. They, and they alone, are the ones who infatuate us, get the heart pounding and create emotional attachments. Cigar did all that, and a lot more.

We hadn't seen him on the racetrack in almost 18 years, but he lived on at the Kentucky Horse Park. Just down the road from there, at the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, Cigar died Tuesday from complications after surgery for severe osteoarthritis in his neck.

He wasn't the fastest of his era and may not have been the most talented, and there are some who still argue that he took advantage of a weak group of competitors. But what made Cigar so special is that for a stretch of some 20 months, he always delivered. He was Cal Ripken-esque. He always showed up and always gave you his very best.

His winning streak would reach 16, yet it began quietly.

It was an ordinary allowance race in late October at Aqueduct, and Cigar came into the race a mediocrity, a horse that had been racing on the turf with only modest success. Trainer Bill Mott knew it was time to try something different, so he put him on the dirt and the response was immediate. Not even favored (he was 7-2), he won by eight lengths.

Next up, the proof that he was better than just another good horse. He won what was then the NYRA Mile over a tough handicap horse, Devil His Due. Then, an allowance win.

The 1995 Donn Handicap followed, and it was the greatest race that never was. No one quite knew it at the time, but a showdown between Holy Bull and Cigar likely would have been one of the greatest races of our lifetimes. It didn't happen because Holy Bull pulled up with an injury. If you want to believe in such things, he passed the baton to Cigar that day, to let him know that it was now Cigar's turn to be the sport's biggest star.

The wins kept coming. No. 7 in the streak was at Suffolk Downs in the 1995 MassCap. At a small track not used to seeing top horses, Cigar was given the rock star treatment. Come the 1995 Breeders' Cup, at his home track of Belmont Park, it was clear that he was by far the best horse in the sport and the type that comes around once every many years. He did not disappoint. With announcer Tom Durkin calling out, "And here he is, the incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar," he won with the type of professionalism that was his calling card.

He would take on the world and triumph in the first Dubai World Cup, make a triumphant return to Suffolk Downs (which arranged for state troopers to give him a police escort to the track), and tie what was then the modern record for most consecutive victories when winning the newly created Citation Challenge at Arlington Park.

It came to an end in the 1996 Pacific Classic at del Mar where he was beaten by a horse named Dare And Go. Cigar wasn't the same horse the rest of the way, and his career ended with a third-place finish in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic, his third loss over his last four starts.

But none of that mattered. What mattered was the streak and what it represented. I was there in person for 14 of the 16 wins, missing only the Jan. 22, 1995 allowance win at Gulfstream and the 1995 Oaklawn Handicap. Once this thing got rolling, it was unlike anything racing had ever experienced. His races were more than an event. They were a phenomenon. As he entered the gate, electricity would storm through the racetrack, and his crossing the wire would be greeted with a thunderclap of adulation.

He had fertility issues so we were never given the treat of seeing his offspring race. He spent the last 15 years of his life as a living monument to greatness at the Kentucky Horse Park. He was so special that his passing elicited a comment from Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

"The great champion Cigar thrilled racing fans and surely brought new ones to the sport as he compiled win after win in his incredible streak of victories," said Beshear said in a statement. "An example of racing at its best, he continued to serve as an ambassador, bringing joy to countless visitors to the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park, where he will be missed."

There will never be anything like this again, not with how much horse racing has changed since Cigar's career and how it struggles for the national spotlight. But that's a topic for another day. This is a time for remembrance, for appreciation. Cigar was simply wonderful.