Cigar, the Harford County-born champion thoroughbred racehorse and one of the most popular of his generation, died Tuesday night following surgery in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Horse Park where he lived in retirement.
"A sad day; Cigar hit the trail for the last time, but what a ride it was," said Mike Pons, co-owner of Country Life Farm in Bel Air with his brother, Josh, where Cigar was born 24 years ago.
A photograph of Cigar was posted on the Country Life website along with a brief remembrance: "Foaled at Country Life on April 18, 1990, he went on to become one of the greatest racehorses of all time. Sad day..."
Wednesday afternoon, a black bow, some greens and a small bouquet of roses hung from the sign along Route 1 proclaiming Country Life Farm as "Birthplace of Champion Cigar."
"Next to launching Malibu Moon's stud career, [foaling Cigar] was probably our biggest equine accomplishment," Pons said.
In 1995 and 1996, Cigar's feats on the race track became the stuff legends are made of. He won 16 races in a row, most of the them top graded stakes, tying a North American record established by Citation more than 40 years earlier. Among his victories were the 1995 Breeders Cup Classic and the 1996 Dubai Cup.
Cigar was named Horse of the Year both years and retired with just shy of $10 million in career earnings, which at the time was a record. He finished with 19 wins in 33 starts and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 2002.
"He had something like a degenerative disc in his back, and they decided on surgery to ease the pain. He came out of fine, but around 6:30 that night he was lying in his stall, he exhaled and was gone," Pons said. "They really don't know what happened. Might have been the anesthesia. Hard to say. When a horse is 24, any surgery can be a risk."
"What fun we had," he continued. "There were a lot of magical things he did on the track and afterward. He tripled attendance at the Horse Park when he moved there. I still remember the farewell in Madison Square Garden when [regular jockey] Jerry Bailey rode him around during their horse show. I think it was the most watched show on the Garden network at that time. He hit a chord bigger and better than anything I think we've seen since."
Cigar's birth at County Life Farm was a stroke of good fortune because of the farm's close relationship with the late breeder/owner Allen Paulson. The colt's mother, Solar Slew, who was in foal to Palace Music, was sent to the farm to be bred to one of Paulson's stallions following the birth of her foal, who became Cigar. Paulson, a onetime owner of Gulfstream Aerospace and an avid aviator, named Cigar after a navigational waypoint in the Gulf of Mexico. Cigar was owned by his wife, Madeleine.
As a racehorse, Cigar started his career slowly. He didn't race as a 2-year-old and had little success as a 3-year-old. Late in his 4-year-old season, however, he started winning races in New York under trainer Bill Mott and kept winning. He didn't lose a race in 10 starts as a 5-year-old in 1995, in what probably ranks among the greatest single seasons for any thoroughbred in history. He won four more times in 1996 before finally tasting defeat in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in California.
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"It was like a meteorite landed here," Pons said of Cigar's impact on his farm. "Allen Paulson was my best client. To give a guy like that...a champion, it was very humble and flattering." The Pons family still celebrates Cigar's birthday every year, he said.
About the only place Cigar wasn't a champion was in the breeding shed – he was declared infertile after failing to impregnate any mares during his first breeding season. "He was 0-34," Pons recalled. "I had a champion mare I was going to breed to him. I ended up breeding to Citidancer [one of Country Life's top stallions at the time] and we got Hookedonthefeeling, a Grade I winner. It worked out."
Pons said he was at the track for four of Cigar's 16 straight wins, including the Breeders Cup Classic win at Belmont Park in New York in 1995.
"I can remember after the race was over and looking down at my program and it had raindrops on it, but it wasn't raining, I realized it was tears. That's what happens when you have moments like that," he said.
Pons said he visited Cigar on previous trips to Kentucky, but missed seeing him when he traveled south for the annual Keeneland Fall Yearling Sale last month.
"I had heard he had a couple of bad days and went by to try to see him, but they had this huge horse show going on and I couldn't get to the barn," he said. "I said a prayer and went on. I understand they were still showing him every day until late in the summer."
"Cigar did so many magical things, but it was his charisma that set him apart," he added.