ELMONT, N.Y. -- Cigar had little trouble disposing of Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch yesterday in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
But jockey Jerry Bailey did go to the whip a couple of times to ensure a one-length victory by the heavily favored horse over long shot Unaccounted For in the $750,000 stakes.
It is now on to the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont on Oct. 28, where Cigar likely will find a new challenger, the English-based Halling, winner of eight consecutive races in Europe and the Middle East.
Yesterday's effort was the toughest yet for Cigar, who started an 11-race win streak at Aqueduct last fall, and is being hailed as the best American racehorse since Spectacular Bid.
His one-length winning margin was the narrowest in the streak.
"But whether or not I really had to use the whip, I'm not so sure," Bailey said. "I do have to give Unaccounted For a lot of credit, though. He made Cigar run today."
Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott, agreed. "I would have to say this was probably not Cigar's best race. He was used more, Jerry had to go to the whip . . . he had to reach down and ask him," Mott said. "It looked as if he had to put him into a little more of a drive. But he still won by a clear length."
After Cigar passed front-runner Star Standard in the stretch, Unaccounted For rallied from off the pace, but couldn't catch the favorite. Trainer Scotty Schulhofer said his horse, too, will try Cigar in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Cigar is called the "Accidental Maryland-bred" since he was foaled in the state, but raised in Kentucky by his breeder and owner, Allen Paulson. Under Jockey Club rules, a horse is bred where he is born and Cigar, now with career earnings of $3,529,815, is the all-time winning Maryland-bred, surpassing former leaders Concern and Broad Brush.
Thunder Gulch finished fifth in yesterday's seven-horse field, falling back after matching strides with Cigar around the final turn.
The D. Wayne Lukas-trained runner was beaten by 14 lengths by Cigar, and was "a very tired and leg-weary horse," said his jockey, Gary Stevens. "At no time did I have confidence in him because of the way he was handling the track. Cigar just had us by the throat."
Bailey said Cigar, too, had trouble handling the Belmont strip, which was heavy after an all-day drizzle fell on the surface.
It took Cigar 2 minutes 1 1/5 seconds to cover the 1 1/4 miles, nearly three seconds slower than In Excess' track mark.
ZTC Bailey said he was "not really surprised" how easily Cigar handled Thunder Gulch. "He's been doing that to horses all year and Thunder Gulch was no different than anyone else," he said.
Lukas offered no excuses for his horse. "I think that we needed the race coming off the one in Kentucky," he said, referring to the Kentucky Cup Classic two weeks ago at Turfway Park, which Thunder Gulch won. "There are things we have to do and we'll just see what happens on the 28th [Breeders' Cup Day]."
Yesterday was bittersweet for Lukas. Despite Thunder Gulch's losing effort, Lukas scored an up set with his filly, Serena's Song, in the Beldame Stakes.
Stevens led from start to finish with Serena's Song, holding off a late challenge from 3-5 favorite Heavenly Prize.
Jockey Pat Day received boos from the crowd for his ride on Heavenly Prize. He dropped off the pace with the filly, then had too much ground to make up in the stretch, losing by three-quarters of a length.
Lukas also won the Frizette Stakes for 2-year-old fillies with Golden Attraction, but lost in the Champagne Stakes with his even-money favored colt, Hennessy.
Maria's Mon came from about eight lengths off the pace and won the Champagne by 3 3/4 lengths over Nick Zito-trained Diligence. Hennessy, who hadn't raced in nearly two months, was fifth.
"But never underestimate Lukas," said winning trainer Richard Schosberg. "He'll come back in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and will run four colts at me. I'm going to have to have my belt tightened."
Both grass stakes at Belmont yesterday produced stunning upsets and adversely affected horses with Maryland interests.
Maryland-bred turf champion Awad was the 6-5 favorite, but finished seventh in the $300,000 Turf Classic.
He uncustomarily raced near the lead. "He was too fresh," said trainer David Donk. "But I think you'll see a different horse in the Breeders' Cup [Turf]."
The 17-1 shot Turk Passer led from start to finish in the 1 1/2 -mile race and paid $36.80 to win.
Wild Zone set the pace in the $200,000 Kelso Handicap at one mile on the grass, but tired nearing the wire and finished fifth, beaten by about 2 1/2 lengths by 65-1 long shot Mighty Forum.
"He ran good enough to come back in the Breeders' Cup Mile," said trainer Mike Doyle. "But he didn't earn any Breeders' Cup points [needed for entry]. So he has no shot of getting in the race."