BEL AIR -- Long before his celestial talent bloomed this year, the thoroughbred named Cigar stood out among the thousands of horses that have come and gone over the years at Country Life Farm in Harford County.
"When he was a baby here, he kicked my wife in the stomach when she was six months pregnant with our first child," said Joseph P. "Josh" Pons Jr., whose family has owned and operated Country Life since 1933. "We would have remembered Cigar if he'd never won a race."
A mediocre talent until late last year, Cigar has won 11 straight races against top competition since his trainer switched him from grass to dirt racing.
With one race left on his 1995 schedule, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park next Saturday, he is a lock to become the first Maryland-bred in 55 years to win racing's most prestigious award: Horse of the Year.
Until the past year, the infamous kick -- which injured neither Pons' wife, Ellen, nor their son, Josh III -- was Cigar's only claim to fame at the farm where he was foaled in April 1990 and where he spent the first two months of his life before returning to his owner's horse farm in Kentucky.
Now, suddenly, Cigar's Maryland citizenship is the stuff of racing history.
It comes at a time when the state's breeding industry is on a palpable upturn after nearly a decade of decline. The Maryland-bred foal crop was up 7 percent in 1994, and a recent yearling auction at Timonium was a huge success, with prices up 62 percent from last year.
A boost for Maryland pride
Although they owe more to luck than any other factor, Cigar's Maryland roots are a nice topper to the run of good news.
"Even though it is largely a symbolic achievement, it reinforces the notion that Maryland is a place where top-class horses are bred," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "There is a general sense of optimism right now, with people becoming more interested in owning horses again. Cigar fits in nicely. It is something we all take pride in."
Such pride is admittedly tenuous. Cigar's owner, Allen Paulson, bases his breeding business at his farm in Kentucky. Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott, is based in New York. Cigar has made only one of 24 career starts in Maryland.
But as players in a sport that is nothing if not a triumph of reality, in which bad news always outweighs good, Maryland's racetrackers are not about to downplay a connection to a horse having the best season since Spectacular Bid in 1980.
"Every time he wins, they say he's a Maryland-bred, and all of us look that much better," said Pons, 41, who also is president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
"And I'm a little defensive about people saying we just got lucky. Because we were prepared to get lucky."
It is true that luck wasn't the only factor allowing Maryland and Country Life Farm to share in Cigar's glory. The story is also one of personal triumph and sound horsemanship rewarded.
Country Life's comeback
Country Life -- a 113-acre spread on a hill overlooking Route 1 -- has touched history before. In 1957, an Ohio racetracker named Jack Price had a mare named Joppy stop at the farm on the way to Florida for a $500 breeding session with an aging stallion named Saggy.
The result, improbably, was a Kentucky Derby winner named Carry Back.
Carry Back's success guaranteed Country Life a place in racing history. But the farm declined in the '70s. Pons' father, Joseph P. Pons Sr., was a guileful horseman but an alcoholic.
"Things kind of fell away and the farm was not in good shape," Josh Pons said. "There are five kids in our family and none were here. When your boss is a drunk, it's not a good working situation."
The elder Pons stopped drinking in 1982 and his children returned to the farm. All five live and work there today. Joseph Pons Sr., 73, still offers counsel.
"However Country Life is perceived today, it is because Dad got sober in 1982," Josh Pons said.
It is perceived as one of Maryland's most successful commercial horse farms, a place at which 50 foals are delivered annually and more than 300 mares are bred to the five "house" stallions.
But such success didn't come overnight once the Ponses decided to rebuild the farm in the '80s. The farm failed to generate business with three stallions before succeeding with Carnivalay.
Seeking to further increase business after that, Country Life purchased two stallions from Paulson: Allen's Prospect in 1987 and Corridor Key in 1988.
Both horses had raced for Paulson. The chairman of Gulfstream and one of the most active horse owners in the world, Paulson has spent tens of millions on bloodstock.
"Mr. Paulson sent Allen's Prospect and Corridor Key to us because of the farm's history of standing good stallions, which dates to 1933," Pons said.
"They do a good job there," said Ted Carr, Paulson's farm manager and bloodstock adviser.
Though Allen's Prospect and Corridor Key were no longer his, Paulson retained breeding shares and a sentimental attachment. In the tradition of all top breeders, he began "supporting" both stallions by sending mares to them, trying to help them establish reputations at stud.
In 1990, Paulson sent 10 mares to Country Life to breed to Allen's Prospect and five for Corridor Key. One of the five for Corridor Key was a 7-year-old named Solar Slew, a daughter of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. She had flopped on the racetrack, but Paulson and Carr still hoped her father's blood would help her produce winners as a broodmare.
Son of Solar Slew
Solar Slew was already pregnant when she arrived at Country Life in February 1990. The sire of the foal in her belly -- the foal that would become Cigar -- was Palace Music, a Paulson stallion who stood in Kentucky.
Solar Slew boarded at Country Life until she delivered her foal on April 18, 1990, and was bred to Corridor Key during the next month. Had she been scheduled to deliver earlier that year, she would have remained at Paulson's farm for foaling and come to Country Life after that to be bred to Corridor Key. Cigar would have been delivered in Kentucky.
"It just worked out that way. To be honest, we don't care where the foaling takes place," Carr said. Solar Slew was scheduled to deliver in April, "So we went ahead and sent her [to Country Life] before [delivery] instead of after," Carr said.
Fate. But not entirely so.
"Mr. Paulson could have sent his mares anywhere but he sent them here because of the things we were doing," Pons said. "The birth of Cigar traces back to that."
Cigar remained at Country Life as an unnamed baby for two months. Near the end of his stay, he kicked Ellen Pons, who was still working as the farm's broodmare manager even though she was pregnant.
"We were all already concerned that Ellen was doing too much with the foals," Pons said. "She was leading them [the foals] in and trying to catch him [Cigar] in the field. We all remember it as the day Ellen couldn't work anymore."
By July, Solar Slew and Cigar were back in Kentucky. Cigar was pointed for a career of racing on the grass. His sire, Palace Music, won almost $1 million as a turf specialist racing mostly in Europe.
Nine wins in six states
Cigar was given his name as a yearling, but not for the reasons one would expect. Paulson, an avid private pilot, names his horses after air traffic control checkpoints. Cigar is a checkpoint in the Gulf of Mexico, between New Orleans and Miami.
No, the horse is not named after a stogie.
Cigar began racing in 1993 as a 3-year-old grass specialist. Legend has it that he was a flop on the grass, but he won two of nine starts as a 3-year-old and two of four through September 1994.
But Mott, one of the country's shrewdest young trainers, finally became exasperated with the underachieving horse. Cigar was given a shot on the dirt last fall at Aqueduct and responded with xTC a win, then came back and won the NYRA Mile, his first stakes win.
This year, he has blown away everyone in his path, winning nine straight races in six states, including the Donn Handicap in Florida, the Oaklawn Handicap in Arkansas, the Hollywood Gold Cup in California, the Pimlico Special in Maryland and the Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup in New York.
Seven of the nine wins were in Grade I stakes, all but one by at least two lengths.
"He has run everywhere, danced every dance, done everything," Capps said.
If he wins the Breeders' Cup Classic, he will complete the first undefeated year for an older male horse since Spectacular Bid went 9-for-9 in 1980.
The last Maryland-bred to win Horse of the Year was Challedon, who won the award twice, in 1939 and 1940. He won the Preakness and two Pimlico Specials.
Since then, Maryland has touched racing greatness several times, but never with a horse actually foaled here.
Native Dancer was owned by Alfred Vanderbilt, who owned Sagamore Farm in Baltimore Country.
Ruffian was owned by Stuart Janney of Glyndon.
Spectacular Bid was owned and trained by Marylanders.
But none of those horses was foaled here.
A Maryland-bred named Kauai King won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1966, but not Horse of the Year.
A Maryland-bred named Concern earned more money than any horse in North America in 1994 and won the Breeders' Cup Classic, but he wasn't Horse of the Year.
Cigar will probably win Horse of the Year, by vote of the racing press, even if he loses the Breeders' Cup Classic. He has been that good, that dominating.
And it all started at Country Life Farm, where the only remnant of Cigar's stay, Pons said, is a perfect dimple on one side of his 5-year-old son's mouth.
"We tell him that Cigar gave him that dimple with the kick," Pons said. "We make sure he watches on TV every time Cigar runs. We tell him, 'That horse kicked you when you were in Mom's stomach.' He thinks it's pretty cool."