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Cigar's place in history a burning question


ELMONT, N.Y. -- Winner of 11 straight races by a combined 38 lengths, Cigar has championship credentials beyond suspicion. He is obviously the real deal.

But just how great is he? Is he a legitimate heir to Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and the other horses considered the best since World War II? Or is he just the best of a mediocre generation?

These are bar-stool questions without definitive answers, like "Who was better, Bird or Magic?" But the subjective nature of the issue isn't keeping opinions from flying before the Breeders' Cup tomorrow at Belmont Park, where Cigar is a 3-5 favorite to win the Classic.

Trainer Woody Stephens and jockey Angel Cordero Jr. -- two Hall of Famers -- are among those unwilling to include Cigar with the peerless champions.

Cordero said Cigar, a 5-year-old Maryland-bred, was "not as good" as Bid or Secretariat, "at least not yet." And Stephens told the Dallas Morning News: "Cigar is the best horse around right now, but I don't consider him a great horse. There's just nobody around who can beat him right now."

That's an insult to the competition more than Cigar, and the insult has merit. There is no doubt injuries have damaged the quality of Cigar's opposition.

Holy Bull, the Horse of the Year in 1994, had to retire after breaking down in February in the Donn Handicap, a race Cigar won easily. Prairie Bayou, the best of Cigar's class at Triple Crown age -- and, as a gelding, a handicap horse with much promise -- had to be put down after shattering a foreleg in the 1993 Belmont.

Cigar wouldn't have had it so easy with those two chasing him to the wire in big races.

"If Holy Bull was right, Holy Bull would win," said Phil Johnson, a top New York trainer.

Other evidence that the anti-Cigar faction uses are the weights he has carried (never more than 126 pounds, as opposed to as much as 134 for Seattle Slew) and the fact that he was mediocre at best until trainer Bill Mott switched him from grass to dirt racing. (Cigar didn't compete in the Triple Crown and won just four of 15 starts before his streak began last October.) As well, Cigar hasn't set one track record during his streak.

Those are the reasons purists howled when Mott said over the summer that it was possible no one had ever trained a better horse than Cigar. Mott has since backed off that statement a bit, calling it "a little ambitious." But he still says Cigar rates with Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew and Secretariat.

"You would hope he'd be considered as great in 10 years," Mott said.

Don't count on it. "Bid" won 26 of 30 starts at 16 tracks, finished off the board only once and won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and all nine of his 4-year-old starts. That's awesome. Cigar can't touch that.

Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and went 14-for-17 in his career. Kelso won Horse of the Year five straight years, Forego three straight years. Secretariat not only won everything there was to win on the dirt, but he also won two big grass stakes at the end of his career, a remarkable display of versatility.

Viewed against those kinds of numbers and feats, Cigar's place in history becomes clearer. With a 13-for-24 career record, he may not rate with the "Bids" and "Slews" for career-long consistency and accomplishment, but, if he wins tomorrow, he will be remembered for putting on one of the best one-year

performances ever.

He has won seven Grade I stakes at five tracks in five states in 1995. Without throwing in one clunker.

"I've followed him all over the country, and there isn't anything the least bit flimsy about what he has done this year," said former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang. "You can't do anything more than what he has done this year. He has thrown a perfect game over a span of eight months. I saw it with my own two eyes, and it's one of the great things I have ever seen in this sport."

Lang disputes the notion that the lack of opposition undermines the achievement.

"It's fair to raise the issue," he said, "but it doesn't say anything about Cigar. People say, 'OK, who has he beaten?' I say, 'Well, for starters, everyone that has run against him.' That's not bad."

So, as Cigar prepares to finish off his brilliant season, let's recognize him for what he is more than isn't. He is the best 5-year-old in decades. He is the owner of a longer winning streak than Secretariat had. He is a sensational racehorse.

"He reminds me of the old-time great ones," trainer Nick Zito said. "What makes a great horse? Winning. That's it. Period. Nothing else. And this horse has won them all this year. That makes him a great horse."

NB Maybe he isn't Spectacular Bid. But that's about all he isn't.

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