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A superstar named Cigar Horse of the year?: Maryland's embattled horse industry needed a hero -- and has one.


THE MOST INSPIRING athlete from Maryland these days? His name starts with a "C," he was born in Harford County and he has a streak going, but it isn't Cal Ripken. It's Cigar, the 5-year-old thoroughbred seeking his 12th straight win today at the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park.

Although his owner hails from Kentucky and his trainer is in New York, Cigar was born in Maryland, at Country Life Farm near Bel Air. His success has become a rallying point for those who feel the state's historic connection to horse racing shouldn't be trampled by a rush toward casinos.

If Cigar wins today, his 10-for-10 mark will break Spectacular Bid's 9-for-9 campaign of 1980 and his $4.81 million in earnings would surpass racing's one-year record of $4.5 million set by Sunday Silence in 1989. Racing writers predict he's a lock for Horse of the Year, too.

Excitement over Cigar is reminiscent of the swell of Chesapeake pride last spring when another Maryland-bred named Oliver's Twist, also owned and trained in Harford County, finished second in the 120th Preakness by a half-length. Their accomplishments are the latest in a procession of storied thoroughbreads with Maryland ties, from Challedon, the state's last Horse of the Year in 1940, to greats Native Dancer and 1964 Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, to modern era stars Ruffian and Spectacular Bid.

Cigar's breakthrough to the public consciousness couldn't have come at a better time. With gambling lobbyists spending a fortune to wrest the sentiments of politicians and the public, Cigar's national acclaim is reaping a windfall in publicity for the horse-racing camp. The strength of the billion-dollar horse industry's arguments notwithstanding, of the jobs it produces and open land it protects, Cigar gives Marylanders a creature of flesh and blood and even personality to cheer on. Rooting for a solid hand of blackjack just isn't the same.

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