ELMONT, N.Y. -- It was as if Cigar understood that he had to do more than just win the Breeders' Cup Classic yesterday at Belmont Park.
It was as if he understood that his credentials as a superstar were being debated among racetrackers everywhere, and that he had to deliver an extraordinary performance as an argument on his behalf.
All he did was raise the echoes of Secretariat with a 2 1/2 -length victory that completed his perfect 1995 season and had a tough, wet New York crowd roaring in appreciation.
Ordinarily, comparisons to Secretariat are easily dismissed as hyperbole, but not this time. Breaking from the 10th post position, racing on a muddy track, circling the strip well wide of the rail, Cigar covered 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 2/5, an astonishing time that was nothing if not the stuff of history.
Only one other time in either the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup Classic -- the country's two most important races, run at the same distance of 1 1/4 miles -- has the two-minute barrier been broken. Secretariat did it when he won the Derby 22 years ago.
Cigar's time yesterday was identical to Secretariat's in the Derby.
True, Secretariat did it as a 3-year-old and Cigar as a 5-year-old. But let's not quibble. The savvy crowd at Belmont didn't. It cheered Cigar's performance twice: once as he came down the stretch in complete control, then again when the winning time VTC was posted. The fans knew they had gotten what they came for, a glimpse of real greatness.
"When I saw that [time], I knew it had been a really big performance," said Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott. "I'm sure it'll hit me later."
What made it so remarkable was that it was so unremarkable for most of the race. Cigar loped along in third for the first half-mile, then dropped to fourth heading into the far turn. The pace was slow, not surprising considering the track. The first three-quarters of a mile were run in 1:12 2/5, a time not uncommon for allowance races at Pimlico.
But when jockey Jerry Bailey asked Cigar to accelerate on the turn, Cigar immediately blew by the three horses in front of him, almost as if they were just jogging. The race was over at that point; the other horses could have chased him for six miles and never caught him. But Cigar still finished so devastatingly hard that he overcame the slow pace to break two minutes.
The last of his five quarter-mile segments was the fastest -- under 23 seconds. It was an Eckersley-style finish if ever there was one.
"And he did it with an amazing amount of effortlessness," Mott said in a wonderfully twisted but vivid description.
Indeed, Bailey seemed almost ashamed to be receiving any credit.
"He's so fluid that I didn't even feel him change gears when I asked him to run," Bailey said. "The only way you know you're going faster is you start passing everyone. I've never ridden a horse like that and may never again."
That from a Hall of Fame jockey who has won a Kentucky Derby and four of the past five Breeders' Cup Classics, including the last three in a row.
The win -- Cigar's 12th in a row -- answered the only legitimate question left about him: Could he win on a sloppy track? Mott admitted he became nervous as the week wore on and rain that fell yesterday became inevitable. Cigar had been a mediocre horse on grass, a softer surface more similar to slop.
"I was worried," Mott said. "I had complete confidence in him, but [the mud] was an unanswered question."
No more. Maybe the late-blooming Cigar doesn't quite rate with Spectacular Bid, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and other modern superstars for career-long consistency, accomplishment and versatility, but there is no doubt now that he rates with them on the racetrack as he performed in 1995. He went 10-for-10, with seven of the wins coming away from his home base at Belmont.
"The hardest thing in sports is to go on the road and win," rival trainer Nick Zito said yesterday, "and he won on the road for a year. I just tip my cap. This horse clearly rates with the old-time great ones."
The good news is that owner Allen Paulson probably will bring him back to the track next year instead of retiring him to stud. The prospect of running in the Dubai Cup, a $4 million race in Saudi Arabia in March, is a powerful inducement.
But whatever reasoning he uses, let's hope Paulson allows Cigar to run one more year. Racing is a beleaguered franchise that has waited for a superstar to come along, and Cigar is the one. It would be criminal to retire him now, after he posted that 1:59 2/5 yesterday and trotted off to his high place in history.