BOSTON — BOSTON -- The moment of transformation caught even the astute trainer by surprise.
On Oct. 28, 1994, the ever-vigilant Bill Mott casually walked an undistinguished, though intriguely named, racehorse to the paddock at Aqueduct in New York. After watching the horse struggle through four dismal races on the turf, Mott had decided to give him a chance on dirt.
And that day, a Maryland-bred named Cigar, until then destined for a career of numbing third- and fourth-place finishes in throw-away allowance races, turned into a racehorse destined to become one of the greatest thoroughbreds in history.
That day over Aqueduct's one-mile dirt course, Cigar sizzled to an eight-length victory.
L "Our jaws dropped open after the race," Mott said this week.
That was just the beginning. Cigar won his next 13 races in a row -- all on dirt and at eight different tracks, including one halfway around the globe against the best horses in the world.
Today, the 6-year-old Cigar seeks his 15th straight in the $250,000, 1 1/8 -mile Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs. A victory would place him within one of Citation's 20th-century North American record.
Cigar's opposition is a quintet of ordinary horses. Yet he faces a formidable task. For the first time he must carry 130 pounds -- jockey, saddle and lead weights used in handicap races for older horses. That is 19 to 22 pounds more than his opponents will carry today.
Cigar already has raced and won with 128 pounds. So what difference can two pounds make?
"Every horse has a breaking point," said Cigar's jockey, Jerry Bailey. "It's like a weightlifter who can jump up 15 pounds with no problem. But that 16th pound might be an impossible task."
Citation, who in 1950 won his 16th straight race, lost his bid for No. 17 when, for the first time, he carried 130 pounds.
That probably wasn't the only reason Citation faltered. He had just resumed racing after missing all of 1949 because of an injury.
Cigar returns to competition after his own travails: A foot injury and the most punishing race of his life, the $4 million Dubai World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. Cigar's courageous run March 27 down that long homestretch in the desert left even cynical racing fans in tears.
AFor the first time since that jaw-dropping win at Aqueduct, Cigar confronted a serious challenge in the stretch and, for one sinking moment, looked as if he would lose. But, in the words of Ted Carr, who oversaw Cigar's care as a youngster in Kentucky:
"He reached down into his heart, and he found another gear. He looked that other horse in the eye as if to say, 'Let's go. You're not going to pass me no matter how many times we go around this track.' "
Carr is manager of Brookside Farm, about 20 miles west of Lexington, where an unnamed, unimposing colt resided in 1990. The "tough little son of a gun," in Carr's words, arrived that year in July after spending his first three months at his birthplace, Country Life Farm in Harford County.
Cigar was born in Maryland, even though both sire and dam were owned by the aviation tycoon and Kentucky horse breeder Allen E. Paulson, 73. Paulson had sent one of his broodmares, Solar Slew, a daughter of the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, to Country Life Farm in February 1990.
Solar Slew was pregnant, and after giving birth she was to be bred to one of the farm's stallions. On April 18, Solar Slew gave birth to a son of Palace Music, an undistinguished stallion who had raced mainly on turf.
The foal, who in Maryland always will be "the Maryland-bred Cigar," returned in July to Brookside Farm, where he was conceived.
"He was a nice colt," Carr said, "but you wouldn't look at him and say, 'This is going to be a world beater.' We figured he was just an average yearling in the group."
But he was tough. Once, apparently spooked by a deer, he ran into a fence, ripped open his right shoulder, took 30 stitches and acted as if it all was standard operating procedure.
And he was rough. The farmhands nicknamed him "Hammer."
"I guess he thumped a few of them on their heads; pawed them, you might say, when they were working on him," Carr said, laughing. "Yeah, he had some fight in him."
"Hammer" got a name when Paulson, an avid pilot, named the colt after an aviation checkpoint, "Cigar," in the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Tampa.
Cigar did not race as a 2-year-old because he was gawky and lacked muscle development. And then as a 3-year-old in California, he raced mainly on turf, as his father did, but with little success.
That is why Cigar never competed in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes -- races on dirt for 3-year-olds. And that is why many Americans, who cannot name a horse race outside the Triple Crown, never heard of Cigar, even as his string of victories inched toward the historic.
Mott takes over
Cigar's transformation began when Paulson transferred him from trainer on the West Coast, where the struggling horse recorded two wins, two seconds and two thirds in nine starts, into the care of Mott in New York.
Mott, the 42-year-old son of a South Dakota veterinarian, inherited a horse who needed meticulous care. In his last race in California as a 3-year-old, Cigar chipped a knee and then underwent surgery.
From January to July 1994, the reserved Mott practiced the patience, keen observation and skilled management for which he is so highly regarded. He is perhaps the best trainer in America, but because he is not D. Wayne Lukas, the outgoing trainer who thrives on publicity and Triple Crown victories, he is little known away from the track.
But even the shrewd Mott, when Cigar finally was ready to race, entered him back on the turf. Four times Cigar ran on New York grass. Twice he finished third, once fourth and once seventh.
"Each race got worse and worse," Mott said.
Exasperated, he entered Cigar on the dirt -- on Oct. 28, 1994, late in the horse's 4-year-old year -- and Cigar has not lost since.
What triggered this sudden, near-miraculous transformation?
"I think the talent and raw ability were always there," Mott said calmly. "We eliminated the things he didn't like, and we let him be what he is today."
But other, more royally bred horses run under optimum conditions and lose quite often.
"It's just like with a human athlete," said Carr, the Brookside Farm manager. "Who knows?"
And Mike Pons, the business manager of Maryland's Country Life Farm, offered this: "I think it's part of the intrigue. There are either an infinite amount of reasons -- the change to dirt, Bill Mott, different feed, all sorts of things -- or there is no reason. It's a mystery."
No stopping him
Regardless of what lit the flame in Cigar's psyche, the fire has burned hot. From the end of 1994 through 1995 -- including a stopover in Baltimore for a win in the Pimlico Special -- and now into 1996, Cigar has become the toughest, winningest and best-known horse in the world.
He returned triumphant from his sternest test, the Dubai World Cup in the Middle East, as the richest thoroughbred ever to race in North America. The $2.4 million winner's check swelled his bankroll to nearly $7.7 million.
But Cigar was exhausted. He had lost at least 75 pounds of his approximate 1,100-pound bulk, according to the estimates of his trainer. No one understood better than Mott how taxing that journey -- and the weeks leading up to it -- had been.
Five weeks before the race, Mott cut into Cigar's right front hoof to drain a painful abscess that had started as a bruise. Cigar spent 11 days in his stall, missing the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 2 and casting doubt upon his venture to Dubai.
But Mott, whose patience is unshakable, nursed him through that crisis, and Cigar won his 14th race in a row.
Now, Mott said, Cigar has reached the point in his career when he races not just against other horses, but against a foe that eventually wears down all comers.
"It's a test of time, as well as a test of raw ability and talent," Mott said. "It's a question of durability. How long can he keep going?"
Paulson, Cigar's owner, said that if all goes well, Cigar would compete June 30 in the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap in California. He would race a couple of more times this summer, and then run in North America's richest race, the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Woodbine, near Toronto, on Oct. 28 -- two years to the day after launching his incredible winning streak.
And that, Paulson said, probably would be Cigar's last race. He ** would be retired and transformed again, into Cigar the stallion.
A look at Cigar's 14-race win streak. Jerry Bailey was the rider for all but the first race, for which Mike Smith was the jockey.
Oct. 28, 1994: Allowance race, 1M, Aqueduct
Nov. 26, 1994: NYRA Mile (Grade I Stakes), 1M, Aqueduct
Jan. 22, 1995: Allowance race, 1 1/16M, Gulfstream Park
Feb. 11, 1995: Donn Handicap (Grade I Stakes), 1 1/8M, Gulfstream Park
March 5, 1995: Gulfstream Park Handicap (Grade I Stakes), 1 1/4M
April 15, 1995: Oaklawn Handicap (Grade I Stakes), 1 1/8M, Oaklawn Park
May 13, 1995: Pimlico Special (Grade I Stakes), 1 3/16M
June 3, 1995: Massachusetts Handicap, 1 1/8M, Suffolk Downs
July 2, 1995: Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap (Grade I Stakes), 1 1/4M, Hollywood Park
Sept. 16, 1995: Woodward Stakes (Grade I Stakes), 1 1/8M, Belmont
Oct. 7, 1995: Jockey Club Gold Cup (Grade I Stakes), 1 1/4M, Belmont
Oct. 28, 1995: Breeders' Cup Classic (Grade I Stakes), 1 1/4M, Belmont
Feb. 10, 1996: Donn Handicap (Grade I Stakes), 1 1/8M, Gulfstream Park
L March 27, 1996: Dubai World Cup, 1 1/4M, Nad Al Sheba course
Pub Date: 6/01/96