BOSTON — BOSTON -- With one swooping romp into the final turn, Cigar devoured mediocre opponents in yesterday's Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs and moved within one win of Citation's modern-day, North American record of 16 straight victories.
The Maryland-bred Cigar paid the minimum $2.20 on a $2 win bet as he barely strained to capture the 1 1/8 -mile MassCap in 1 minute, 49 3/5 seconds. The perfecta with second-place finisher Personal Merit, 2 1/4 lengths back, paid a mere $4.80.
But wagering wasn't the main issue. History was. And Cigar inched closer to a record that has stood for nearly half a century: the legendary Citation's 16 wins in a row in 1948 and '49.
In earning $400,000 and boosting his North American record for career earnings to nearly $8.1 million, Cigar became the first winner of the MassCap since Whirlaway in 1942 to carry 130 pounds. Cigar's ability to race for the first time with that much weight -- the jockey, saddle and lead weights assigned older horses in handicap races -- was perhaps his greatest obstacle.
Also, this was his first competition since his demanding race March 27 in the Middle East -- the $4 million Dubai World Cup, where, for the first time, Cigar was challenged in the stretch and forced to empty his tank of talent and drive.
Some horses never recover from a grueling race like that. But Cigar seemed in fine shape yesterday and now, with No. 15 behind him, he looks forward to trying to match Triple Crown winner Citation's record June 30 in the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap in California.
"He showed us he's back, and he's ready for more," said Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott. "This next race isn't going to be an easy one."
In the Gold Cup, Cigar probably will meet Soul of the Matter, who nearly subdued him in Dubai. That rematch would be one of the most highly anticipated races in recent years.
Cigar's reception yesterday again verified that, in addition to being one of the greatest thoroughbreds in history, he is a genuine star in today's racing world.
His audience on the backside as he walked from his barn toward the track before the race resembled a Fourth of July parade -- beaming, excited people of all ages snapping pictures, applauding or watching in quiet respect.
"Go get 'em, Billy," someone hollered to Mott. "Just don't win by too much."
Then, as Cigar stepped onto the track toward the paddock, fans at the rail -- first four or five deep, then eight to 10 deep, and finally, one mass of humanity -- cheered and clapped and yelled encouragement.
"Thanks for bringing him back," they yelled. "Thank you, Billy."
Cigar won last year's MassCap -- the eighth victory of his streak. And his warm reception from New Englanders was a factor in Mott bringing his star back for yesterday's command performance.
The track sold T-shirts that read: "Cigar . . . The Second Coming." Track management provided a state police escort for Cigar's van Friday from the Connecticut line to Suffolk Downs.
The cheers continued yesterday as Cigar entered the paddock, FTC as his jockey, Jerry Bailey, hopped aboard, and as Cigar loosened up during the post parade. And then the race began.
Cigar broke a step slowly, but quickly gained his stride. As the field of six passed the grandstand for the first time, Cigar settled into fourth, behind the battling front-runners, Prolanzier, a 6-year-old New England veteran, and Will to Reign, an 8-year-old gelding running his 75th race. In third, just ahead of Cigar, was Northern Ensign, a New York allowance runner.
They remained in order around the first turn. But down the backstretch, Cigar glided past Northern Ensign. Then, approaching the final turn, he stormed past the two tiring early speedsters.
And the joyous crowd of 24,125 roared.
Cigar began pulling away by four lengths. It looked as if he might win by a dozen. But Personal Merit, Cigar's one legitimate challenger, rallied on the inside and cut the final margin to 2 1/4 lengths.
Bailey barely moved aboard Cigar, the no-nonsense, 6-year-old model of consistency. But as they approached the wire, Bailey worked his hands forward and back along the brown horse's neck.
"He does get into a little slower mode when he puts away the field," Bailey said. "I have to do a few things that let him know he's still in a horse race. It's pretty subtle, but he knows it."
Bailey acknowledged that this was one of Cigar's easiest races.
"I'm just happy he's won another one," the Hall of Fame jockey said. "I'm aware of the record, and I think everybody in the world has to be of the streak by now. Heck, Cigar's so smart he's probably aware of it."
Even Cigar's opponents recognized the significance of the event.
"I'm totally thrilled," said Sheila McKenna-Santage, assistant trainer to Martin Wolfson, who saddled the runner-up. "It's a total honor for us to finish second to Cigar."
And in a quiet moment after the race, Cigar's owner, aviation magnate Allen E. Paulson, was asked whether he could expect anything more from his obliging champion.
"Yeah," Paulson said, smiling. "No. 16."
Pub Date: 6/02/96