Cigar still champion; Horse racing: Two-time Horse of the Year is just as commanding at the Kentucky Horse Park as he was on the track.


LEXINGTON, Ky. -- At the Kentucky Horse Park, Cigar is "the world's horse."

That's what the narrator calls him as Cathy Roby leads the two-time Horse of the Year into the pavilion at the park's Hall of Champions, Cigar's home since May. Three times each day, Roby shows off Cigar in the small pavilion where a narrator chronicles his career while Cigar eyes his adoring fans and pricks his ears at each camera's click.

"He is the world's horse," said Mike Pons during a visit to the park in Lexington. "People ought to be able to see him. He's a ham. I think he looks magnificent."

The Pons family operates Country Life Farm near Bel Air, where Cigar was born April 18, 1990. Mike and his father, Joe, spent a couple of hours with Cigar recently at his new home, feeding him mints, watching him graze and recalling his outstanding career during his morning showing at the Hall of Champions.

"He just looks like a champion," said Joe Pons, ever slicing to the heart of matters.

And a champion Cigar was: Horse of the Year in 1995 and 1996, winner of 16 consecutive races (equaling Citation's 20th-century mark) and leading money-earner of all time ($9,999,815).

After retiring in late 1996, Cigar failed to impregnate a single mare at stud. For two years, an equine-reproductive specialist in Kentucky tried unsuccessfully to reverse Cigar's infertility.

On May 2, one day after this year's Kentucky Derby, Cigar was transferred from the specialist's private farm to this public park on loan from his owners. Although Madeleine and Allen Paulson campaigned Cigar, an Italian insurance company assumed ownership as part of its $25 million settlement of the infertility policy on Cigar.

He seems happy at the horse park in his large stall between Cam Fella, a standardbred pacer who won 61 of 80 races, including 28 in a row, and Bold Forbes, winner of the 1976 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. At 26, Bold Forbes is the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner.

John Henry, the venerable gelding (24 years old), resides in a stall facing Cigar. John Henry also earned Horse of the Year twice, the second time in his final year of racing at age 9.

"Cigar loves it," said Roby, the barn manager. "He's adjusted so well. He loves all the people. He loves to show off."

Roby said that Cigar yawned during one of his first showings, prompting a round of laughter. Cigar picked up on that immediately, Roby said. Ever since, she said, Cigar yawns at just about every show.

"A lot of the horses ignore the tourists," Roby said. "But Cigar stands right by the door most of the day. I'll put his hay in the back corner of the stall, but he'll push it all the way over by the door so he can eat and be with the people at the same time.

"He and John Henry have a competition going. John used to be the big man around here. So when Cigar gets all the attention, John starts raising cane, whinnying and carrying on until everybody starts paying attention to him. Then Cigar starts up trying to get them back."

Cigar usually wins. He is possibly the most popular thoroughbred alive. Traveling the world during his 16-race win streak, he stared straight into the eyes of onlookers, posed for their pictures and then won their hearts with his power and consistency on the racetrack.

By all appearances, he continues to thrive on their adoration at the horse park. It is a 1,032-acre public farm billed as a "living museum to man's relationship with the horse." The park is home to about 200 horses representing 42 breeds.

About 175,000 visitors pass through the gates annually, although that number will rise this year because of Cigar. John Nicholson, executive director of the park, said he prefers not to discuss attendance yet, except to say: "It's reminiscent of John Henry's first year here. Our attendance is greater, and we think it's because of Cigar. "Fans now have the chance to pay homage. How many other sports let you get this close to the champions?"

Cigar's day begins at 8 a.m. with breakfast of sweet feed and hay, followed by a bath. At 10: 15 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3: 30 p.m., Roby leads him the few steps from his stall to the pavilion for the daily showings.

As Roby leads Cigar around the ring, stopping frequently for photos, a narrator summarizes Cigar's career. The appearance concludes with a video of Cigar's stirring victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

For the first two shows, Cigar, the featured attraction, appears last. But for the final show, he steps into the ring first. He knows that after this he gets to go outside. He won't stand still if Roby makes him wait.

So about 3: 40 p.m. every day, Roby releases the great horse for the night into his large paddock, a fenced-in field next to Bold Forbes' and across from John Henry's. Cigar goes straight to the dirt pile he made for himself and rolls. If it's cool, he begins running.

He runs circles in the paddock and then runs back to the fence, trying to get the other horses to run, too. Cigar looks first over at John Henry. If John won't run, Cigar prances over and looks at Bold Forbes.

Every now and then, when the three retired champions feel just right, they'll run around their paddocks at the same time, displaying the competitiveness that earned their places in history.

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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