The Horse of a Lifetime

Racing Years

Over the years, Cigar has been an icon at the Horse Park, where he’s resided since 1999. But he was more than that. He was a link to the sport as it once was and a living testament to true greatness, a word that possibly is thrown around a little too freely in racing’s ranks these days. There’s no doubt a lot of good and some great horses have come along since Cigar last set foot on a track in the mid-1990s. Yet as the years have gone by since he retired, I’ve realized he was more than just the first big horse I followed. He was one who set a bar so high he really was the horse of a lifetime, and if I never see another like him… Well, having watched him run through a streak of unparalleled excellence is more than enough. I came to realize too with the passing years since his retirement, how rare his achievements were. It is just incredible that a horse raced at the top level of competition for nearly two years straight, across the country and even around the world, and barely missed a step. He almost made it seem like he was not vulnerable to the off days, to the bad luck, to one wrong step or missed cue or impeded trip that have befallen many good and even great race horses who lost races they should have won, and would have won with a little more luck. I did realize what a rare feat his streak of 16 wins in a row was, absolutely, and I followed his every move avidly and always hoped to see his distinct blaze finding its way in a rush to the front of the pack. But it was only later, in the context of history, that I truly appreciated how he was the definition of greatness. The long trip to Dubai, when he won the first Dubai World Cup even while plagued with a foot problem, didn’t stop him from putting forth a gutsy effort. He always gave his all, and even towards the end of his career when all the travel and all the racing caught up with him, he was still a force to be reckoned with. There was no quit in this horse, but he had earned his retirement. It’s been mentioned how he had two retirement parties, one in the unlikely setting of Madison Square Garden. I have never heard of that before or since, but Cigar deserved that. He deserved every accolade and honor the sport saw fit to bestow upon him, and I only wish I could have been there. I wish it now and I wished it then, but I was only 17 and the closest I could come to him was through a TV screen.

But that was enough to know how incredible he was, to be moved by all his triumphs and to have him win a permanent place in my heart. I’ve seen horses that have come close to meaning what he does to me, but none of them can quite measure up. And that is said with no disrespect to those horses. They just don’t often race them like they did Cigar, and since he stayed sound and competitive to the end of his career, I am glad they did run him until he was six. It gave everyone a chance to fully see what he was capable of, and let a large and devoted fan base build around him. Every time I think of the mid-90s, I think of it as a bit of a golden era in racing for several reasons. Sure, racing has never been problem-free, but I look back at those days from time to time, especially when people talk about how racing needs to be fixed to appeal to more people or to attract more fans. I could easily be looking at those days through a lens of nostalgia, but the main things I remember from them are Cigar, and horses like Flanders and Serena’s Song, to name a few who stood out in that time period, and one big point: lots of racing coverage on mainstream channels. Every one of Cigar’s races was on ESPN or perhaps a basic channel like NBC. There was no need to buy special packages or channels to see his races or any of the races of any of the other stars of that time period. I know that mattered. I miss the widespread racing coverage that used to exist, and it is possible Cigar’s career would not have made as much of an impact on me today as racing is relegated to channels few people see. That would have been a real shame. He deserved all the prime access on easily accessible channels he could get, for he transcended the ordinary. At the same time, there’s no denying that this widespread TV access helped spread his fame even farther than it would have otherwise spread.

Initial Retirement

He gave everything during his race career, and in retirement he took up residence in one of the large barns at Ashford Stud. Like so many of the stud farms in the bluegrass region of central Kentucky, it was a grand establishment. It definitely leaves a mark upon visitors, seeing how grand the barns and grounds are at the Thoroughbred farms in this area. They are designed for equine royalty, and the people who own them. Cigar definitely fit that bill, but his residence at Ashford proved to be short-lived. Unfortunately, he was irreversibly sterile, and tests by the insurance company that had insured him in case of infertility proved that. It was unfortunate, that he would never have a chance to try to pass on even a fraction of his formidable talent, but I will never forget what my mom said when he was found to be infertile in early 1997. She said that his greatness was all for himself, and when in his presence that greatness shone throughout his whole life. It’s been said by anyone who’s been around Thoroughbreds that the great ones seem to know they’re great. That may sound like anthropomorphizing, but I’ve heard theories that indicate it’s possible. It’s based on the herd hierarchy that structures the life of horses, even if they don’t live in the wild. When a foal has an elite dam – one who has won top races or is just the dominant mare in the field, that apparently may even extend to the foal to the time he or she goes to the track, if he also ends up being a dominant horse due to his dam’s influence. It’s based on the theory that even in a race, some type of herd hierarchy is in effect. I don’t really know how much that theory may hold true, but whether that is the case or not, I have seen how the Thoroughbreds who stood out and were among the top of their crop when they raced often seem to display this sense of their own greatness.

The Kentucky Horse Park Welcomes a Champion

When the insurance company determined there was nothing to be done for Cigar’s infertility, they donated him to the Kentucky Horse Park to be visited by his fans. I was overjoyed. I didn’t live in Kentucky at the time, but was just glad to know that they were going to cease the tests and retire him to a place where he could be visited by the public and would receive exemplary care for the rest of his life. As I recall, there was a proviso that if they ever found a procedure or new medical breakthrough that would reverse his sterility, they would reclaim him, but felt that was just a formality. It seemed they’d already thoroughly researched anything that could possibly be done and it was time for a new phase of his life. Standing at stud can take a toll through the years, especially when a horse gets older, and it puts stress on his skeletal system. I would certainly have loved to see Cigar foals as well, but since that was not to be, the next best thing was for him to be available to his fans. He would have to do nothing more strenuous than parade around a ring to be viewed three times a day, five times a week, given the two days off the Horse Park provides all its horses.

And that is where I met him in May 2002, face-to-face for the first time with the horse I’d followed through TV, racing magazines, and newspapers. It was an emotional moment, to look into his eyes for the first time. He moved me just as he did when he raced, and he never failed to stir something in me each time I saw him. Over the years, just watching him in his paddock, he was hard to turn away from. There was a magnetism about him that ran deep. He didn’t often interact with me or even look at me, but I was still captivated by the way he carried himself and the greatness that exuded from him. No matter how many times I sat in the Hall of Champions and heard that famous Tom Durkin race call that trumpeted how he was the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable CIGAR!” it never failed to thrill me, and then Cigar himself would stride into the ring to one of the best introductions any horse could have. The announcer would begin to tell his story, but I would usually just let that flow over me and watch Cigar. It always felt like a gift to be in his presence. The great ones make you feel that way.

I’ve been reading how Jerry Bailey, in the short time since Cigar has passed, said he was a horse that made him love horses. I was fortunate enough to get to interview Bailey last summer while writing for the Saratoga Special, and my assignment was to ask 10 people who their favorite Hall of Famer was, either a person or horse. It came back to me this week how much Cigar impacted his life hearing those quotes that were just as he had told me. We stood there in the shed row of the barn where Wise Dan resided, and not far from the serenity of a private farm where Cigar had trained, as he reminisced a bit on what Cigar had meant to him. He has elaborated on this more in the stories interviewing him since Cigar died, but to me he said, “Cigar is my favorite horse – he’s one of the only horses I actually did have a relationship with while I was riding.”

The Memories

Anytime I went to the Horse Park, it was inevitable that at some point I would end up at the Hall of Champions to see Cigar. To have him practically in my back yard felt like such a privilege. Of all the times I visited him and as much as he always captivated me, there were still a few that stood out more than others. One was the day in 2007 when they actually led him out of the pavilion where the champions are shown and let people get up close and personal with him for photos.


I’m not sure what led to the deviation from the usual procedure that day, but was so glad I happened to be there for it. Cigar was manageable but feisty, and it was definitely clear in his behavior that he was a stallion. The Horse Park staff, understandably, kept people at a safe distance from him, so I’m grateful they let us actually touch him and stand right by him that day.

Another moment that I remember well was not long after John Henry died, and it might have even been the day of John’s memorial service. For a time, they had Cigar in John Henry’s former stall and pasture.


One day while I was there watching him in John’s paddock, he came running up full of energy and vitality, and it seemed like a glimpse into what it must have been like to be at the rail for one of his races, seeing all his power and might as he sped by.

The other day that stands out the most was in the summer of 2012, during the annual Egyptian Arabian Event in June. Cigar by then was 22, but he didn’t look it at all. I’d never really gotten his attention when he was in the paddock, but that seemed fitting in a way. I held him in such esteem that even finally getting to see his plaque in the Hall of Fame in the summer of 2013 was a moment that lingered, to see where he had been enshrined among racing’s greats. This esteem, while it may seem I have a maudlin attitude towards him, extended to feeling that if I didn’t catch his eye I wasn’t going to try that hard. If the champ made eye contact, I wanted it to be of his own will. It was in the fading daylight that a group of Arabians paraded by on their way to the show ring, and for some reason that day they caught Cigar’s eye and he watched them intently. After they all passed by, it was just he and I, eye to eye at last.

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The rapidly approaching twilight didn’t do much for the quality of my photos but I still love them for what I see in his eyes, and most of all that he and I had that moment of eye contact at last. It felt like a gift, really, one I was so grateful to receive. Again, the greats can move you that way. I spoke to one of my friends – a long-time supporter of the Horse Park – yesterday after hearing of his death, and without me mentioning my story she told of a similar contact with him, and even described it as being a gift.


That moment where he and I regarded each other across the fence line ended when he wheeled away to roll and then rose in a magnificent rear, in a display of untamed fire, the unconquerable Cigar still very much present all these years later, and I was lost in admiration for how he looked and behaved, belying his age, this grand dappled horse who lives in a class all his own.

There was one more memory that lingers, though it was one of quiet and peace, not even of direct contact. It was a few days after that moment he and I were eye to eye, and I was content to just linger by his paddock as the summer sun slowly set, filtering through the trees. I remember thinking he was the horse of my lifetime as he cropped the grass, his silhouette barely discernible. But it was enough to just feel the peace of a summer evening in the quiet and wide-open spaces where horses reside, where I find my serenity too. I watched fireflies light his pasture, looking like a million tiny stars, and it was a scene so peaceful and lovely that it could almost be seen as magical. It took me back to summers from my childhood, when I played outside until I could barely see, and caught fireflies. That’s what horses bring to me, the memory of a simpler time, and space to breathe and live in the moment.

In The End

I had tried to brace myself for knowing as the years encroached upon him, that there was no telling how long he might still be with us. But the Horse Park had so many champions in their care that lived quite long lives, and Cigar had not really looked his age most of the times I had seen him. I didn’t get to see him much this year; life intervened. The last time I saw him was a few months ago, and he was being kept inside. It might have been due to approaching storms. He was looking through the open door at the back of his stall and I watched a few moments, just taking in his presence, before moving on. I aimed to come back sometime and see him in the presentation, but it was not to be. I hadn’t really heard of his health deteriorating, but I could understand if the Park didn’t want to mention it, and worry people.

So it hit me a bit hard when I heard he was gone, on the morning of October 8th. He had a long and great life, and the best care. He had plenty of fans and admiring people come to see him through the years. He still lived like royalty in his roomy stall and his large paddock, and he often did look like the king of all he surveyed. There was nothing that could have been done or should have been done differently with the issues he faced with his mobility and the onset of arthritis, but it still hit me that the horse of my lifetime was gone.

I had to wait until the early evening to take him flowers. I don’t know what compelled me to go that same day instead of wait until the park was open and it was daylight. The man at the gate who takes parking fees asked if he could help me, since the park was closed, and when I said I just wanted to bring flowers to Cigar he waved me through. They sat on my seat, a dozen white roses. They would have been red, white, and blue flowers for the silks he carried when he raced, if I had found a florist shop open or had gone to a place with a bigger flower selection, but I wanted to get there while some daylight remained.

I had planned to leave them at his stall door, but the barn door was shut most of the way and I didn’t want to be intrusive though I’d already been waved through to leave the flowers. I reminisced a bit on the time I had stood by this paddock as he grazed in the summer twilight a few years ago. It was just as quiet and serene now as it had been then. The sun was slowly sinking behind the trees and peace flowed. It was a lovely place to lay him to rest, and to pay my respects. For of course, he was already buried there. I had really only been thinking of leaving the flowers at his stall door. I had not really expected to see a freshly dug grave, and that was a bit hard to see. I guess I was just remembering all the times I’d seen him at that same pasture in life, and there was a finality now to the banner on the fence with his years of life and the words “Remembering a Legend.”


But you know, a horse like that never really leaves us. He’s been a part of me, in a sense, through all these years, and he always will be. I’ve thought of the saying, “don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” And while it’s hard to say goodbye to anyone or anything that feels like a part of who you are, I’m so grateful to the Horse Park for all the years of care they gave him and for letting his fans meet him and walk away touched by his soul and spirit. That’s what remains, what a gift it was to know Cigar even a little, to have him blaze a path through the racing world and leave us feeling like better people for having known him. RIP buddy. Your spirit lives on, and thanks for the memories.