Note: this post was written shortly after Cigar’s memorial service was held on November 14, 2014. It is a bit long, but it is one last homage to the horse that he was and what he meant to me and so many people. The photo above is of the sun shining through the clouds that day.
The night before Cigar’s memorial service, I searched for the way from my house to the Horse Park, where he lays at rest. It was not that I didn’t know the way well, but just that I wanted to be certain of the amount of time it would take to get there.
I had known, from the time I brought a bouquet of white roses to pay my respects in the rapidly gathering darkness the night after he died, that I would need to return when his memorial service was held. That night, even knowing he was an older horse and his amount of time left on earth probably was dwindling, had been about trying to come to terms with his passing.
The memorial service, while it would probably have had moments when I’d miss him all over again, would be to celebrate the life he lived and what he meant to me, and it was a strong pull to be there. Unfortunately, the service came at the end of a trying week that made a jumble of my plans and found me scrambling to get a car repair finished in time to be there. That is why I conducted the search for directions to be sure of the quickest way to the Horse Park. With a little pang, I noted that they directed me to take Cigar Lane, of course named for the legend, but not a road I normally see brought up in directions, as it skirts around the perimeter of the Park, instead of leading directly to the main parking lot. It was definitely a day when everything was drawing me to him one more time.
I’m sure I’ll attend the celebration and remembrance of the twentieth anniversary of his Breeders’ Cup Classic win next year, and visit the Park at other times, but without him there it just won’t be the same. It may take a while before standing at his grave doesn’t hit me hard, so I’m not thinking I’ll be inclined to do be at the Park that often for a bit. Just as the directions had steered me to Cigar Lane, any time I went to the Park, I knew my destination would be a straight course to Cigar. I never got tired of watching him and being in his presence, even if he was just grazing. How could I? In a sense it felt like a blessing just to be in his presence, to get to be that close to one of the all-time greats.
It was a sunny but bitterly cold day the day of the service, and I walked into a florist’s shop to pick up a single rose for Cigar. When I first paid my respects, I had thought of getting flowers in the colors of the silks he carried – red, white, and blue – and I considered it again, but once more settled on a white rose. I saw a canister of peppermints on their counter and while I waited for the florist to wrap the rose with baby’s breath, I impulsively grabbed four of them. I could put them in among the baby’s breath perhaps, or around his grave.
I actually had a whole bag of peppermints at home that had been meant for his birthday this year. When I wasn’t able to make the celebration, they just stayed in my car until I could mail them and then when even the time to mail them seemed to slip past, I moved them to the couch and there they’d sat while the seasons changed from late spring to summer to early fall, and Cigar left us. Part of me didn’t want to tear the bag open to put a handful of the candy on his grave. Perhaps I’d give them to a living horse at some point, as they had been meant for. Perhaps I’d just keep them as the intended gift.
At the florist’s shop, I changed my mind about scattering the peppermints among his grave and asked the florist instead to attach them to the flowers. Realizing that request might sound a bit odd, I told her the rose was for a memorial service for a horse, and that horses like peppermints. I don’t know where they came from, but suddenly I was in tears. I’d been utterly fine, but perhaps I started thinking of the years of birthdays come to an end, as his birthplace Country Life Farm had said the day after he died. Sometimes a lot of things are just thrown at us at once and the tears were probably a reflection of that, as well as just about Cigar himself.
I’m not sure where she had been although I guess it must have been in one of the little stations where other florists were making creations for the shop displays or for orders, but suddenly a lady came up to my side and starting asking me if it was my horse, and I said, “No, he was a famous horse and they were having his memorial service today.” She asked if he was Cigar, and I said yes, and then told me her own horse had just died so she understood. It all spilled out of me then how I just grew up watching him and he was the horse of my lifetime. She asked if he had been at Rood and Riddle when he died and said her horse had as well.
Those moments of connection because of the horse have been ones that have brought many amazing people into my life, whether it was briefly or had long-term effects positively rippling throughout my life. This was one of those brief connections where neither of us knew each other’s names, but it didn’t matter. We loved the horse and we understood each other’s grief, just as many times I had understood other people’s joys and shared them as well at some of the greatest triumphs in horse racing.
I remember after Barbaro died, his owner Gretchen Jackson said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” It’s true, and inevitable, and when these animals touch my soul, I too grieve for them deeply. But though the grief hurts, I would never ever trade it for the chance to follow these horses’ paths and have them touch me the way they did. Maybe the price seems steep, but there was never a question of them not meaning something to me.
I only managed to arrive at the memorial service when it was all over and throngs of people gathered in little groups, in the pavilion where I had seen Cigar so many times, now displaying two photos and a wreath of red, white, and blue flowers with his name on it.
I’m not sure to describe how I felt seeing his stall empty. It wasn’t sadness exactly, but perhaps a little wistfulness that he and I would never meet face-to-face there again.
A TV nearby and one mounted on the wall opposite showed videos and photos of him here at the Park. His presence still lingered, strongly. It may be that is why I wasn’t too sad at his stall. As long as he had lived there, it possibly could have seemed like he was just out roaming his pasture, and while the stall was partially stripped and straw was laid out on the remainder of the floor, that too almost seemed like it was just awaiting his return through the open door at the back.
I walked along the path outside the barn, parallel to his pasture. I had to leave the rose for him.
I hadn’t seen his grave since it was freshly dug and my flowers were the first ones there, though I propped them against the banner on his paddock fence rather than at the site. It seemed a place I didn’t want to approach while it was still so fresh, maybe to let him lie in peace.
But now it was landscaped, with a horseshoe of hedges around it. Inside the horseshoe were lots of floral arrangements – many in the red, white, and blue colors I had contemplated getting – and even a pumpkin that someone wrote “I love you Cigar” on.
What made me cry there was the headstone, my first time seeing it.
April 18, 1990 – October 7, 2014
Unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable
That is what he was to me, and that is how I will remember him.
When he looked at you, you felt all his nobility and you knew the few defeats he’d had since his race streak began were of little consequence. That spirit he had was never diminished and it never failed to awe. He was magnificent.
And yes, those words did make me tear up, because they were the perfect homage to who he had been and what he had meant.
It’s funny, sometimes, to think of how our lives will turn out and the path they will take. Cigar was not born on an elite Kentucky farm. To be sure, he was born on a farm with a history of excellence in a state with Thoroughbred history, but it is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of the Thoroughbred industry. He traced to some of racing’s greats in Northern Dancer and Seattle Slew, but his sire may not have even been a blip in the Thoroughbred bloodlines except for Cigar. But Cigar was all it took, all it would have taken, to put any sire on the map – for a time, at least.
Palace Music’s name will linger in people’s memories because of the path his son Cigar blazed through racing in his unconquerable year, his perfect 10-for-10 tour de force in 1995. So even with Northern Dancer and Seattle Slew in his bloodlines, and after he ran into a fence as a weanling, and didn’t take to the turf at all, it may not have seemed like he was destined for greatness in pedigree or racing form.
The rest is history. He won his first start on dirt. He won the NYRA Mile, which was renamed the Cigar Mile. He wrote his name into the record books. He was larger than life. And his retirement to the Horse Park was marked with fanfare and a banner hung over the Hall of Champions barn that welcomed him home.
I was not there for that, but I was just as overjoyed at his arrival at the Park as I would have been if I’d been there to see him arrive for myself.
I would not visit Kentucky until three years after that, and wouldn’t live there until four years after he took up residence in Lexington. But when I did visit, my path at the Horse Park was unwavering and led straight to his stall. He was near the door and it was my first chance to look into his eyes.
While I missed the memorial service, I heard his long-time caretaker Wes Lanter had spoken of how people from all across the country and the world would have tears in their eyes the first time they saw him. It was a common bond Cigar created, one that I had not realized had been shared by many. I hadn’t expected to get teary-eyed the first time I saw him, but it was understandable. To hear I was not the only one was a testament to Cigar. He moved people that way. It’s why I say he will always be part of who I am. Being in the presence of true greatness stays with you. I guess it influenced everyone that way the first time they saw him, and if they’re like me, every additional time too.
I know, as I said about standing near his stall, a horse like that doesn’t really leave, even if he stays only through people’s memories. Yet that path he took during his life, and that one perfect day to cap one perfect year, when one race announcer intoned the phrase that came to be as much a part of Cigar as his white eye and the pin-fired marks on his hocks… well, to see that phrase on his grave, it just moved me all over again. I suppose it was a mix of being grateful we had known him at all, and that he had found his path to burn in our memories indeed, and also a tinge of sadness that the years will pass and there will be people who know him only for those words. That while those words mean everything if you watched that race, they are now an echo of a glorious past, and a body that lies still. I don’t know. It’s hard to say what ran through my mind at that grave site, at seeing those words on the stone, at knowing they were the perfect eulogy. And yes, for sure, it is hard to stand outside his pasture and know he lies beneath the earth now instead of presiding over that domain.
The grief will diminish and all he was will linger. I signed the new banner that hung on his pasture fence, “I love you Cigar.” That was all I needed to say at this time and all that the cold settling into my fingers even made possible.
As I turned away from the grave and to escape the bitter cold, I noticed a large banner with his photo on it hung above the barn just as it had on that day when he arrived here in 1999. And I knew from that time he arrived to that day last month when he breathed his last, the Horse Park had given him exemplary care as they do all their horses. They had ushered him into his new life greeting his fans, and they had ushered him out of this world with all the care and dignity he deserved, when there was nothing more that could be done for him.
I lingered in the barn once more, seeing the banner I had signed hanging above his stall, and the framed photo of the people – including my friend Judy – who had gathered for his twentieth birthday celebration a few years ago.
Outside the barn, we spoke with a horse park volunteer and one of the Hall of Champions managers about him. The volunteer spoke of how he was not her favorite horse, personality-wise, but he had a presence about him that always made you stop and take notice. Those weren’t her exact words, but as best I could remember the gist of them. My friend Judy agreed that he was unearthly and I know just what she meant. He had that look of eagles you hear about but it seemed to transcend even that, just as he transcended his modest beginnings, and the injury he sustained that could have kept him from even racing, and how he outran anything else his sire and dam ever produced, and crafted their legacy as well as his own.
I signed the guestbook in the barn and as I did, my eye skimmed over other entries and notes people had left. There were some who said Cigar had been like a teacher to them, and that had also been on the banner outside. I was still a little numb at seeing his grave again, reabsorbing his loss, and the whole trying week I’d had, and so that phrase didn’t make sense to me at the time.
I left not long after and noticed how beautiful the sky was, how even while it was bitterly cold outside, it was sunny and provided a blue backdrop against the sign that read Cigar Lane.
I was reflective while at my work shift that evening. I thought about how many people said he was a teacher to them, and realized that perhaps what they meant about him being a teacher is that he showed that where you can go in life, what you can be, and who you are, is all within you. Life may seem to dictate that you “should” be this or can only achieve that, but I think determination and will go much further to shaping our destiny than any preconceived notions of what we “should” be, as long as we don’t buy into those notions.
As the daylight faded with what I could only think of as an achingly beautiful sunset, perhaps it was a fitting end to this day. There were tears and there were reminders of how glorious Cigar had been; there was sadness and beauty in equal measure.
I don’t often think of a sunset as achingly beautiful but I know why it hit me that way on this night.
Across town I knew that same sunset would be lingering through his stall door and his pasture and maybe some of it would reach beyond the hill where he laid at rest.
This world is beautiful and it gives us beautiful things
and they can’t last
that is how we appreciate them all the more
so I said goodbye to Cigar, to the physical form he had taken
but to the way he made me feel, to the lessons I too see he did teach, there’s no end to that
It is tonight as I write this, a few weeks after the service, that I came across the photos of the last time I saw Cigar
It was in summer and he was looking through the door at the back of his stall
The light came through and made a silhouette of his head, a glow
His graying tail was just discernible and he held himself regally as always
I turned away when he was not interested in visitors
and let him be
It was the only time I saw him this year
but it stays in my mind, though he didn’t meet my eye
how even in his stall and not being presented he had a bearing that commanded attention
That’s who he was
That’s who he will always be.
Rest in Peace, Cigar