Near the Hall of Champions and the road named Cigar Lane at the Kentucky Horse Park, there is a sign promoting the Park foundation. The sign reads, in part, “For the Love of the Horse.”
It was a fitting day to notice the juxtaposition of two such signs, the road sign and the foundation sign as a large crowd braved the cold rain that fell all day to honor the late, great Cigar once more.
The program began with a replay of some of his most renowned victories and when his effortless superiority shone, the applause was thunderous. It was grand to relive his historic career, made even more wonderful due to all the appreciation for him among those gathered. It chased away the initial feeling that he should be parading forth into the pavilion at any moment, as he had done during his years of residence at the Park after the tape of his races was shown.
I don’t remember Jane Beshear’s exact comments as she spoke before the statue honoring Cigar was unveiled. But I do remember that essentially she said today is not a day to grieve. Today is a day to honor Cigar and let the memories shine.
I have learned a lot about grief in the past year. So too have many of the people who gathered today, who worked with and knew Cigar well during his racing career, and who knew him and worked with him in retirement at the Park. Wes Lanter summed it up very well when he said he could still almost see Cigar in the afternoons running down to his corner of his paddock and rearing almost vertically.
There were a few teary eyes among those gathered, mine briefly included. But the memories were so much stronger and sweeter than grief, and having been fortunate enough to be face-to-face with Cigar as much as possible over the years, I knew that to be true. It is an adjustment to make when a life ends, as always. And if it was deeply treasured, the people whose lives were touched by that life will often find themselves having counted how much time they had to share, or what that life meant to them. I think, then, when you reflect on what that life meant to you and can find the joy in the memories, even as it may still be mingled with a bit of sadness,
that is when healing begins. Time never makes it whole, but it does help.
Cigar’s Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott spoke briefly, after joking about how they managed to get him to speak after all. He was framed by a background of golden leaves and flanked by two incredible photographs of Cigar set on easels on either side of a podium. Cigar’s spirit shone through so brightly in those photos, just as brightly as he shone in the memories of Mott, jockey Jerry Bailey, the Horse Park staff, and the assembled fans.
Bill Mott said people talk about horses that change their lives, but Cigar really was a horse that changed his life. I think he is a stellar and somewhat underrated trainer, and maybe he prefers to just let the horses he trains be his legacy, more than any words he would say. Even as good a trainer and horseman as he is, it still seems it took that confluence of destiny to have Cigar be a charge in his barn. It is hard now to imagine Cigar not being intrinsically intertwined with Bill Mott’s name, and vice versa. Together, they probably both changed each other’s lives. Who can say if anyone else would have tried Cigar on the dirt, even though he wasn’t showing his full potential on turf as his pedigree seemed to suggest he would. Either way, he was in the best hands with Bill Mott.
Mott also talked of everywhere he traveled with Cigar during his career and his incredible 16 race win streak, at the highest levels of competition, all around the country and even the world. He said people still come up to him and say how grateful they are they got to see Cigar and that he was brought to a particular track near them. He also spoke of the people he met and friendships he made due to traveling with Cigar, and how many of those still endure today.
Jerry Bailey spoke next, and said he couldn’t promise he wouldn’t get emotional. I fully understood. Cigar just moved people that way, even if they didn’t get to work with him or know him one-on-one. I got tears in my eyes just seeing him the first time in person. Many incredible horses like Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah have come along recently, and all of their careers I followed or am following with avid interest, and I feel lucky to see them. But Cigar still ranks above all the horses I’ve seen race, and I am sure always will. Campaigns like his are just rare these days, and while there are still many ways for horses to show their heart and mettle, it seems he showed just how much depth there can be to the Thoroughbred. Not even just to the Thoroughbred, but to Cigar. He is in a realm of his own among the racehorses of the last 20 years.
Bailey said he had never loved horses before Cigar, and to him they were just a means to an end, a part of his job. Not that he didn’t have a rapport with them, clearly, but I suppose it makes sense when you ride a multitude of horses day in and day out.
Then Cigar came along, and he said he still doesn’t know how he got the mount, but every day he’s grateful for that. He said he went from being a person who never loved horses to being at the barn with Cigar constantly. He did get emotional, but it was all so wonderfully genuine and an echo of the feelings of many present I’m sure. Bailey was the lucky one who got to ride him for the majority of his career, but all of us who saw him were likely to have left touched by that incredible presence he had, and in a sense that made him everyone’s horse. It was not a presence that necessarily invited familiarity, but it certainly drew you in and made him linger in your memory.
Bailey also said people asked him why he let Cigar run as soon as he did in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic. He said it was because Cigar was pulling so hard, he couldn’t feel his fingers and he may have dropped the whip or the reins if he didn’t let him go, and that is when a tour-de-force of power began, capping a perfect 10-for-10 season and fully clinching Horse of the Year honors for the first time. It was likely a foregone conclusion he’d be Horse of the Year even before his triumph in the Classic but that completely sealed it, as surely if his name had already been etched onto the Eclipse Award.
Jerry Bailey speaks about Cigar
quick note about the above video link: my battery began running low so it cuts out abruptly but it is still great to hear his memories of Cigar
Adrian Wallace of Coolmore, where Cigar briefly stood at stud until his infertility was discovered, also spoke of the impact the champion had on him. He said he was 12 at the time Cigar was racing, but it seems Cigar’s legacy – the legacy of what could have been – perhaps is still a part of Coolmore as well. Wallace said everyone wanted to come to Coolmore just to see Cigar, breeding to him aside, so that when it was discovered he was infertile, the Horse Park seemed like the best place for him to be so everyone who wanted to could see him.
Wallace also said Cigar influenced the course of his life, as far as being involved in racing and wanting to work for Coolmore.
It was just incredible to hear what a difference one horse, one truly unforgettable horse, can make.
Then Mott and Bailey stood near Cigar’s grave site, blanketed in white flowers and now with the statue presiding over the quiet spot where he lays at rest, just outside the paddock he called home for so long. Memories like Lanter’s still see him in that paddock, as though part of him left his indelible mark. No doubt it did, and now those memories of him in that paddock are forever solidified in the bronze statue sculpted by Douwe Blumberg.
The Horse Park provided one last incredible tribute to Cigar’s legacy, as did everyone involved in bringing the statue into existence. It will stand now as the lasting tribute even as other residents of the Hall of Champions come and go. It was assuredly a day when the slogan “For the love of the horse” was shown once more to ring true….. for “the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!”