Even though Concern has been beaten in his first two meetings of 1995 with the nation's top handicap horse, trainer Richard Small says his colt can end Cigar's eight-race winning streak in the $1-million Hollywood Gold Cup on Sunday.
Different circumstances could make for a different result when the two get together in the most anticipated Gold Cup in many years, Small says.
In their first race, the Oaklawn Handicap on April 15 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Cigar beat Concern by 6 1/2 lengths. They raced again almost a month later in the Pimlico Special at Baltimore and the margin that time was five lengths. Concern finished third in both races.
"The first race was just a real, real strong race [for Cigar]," Small said from his Baltimore home. "I was a little disappointed. But in retrospect, it was only [Concern's] second start of the year.
"At Pimlico, I was particularly anxious to do well at home, but the way the race came up it was just kind of paceless. Cigar got a dream trip in that race and we had everything against us.
"Since then, we've had another start [a 2 3/4-length victory in the Californian on June 11], the horse ran well out there [Hollywood Park] and the race was real strong. My feeling is that perhaps Concern has moved forward a little bit."
This explains the decision to return to California three weeks after the Californian. Once it was learned Cigar was coming for the Gold Cup, there had been discussion about Concern going to Belmont Park to run in the Suburban Handicap on July 4.
Of course, there has also been speculation that Small and owner Robert Meyerhoff never had any intention of running in the Suburban and were politicking for a bigger break in the weights from Cigar.
As it is, Concern will be getting three pounds from Cigar, the high weight at 126 pounds. There was a one-pound difference, 122-121, in the Pimlico Special.
"The strength of his race last time is why we decided to come back," said Small. "Everything went without a hitch. The shipping went well and he ran really well over the track. I think that was it more than anything.
"We're just trying to do the best we can with Concern, space his races well and let as many people see him as possible.
"He's been doing great [since the Californian]. The horse is doing terrific."
So is Cigar, according to trainer Bill Mott, and that is part of the reason plans were changed and the 5-year-old is headed back to California for the first time since 1993.
Winner of only a maiden sprint and a turf allowance race when he left, owner Allen Paulson's homebred obviously has come a long way.
Still, there is the nagging concern about the change in plans. After Cigar's four-length victory in the Massachusetts Handicap on June 3, Mott said he would be rested until the $350,000 Whitney Handicap on Aug. 5 at Saratoga.
Then, Hollywood Park came calling with its offer to sweeten the Gold Cup pot, and the decision was made to ship the horse west.
"He came out of the Massachusetts Handicap in good shape," Mott said. "He's healthy and he's doing well. I had pretty much mapped out a year-ending campaign for him, and now that's changed. Perhaps what I had mapped out was too conservative and maybe it wasn't the best plan to begin with.
"There was quite a bit of encouragement from Hollywood Park, and Mr. Paulson was convinced to take a shot at this race and I agreed. There may have been a change of plans, but it's still the same horse and he's doing well.
"The race is prestigious, has a big purse and there's good competition. Mr. Paulson wanted to run him in California and give the people out there a chance to see this horse. This race isn't something we decided on at the last minute. We had discussed it back in March, after Cigar won the Gulfstream Park Handicap."
In Mott's care since January 1994, Cigar blossomed when he was switched from grass to the main track. He has only one victory in 11 grass starts, and the trainer thought the horse had to be better than he was showing.
"I thought he was a better horse than what he had showed in the afternoon," he said. "He had been stakes-placed on turf before and we thought he'd be stakes-placed again, but we were never really satisfied with his races on turf. We thought he had a little more class than what he was showing on the grass.
"We decided to try him on the dirt, and the rest is history."
Forget about the Soviet Problem-Abaginone match race.
In fact, forget about Soviet Problem against any horse the rest of the year because she won't race again until 1996.
The 5-year-old Moscow Ballet mare has a tendon problem, meaning her 1995 campaign consisted of only one race. She won the Valkyr Handicap for the second year in a row on June 18.