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COMMENTARY

Overacheiver Cigar Had a Mark of Consistency

November 10, 1996|ANDREW BEYER | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Owner Allen Paulson has made it official: Cigar's loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic was the last race of his career. The 6-year-old has taken up residence at Paulson's Kentucky farm to begin his new life as a stallion.

Cigar retires as America's top money-winning racehorse of all time, with earnings just short of $10 million. His record on dirt--where he found his milieu after two fruitless years of racing on grass--was exceptional: 22 starts, 18 wins, 22 in-the-money finishes.

Because three of Cigar's main-track losses came in the last four starts of his career, after a 16-race winning streak in which he had seemed invincible, most people assumed that age and infirmities caught up with the champion. Trainer Bill Mott likened Cigar to Muhammad Ali in the waning stages of his career. Madeleine Paulson said Thursday, "He may not have the spring in his foot that he used to have, but I'm grateful for everything he's given us."

This is a minority view, but I dispute the notion that Cigar lost these recent races because he was aging and his capabilities declining. My speed figures translate every performance by a horse into a number that reflects how fast he ran, taking into account the speed of the surface over which he competed. From September 1995, when he won the Woodward Handicap at Belmont, through his defeat in the Breeders' Cup at Woodbine, these were Cigar's figures in his U.S. races: 111, 111, 117, 117, 112, 117, 111, 116, 114, 115.

This is hardly the profile of a horse who has tailed off sharply. Indeed, Cigar's loss in the Breeders' Cup--where he was parked four-wide on a biased racing strip giving a great advantage to horses on the rail--was a better performance than many of his victories.

These speed figures ought to place Cigar in a proper historical perspective. The greatest horses earn figures in the 120s on their best days. Easy Goer and Sunday Silence ran 124; Alysheba 122; Holy Bull 121. Despite all the hype, Cigar was not as fast as the best horses of the last decade, and he was not in the same league with horses such as Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid.

He was able to roll up his historic 16-race winning streak partly because there were no Easy Goers and Sunday Silences among his contemporaries. Moreover, he was lucky that no rival woke up and ran an extraordinary career best to defeat him. The law of averages finally caught up with him when Skip Away and Alphabet Soup ran so well to defeat him in his final two starts.

Cigar does not deserve to be hailed as one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time. Rather, he should be praised for accomplishing so much even though he wasn't one of the greats. He was an overachiever and an extraordinary competitor.

What racing fans ought to appreciate most about Cigar is that he came along at a time when the sport desperately needed a star. Thoroughbred racing has been declining steadily in popularity, and one of the reasons has been the lack of top horses who stimulate public interest. There hasn't been a notable winner of a Triple Crown race since 1989.

But even the most casual fans could appreciate Cigar and his winning streak. If it is rare for an athletic team to win 16 games in a row when it is facing only one rival at a time, it is extraordinary for a horse to face nine or 10 rivals in each event and still keep winning. Cigar's streak put racing back on page one of America's sports sections. At every track where he appeared, he lured big crowds and generated excitement that evoked memories of the sport's good old days. He may not have had as much raw talent as champions from previous decades, but no American racehorse has been more appreciated.

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