Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Cigar: Larger Than Life

1994 was a rough year. I was still regaining my social footing after years of being knocked down emotionally by my deaf peers at school—my supposed friends. Tiger, my beloved feline companion who kept me on the straight and narrow throughout these turbulent years, passed away. And my mother, the glue that kept the household together and running smoothly, was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to endure aggressive treatment for the disease. I entered eighth grade in 1994 and perhaps it’s a selfish, juvenile mindset but back then, by all accounts, my life was upside-down.


Then along came a horse. No—not Limerick, not yet. But this horse was also a bay, with white on his face and one eye ringed in white. It was February of 1995 and in a race expected to be a breeze for the 1994 Horse of the Year, Holy Bull, a torch was instead passed to this bay horse, Cigar. In what would become his familiar style--easy yet full of straightforward power--that day Cigar captured the Donn Handicap (Gr. I), as well as my heart.

I confess I remember very little of 1995 aside from Cigar. He plucked me from the stress of reality and carried me along with him as he won race after race. I came to know his silhouette, his thick mane, his gray-streaked tail, his charismatic white-ringed eye, his beautiful arched neck and balanced conformation. Was there ever a horse more handsome than the mighty Cigar? I didn't think so and although I was only 14, 15 years old, I doubted many would argue with me.


The year cumulated with his phenomenal win in the 1995 Breeder's Cup Classic (Gr. I). Typically uncaring of the closed captioning during horse races, I watched the words roll across the screen as they transcribed Tom Durkin's call of the Classic. I held my breath as Cigar strained against the confines of his bridle on the backstretch. Wet track or not, the horse was ready to explode! Cigar wants to go to the lead, and Jerry Bailey says no, not yet! Then without fanfare, Cigar glided to the lead on the final turn and skipped over the Belmont Park mud with businesslike precision--nothing was stopping him now--and here he is, the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!


With 1996 came the introduction of Limerick into my life, and another championship year for Cigar. But the torch was wavering. On an afternoon at Belmont Park in October, in Cigar's next-to-last start, the torch was once again passed--this time to a young upstart named Skip Away. That the arc of Cigar's brilliant career was buttressed by two of the Great Grays of the Nineties was not lost upon me.


In the years since, I've fallen in love with many horses. But Cigar found his way into my heart first, and there he has stayed.


I visited Cigar and his equally famous stablemate, John Henry, at the Kentucky Horse Park when I could. I even dragged a man I met online and had only known in person for a couple days to the Horse Park. We met up near Cincinnati and, realizing the Horse Park was only an hour away, I suggested that I drive us there for an impromptu date. Once at the Horse Park, after a quick stop at Man o' War's grave, I made a beeline for the Hall of Champions with the bemused guy in tow. After all, this guy carried a part of my heart while another part resided in the Hall of Champions--I wanted them to meet. To the guy's credit, he didn't run away screaming from this crazy horse girl. In fact, he asked me to marry him less than three years later.


In 2008, my husband and I hung around the Hall of Champions until closing time and watched Cigar in his paddock from the quiet late afternoon shadows. For several moments, it was just us three--my husband, me, and the legendary racehorse that defined my teenage years.


 In 2012, my husband and I were leaving a Hall of Champions show when I saw a freshly-released Cigar preparing to roll in his paddock. As the crowd flowed past us, not noticing or knowing who the dirty horse was, we laughed quietly as we watched Cigar roll away his groom's hard work. I savored these idle moments alone with the horse. He may not have been mine, but he belonged to every one.

Little did we know that this would be the last time we saw Cigar.


Upon learning of Cigar's death, I broke down sobbing. I have cried over the passing of horses before but never like this. To think that such an icon was mortal after all was somehow surprising and I briefly wondered if we were in some sort of horrid alternate dimension. Cigar was larger than life--shouldn't that have conquered all?

Yet I also understand. Limerick was foaled the year after Cigar, making her 23 this year. You can do everything right and still struggle with the pitfalls and hurdles that come with owning a senior Thoroughbred. Cigar may not have lived to the plucky age of thirty-plus like his old comrade, John Henry, but it was a small relief that he passed as peacefully as one could hope for.

And in true dramatic Cigar style, he died on a day when ferocious storms ripped through the Bluegrass and a  blood-moon lunar eclipse floated in the night sky. Rest in peace, Cigar, and thanks for being there for me when I needed you the most.


Mairim Sulaiman said...

Beautiful tribute. Thank you for doing this.

Cathryn said...

Your tribute to Cigar gave me goosebumps. Lovely post for a wonderful horse. RIP Cigar!