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BURNING UP THE TRACK

Frankie Accardo, the philosopher, was continually baffled by people who diluted their whiskey with water. "That's alcohol abuse," he'd say. He also wondered about men wearing bright plaid sports jackets. ("What'd the guy do? Shoot a couch?") And he had no use whatsoever for five-year-olds.

"Everybody out here knows an individual reaches his physical peak at four," he would say. "After that, it's downhill. Very little spring left in the legs. You know. These five-year-olds just don't bounce back the same way. They're unreliable. Now, there are exceptions--I'll give ya that--but five is too old. Might as well hang it up at five. And six. Six is ancient. Six, you run in the sticks. You run up at Finger Lakes."

Frankie was talking racehorses, of course--racehorses that had emptied the pockets of his baggy suit and etched worry into his brow. He was talking racehorses that broke down in the backstretch or blew the turn or failed at the sixteenth pole. Horses that should have known better by now but just didn't have the will or the stamina to win anymore. They all seemed to be five-year-olds.

Too bad Frankie Accardo didn't live to see Cigar.
This Saturday, at New York's Belmont Park, the best thoroughbred in America--maybe the best in the world; some say the best ever--will go to the post in the biggest race of his life, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic. His name is Cigar, and he is--sorry, Frankie--five years old. On Saturday he has an odds-on chance of making racing history in two minutes of work.

It wasn't easy. Early last year, in fact, Cigar was a mediocre grass runner slugging it out on the lawn while stars like Holy Bull and Timber Country got all the attention--or as much attention as any racehorse gets in these benighted times. Then, on October 28, 1994, trainer Bill Mott defied Cigar's turf breeding lines and entered him in a middle-grade allowance race on the dirt at New York's Aqueduct Race Track.

Suddenly, Cigar sprang to life. No one has beaten him since.
Cigar's winning streak now stands at an amazing eleven races--the longest string since 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid won ten in a row back in 1980. These weren't canters in the park, either. And they had nothing to do with homefield advantage. In 1995 the late-blooming son of grass specialist Palace Music and the Seattle Slew mare, Solar Slew, has won nine races--including seven lucrative Grade I stakes--while running on seven different racetracks in New York, Florida, California, Arkansas, Massachusetts and his home state of Maryland. Under the superb jockey Jerry Bailey, he has proved a versatile type, winning from the lead, just off the pace and from far back.

Going into Saturday's Classic (the first anniversary of the start of his streak, wouldn't you know), Cigar has won $3,529,815, and his explosive moves in the last turn and down the lane have stirred the nation's headline writers to crank up the cliche machine full blast:

Cigar Smokes Field in Mass Cap
Cigar Burns Eight Rivals
Cigar Fires Up Again

When America's new turf star won the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park on September 16, no less a personage than Jack Nicholson was spotted in the owners' boxes with a foot-long stogie dangling from his lips--an obvious tribute to the principal of the afternoon's drama. Meanwhile, out in wicked Las Vegas, another racing fan (this one anonymous) was paying a different kind of compliment: He bet a cool $1 million on Cigar to show, collected $50,000 profit and whistled off into the bar.

"I don't smoke," owner Allen Paulson said after Cigar romped home in the Woodward, "but the horse sure does."

When Holy Bull--the colt that was to save thoroughbred racing--broke down in last year's Donn Handicap and had to be retired, horse people were at a loss to name a worthy successor. Now, suddenly, they have one. But if Cigar left any doubt about his will and his heart, that was dispelled on October 7 at the same big Belmont oval where he won the Woodward, and where he will run Saturday.

In the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup, Cigar went up against Thunder Gulch, the spectacular D. Wayne Lucas-trained colt who won this year's Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes. Because of a recent rain, the track was tiring; poor Thunder Gulch broke his leg trying to keep up with Cigar and finished fifth. Gulch has now retired to stud. But Cigar was not at his best, either, and for the first time, rider Bailey had to whack him with his crop to hold off longshot Unaccounted For.

He did it--by a scant length--and the streak remains intact.
But what about Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic? As any railbird knows, the Classic is the crowning moment of racing's day of days--a seven-event card worth $10 million in purses that attracts the best racehorses on the planet. Appropriately, Cigar will likely go to the post in the Classic as the most-favored runner in the twelve-year history of the Cup: 1-10, again.

But as old Frankie Accardo could tell you, treachery is coin of the realm at the racetrack.

Frankie's opinions aside, the conventional wisdom used to say that three-year-olds weren't strong enough or experienced enough to beat older horses in the Classic: Still, three-year-olds have won five of the eleven runnings.

The conventional wisdom used to say that European horses, bred for grass and great distance, have no chance in the Classic, a mile and a quarter of literal U.S. soil. But don't tell that to a French horse named Arcangues: That 131-1 shot won the 1993 classic in a breeze.

On Saturday, Cigar won't have to face Thunder Gulch again, but he'll see some other threats to his greatness: Concern, the winner of last year's Classic, will try to become the great race's first repeat winner; West Coast standouts Soul of the Matter and Tinners Way will be there, along with Peaks and Valleys, winner of the Molson Million three weeks back.

A couple of splendid fillies, should they choose to run, could also give Billy Mott's charge trouble: Heavenly Prize and Inside Information are proven winners at any level, against any sex.

Then there is Halling.
If Cigar is to win the Breeders' Cup Classic Saturday, if he is to surpass the one-year earnings record of $4.6 million set by the great Sunday Silence in 1989, if he is to join the equine pantheon alongside Secretariat, John Henry, Citation, Man O'War, Affirmed and the like, he will have to beat Halling.

Consider: This splendid four-year-old, owned by Sheikhs Maktoum and Mohammed of Dubai, has an eight-race winning streak of his own; he's been lightly raced of late and is fresh. He's also been training well on his owners' sand-based track in Dubai, which could set him up for Belmont's loam. His connections are scoffing at his 10-1 future book odds.

So. Can Halling pull off the upset? Maybe. But I've got a box of Macanudos that says no, and I'll be lighting one up for Frankie Accardo as soon as Cigar hits the wire in front.

The World Series war being waged between--let's see here--the Atlanta Native Americans and the Cleveland Native Americans has riled up the guardians of political correctness. Atlanta's tomahawk chop offends them. The feathered headdresses scattered around Jacobs Field put them in conniptions. Let fly a single bloodcurdling whoop from deep in the bleachers and the thought police name a congressional committee to investigate.

But the Grand Old Game inevitably produces logic sufficiently powerful that the joyless are compelled to ignore it, lest they look more foolish than ever.

To wit: The Cleveland Indians were named in honor of an Indian.
His name was Louis Sockalexis, he was a Penobscot born in Old Town, Maine, in 1871, and he played just 94 games in three seasons for the club then known as the Cleveland Spiders.

Sockalexis--an apt name for a slugging outfielder--was an instant sensation when he arrived in 1897. In six spring training games, he threw out ten runners from the outfield. On consecutive days in April he struck a towering home run (a rarity in the dead-ball era) and a bases-loaded triple. In his rookie year he stole sixteen bases (unheard of!) and hit .338 (heard of). Details of his life and career are sketchy, but it is known that he endured considerable fan abuse on the road, declined steeply after 1897 and was out of the game completely by 1900.

But Cleveland never forgot him. In a 1915 contest, the fans chose to rename their team--which had previously been called the Spiders, Bronchos, Blues, Naps (after the great Napoleon Lajoie) and Molly Maguires--the "Indians," in memory of Sockalexis, who had died two years earlier. They have been Indians ever since, the only club named for an individual player.

Whoop.


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