Latest posts by Ian Scott McCormick (see all)
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Given that it’s Kentucky Derby time, I thought I’d talk about horses. I’m not a gambler. I don’t trust horses, and I’ve only been to the track two times. The first time was on a company outing when I worked for a daily newspaper. There was an old crusty guy who sold classified ads that was VERY into the horses. He studied the horse section of various papers, read the magazines, probably flamed people on horse message boards about which horses were ELITE and which were FRAUDS WITH LOW MOTORS. He had one of those hats that made him look like an Indiana Jones villain. He had a system, which he claimed was really more like investing. I din’t necessarily do what he did, but I was a novice, so I listened.
There was another guy, the manager of the classified section, not flamingly gay so much as the business end of an acetylene torch gay. He was ready to have a grand old time, and looked at the racing form on the bus over singing “I’m gonna put $10 on Tiger Woodsman, Annie Boombalattie, Mr. Spankypants (I made those last two up, but I do remember Tiger Woodsman being a real live horse). The Indiana Jones villain shook his head in contempt, as the horses were all something like 18-1, 13-1 and 17-1 longshots. He asked me if I wanted to go in and I said no, and you already figured out how this is going to end so let’s just cut to the chase: He won something like $3K on the first race, and then chugged Miller Lites for the rest of the day, while the investor lost his shirt.
The Kentucky Derby isn’t really a thing I do, but it is a thing, and I wanted to talk about the first horse I ever remember.
Remember this guy? It’s Cigar. Cigar was a really good horse. When I was a teenager watching Sports Center in the morning, he was THE horse. Cigar. Simple name. Won a lot of races. Cigar really sticks with me.
Granted I didn’t watch horse racing. I’d naturally assumed that he’d won the Kentucky Derby, though I was well aware that he couldn’t have been a triple crown champion, because one hadn’t happened in my life to that point. Turns out, he was not a Kentucky Derby champion. Or a Preakness winner. Or the fastest at Belmont. Turns out that Cigar was a late bloomer. He didn’t race at all as a two year old (who among us has?), and only won two races as a three year old.
It turns out that Cigar has a very complicated family history, with a lot of drama. His parents were Palace Music and Solar Slew. Palace Music never really did much to distinguish himself as one of the superior race horses. He carved out a career, but Solar Slew’s dad was the legendary triple crown winner Seattle Slew.
I’m lucky in that my in-laws accepted me right away, but my in-laws were never Triple Crown champions lording their success in my face. And to complicate matters, Palace Music’s mom was Come My Prince. That’s not exactly a respectable name, and doubly troubling when you consider that her dad was named Prince John. Gross. Also her mom was named Come Hither Look. So Palace Music’s mom and grandmother were both given pretty slutty names. All his life the other horses in horse school asked him how his mom and grandmom did in the great whores race. It gave him an edge, and when he didn’t make the haters eat it in his own right, you can be certain that he took it out on his poor son Cigar.
As I said earlier, Cigar did not run as a two year old. His father always told him that he wasn’t going to be nothing. And made sure to tell him that he wasn’t anything like Seattle Slew. It turns out that Palace Music and Solar Slew were on the rocks and hadn’t seen each other in years. Cigar thought about just getting away from it all. Maybe pick up work as a Central Park Classy Cab horse. Or join the force. It wasn’t as glamorous as being a legendary race horse, but it was honest work and it kept him away from being a plow horse. For once in his life he was free.
He just wasn’t particularly happy.
That could have been how the story ended, until his grandfather, Seattle Slew found him. He couldn’t believe what had become of his grandsire. He told him that he was a race horse, god damn it, and it was time to get back out there. The only problem was that Cigar didn’t believe in himself. He screamed that he wasn’t Seattle Slew. He screamed that he wasn’t ever going to be a Triple Crown champion. And then he pissed and defecated all over the ground, because, you know, he’s a horse. And then Seattle Slew said the only thing he could have to put everything into perspective.
Cigar cried pretty hard. All the teasings. All the neglect. All the verbal abuse. It all came out of his brown eyes. He still wasn’t sure if he could pull himself together enough to become a true race horse.
“Is this what you want to do,” Seattle Slew asked. “Do you want to be a Classy Cab horse all your life?”
In between sobs, Cigar looked toward the heavens and shouted “Neigh.”
Cigar left that day to train. He found himself clomping along the hard dirt of the track. He would never be a Triple Crown winner. He’d never be a Kentucky Derby winner. But he would be the best damn race horse he could be.
He won at the Aqueduct Race Track in 1994. And won. And won. In fact, for the next two years, all he did was win. He went to the west coast. He won at Gulfstream Park. He won in Arkansas. He won in Boston. He went back to California where Seattle Slew had lost, claiming that he couldn’t run the way he wanted to on the hard surfaces. He won. He thought about his dad, Palace Music, and how while he’d always love his father, he couldn’t allow himself to be handicapped by him any longer. And he thought about his mom, Solar Slew, and how proud she must have been for her son. He won the prestigious Breeders Cup, a race his father once came in second. His legacy was secured.
Ironically, Cigar was not much of a breeder, himself. Though he was put out to stud, Cigar never did sire any future champions. It was a blow to be sure. One day Palace Music showed up, and for once, Cigar thought to himself, it might have been to support his son in his time of trouble. But Palace Music had been drinking. He was looking for a fight, and he jabbed his hoof into Cigar’s face telling him that he was just a phony.
“All those wins, and what’d it get you? You’re still firing blanks. You aren’t no real stallion.”
Cigar stood still, but something strange happened. He wasn’t enraged. It would have been the time for him to pop his old man, but nothing happened. He didn’t feel as though he had to make a stand or prove anything.
“I love you, too.”
Cigar never saw his father again. Cigar knew it was probably all too much for Palace Music to deal with. Palace Music died in 2008. Cigar followed him to the great stable in the sky in 2014. Though he’d never have children of his own, and one could say he never had a father, Cigar always had something better: A rich and wonderful life.
And that’s the story behind the first horse I ever really knew.