The 1996 Pacific Classic
Undoubtedly one of the biggest days in Del Mar's history, August 10, 1996 likely holds the status for most shocking day at the legendary track.
On that summer afternoon, more than 44,000 were on hand to see Thoroughbred racing's biggest name, Cigar, do something no horse had done before. He was in line to take possession of a record long held by one of the sport's greatest immortals. History was made all right, but not the kind many expected.
Going into the 1996 Pacific Classic, the career of Cigar had been told in two acts. The first actually involved Southern California racing. In his first nine starts, all coming in the Golden State, Cigar had a mixed record. There were a couple of wins and some minor awards (including a pair of graded stakes), along with a handful of off the board finishes. Following his eleventh place in the 1993 Grade I Hollywood Derby, Cigar's career would undergo a complete transformation.
When he made his 1994 debut in early July, it was a new year with a new trainer. Bill Mott succeeded Alex Hassinger, Jr., and the partnership had their first victory together in October. That was the first chapter in what became one of the most fantastic stories in Thoroughbred racing.
For the next twenty-one months, no one defeated Cigar. He raced in some listed stakes, but largely took on Grade I company. The NYRA Mile. The Donn Handicap. The Oaklawn Handicap. The Hollywood Gold Cup. The Breeders' Cup Classic. Cigar kept the streak going as he, Mott, and Jerry Bailey went all over the country. They put together an undefeated 1995 campaign that saw Cigar elected Top Older Male and Horse of the Year. The saga even reached an international level with a win in the 1996 Dubai World Cup. Whereever he went, Cigar found the winner's circle.
In July of 1996, almost two years to the day he had his first race with Mott, Cigar won the Arlington Citation Challenge Invitational Stakes, equaling the 1948 Triple Crown champion's record for most consecutive wins. That alone was an astounding achievement, and Cigar would of course be remembered for that run of success that went on for well over a year. But, he also had a chance to eclipse the record, and that would come in the Pacific Classic.
There was understandably a lot of buzz on the possibility of history being made, and the race served as a homecoming of sorts for Cigar. He had raced there during the 1993 season, winning once. Now, he was back as the focus of the racing world, a horse on the verge of overtaking a record that had stood for the better part of fifty years. At the time, it was the biggest day Del Mar had ever experienced.
Not very many horses were sent to face Cigar. Five, to be exact. Two of them were trained by Richard Mandella: Dare and Go and Siphon. Rounding out the lineup was Dramatic Gold, Luthier Fever, and Tinners Way, who was going for his unprecedented third straight Pacific Classic victory. All of them had won or placed in graded stakes, but none were seen as possibly dethroning Cigar. Outside of Siphon, the rest of the field were at double digits while the horse of the hour was odds-on to win. To the public, it was simple. No one was beating Cigar.
When the race started, Cigar broke well and immediately moved into second, with just Siphon ahead of him. That was not a surprise; Siphon had been known to go to the lead early in recent races. Cigar was right behind him with Dramatic Gold on the outside, followed by Dare and Go, Tinners Way, and Luthier Fever, the latter two already multiple lengths down to the leader.
A huge cheer from the crowd met the field as they came by for the first time, and the field was unchanged going around the first turn and down the backstretch. Siphon continued to lead as Cigar and Dramatic Gold stayed to his outside. The pace moved at a decent clip, and by the time the Pacific Classic moved into the far turn, it was just Siphon and Cigar going head to head the lead. Dramatic Gold was out of contention for the win, as were Tinners Way and Luthier Gold. But Dare and Go had run in him. He and Alex Solis uncorked a burst of acceleration around the far turn, and they passed Dramatic Gold and gobbled up ground as they rapidly approached the two leaders. The Pacific Classic had turned into a suspenseful three horse race.
Meanwhile, Cigar won his battle with Siphon, taking the lead just before straightening into the stretch. Dare and Go was not wavering, ready to take on his formidable opponent. Cigar tried with all his might, but there was nothing left. Dare and Go lined up next to him on the outside and quickly assumed control of the race, moving forward in front of a stunned crowd to win the Pacific Classic by more than three lengths.
The Mandella stablemates had completed what seemed to be impossible. Siphon moved briskly and softened up Cigar, and Dare and Go was the beneficiary. Even after the defeat, the rest of the year turned out well for Cigar. He rebounded to win the Grade I Woodward at Belmont Park a few weeks later before wrapping up his career with a second in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and a third in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He retired as the all-time earnings leader in North America, and added another Top Older Male and Horse of the Year trophy to his collection.
As for Dare and Go, his career lasted two more starts. After finishing second in the Grade I Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita, he faced Cigar one more time in the Breeders' Cup Classic, coming in eleventh. Siphon would continue to race in 1997, winning that year's Santa Anita Handicap. He also managed to improve his finishing position in the Pacific Classic, taking second to another stablemate, Gentlemen.
It was a day of shock and triumph on August 10th, 1996. History was made, and it was also denied. Cigar may not have eclipsed Citation for most consecutive wins, but equaling the number is truly one of racing's greatest accomplishments. The loss in the Pacific Classic, though memorable given what was at stake, is not a career defining moment. Cigar was a winner, and he proved it many times over. Some two decades after the race, he is still loved by many.
For Dare and Go, it was the biggest victory of his career, and he made sure his name would never be forgotten. He dared and went that day, and it paid off.
There are times when an underdog wins a horse race, and it can happen in the biggest events. For proof of that, look no further than the 1996 Pacific Classic.