HALLANDALE, Fla. -- The interviews were over. The reporters had raced off to find the winners, leaving Sonny Hine standing alone in the lengthening shadows of a Florida afternoon.
Sonny was waiting for his wife, Carolyn. A native of Baltimore, she had just watched the best horse she has ever owned and the best horse her husband has ever trained, Skip Away, finish second in his first race of 1997.
"The owner's smiling," Sonny said, as Carolyn approached. "That's always good."
"I'm not disappointed," Carolyn said, smiling weakly. "He ran a good race. For the first time after four months? I thought he ran real good."
Skip Away chased Formal Gold for 1 1/8 miles yesterday in the $300,000 Donn Handicap here at Gulfstream Park. Skip Away, last year's champion 3-year-old, finished 1 1/4 lengths behind in his first race since Oct. 5, when he held off a late charge by Cigar in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
The question around racing ever since has been: Will Skip Away fill the void at racing's pinnacle created by Cigar's retirement? The answer, at least yesterday: Not this day.
Bet down to 3-5, Skip Away, a large gray colt who pranced and bucked during the post parade, did not seriously challenge Formal Gold. Making his first start since finishing fifth Oct. 26 in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Woodbine, Formal Gold broke sharply and quickly settled in a length in front of Skip Away.
The race lacked further drama. Mecke closed from last for third, followed by Jamies First Punch, Ghostly Moves, Mt. Sassafras, Cimarron Secret, Crafty Friend, Diligence and Ave's Flag.
Trained by William W. Perry and ridden by Joe Bravo, Formal Gold paid $14 to win, the exacta with Skip Away $33, and the trifecta $158.40. Skip Away paid $2.60 and $2.20. The time of 1: 47 2/5 seconds was a full second off the track record.
But it was not Formal Gold or Skip Away who drew the most applause from the crowd of 20,463 on this sunny day near 80 degrees. It was Pulpit, the 3-year-old sensation making just his second start. His seven-furlong debut last month, which he won leisurely by 7 1/2 lengths, was the most heralded first pitch by a Kentucky Derby contender in years.
Yesterday, he attempted two turns in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race and cruised again, winning the sixth race by 6 3/4 lengths. When he jogged past the fans on his way to the winner's circle, they cheered.
"I was cheering, too," said his trainer, Frank L. Brothers. "Hopefully, he's a star."
Pulpit didn't race as a 2-year-old, but already he is an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He is a son of A.P. Indy out of the Mr. Prospector mare Preach. Brothers said he wasn't sure when his new star would race next. The Fountain of Youth Stakes -- the next major Derby prep in Florida -- is possible, he said.
After piloting Pulpit to his easy win, jockey Shane Sellers hopped aboard Skip Away. A few minutes later, after finishing second, he said he could have forced his horse to pressure Formal Gold early and "soften him up." But that, Sellers said, might have been too much to ask of Skip Away after his lengthy layoff.
"We were in perfect position, but the winner had the advantage this time," Sellers said. "The big thing is my horse ran big and came back good."
Sonny Hine, who trained horses in Maryland for nearly 30 years but now lives with Carolyn near Gulfstream Park, said Sellers did the right thing.
"He could have put that horse away if he'd wanted to," Sonny said, "but why kill the horse now? We're thinking about down the road. It's a long year."
He noted that Skip Away carried 123 pounds, 10 more than Formal Gold, and that the rail, where Formal Gold parked himself, was fast and "golden."
"Skippy made an effort," Sonny said. "We'll see that other horse next time."
Next time will be March 1 in the $500,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap, he said. After that, Hine said, the Pimlico Special on May 10 is on Skip Away's calendar.
"The Gulfstream Park Handicap," Sonny said again. "We'll take all comers. You'll see a different horse next time."
Then he and Carolyn turned away and walked toward the parking lot -- and future conquests in 1997.
Pub Date: 2/09/97