The rain was heavy as Sonny Hine kept dry yesterday under the shedrow of the stakes barn at Pimlico. Hine and his wife, Carolyn, had just arrived after a difficultdrive from New York, and their champion Skip Away, riding in a large horse van, was somewhere behind them.
"He ought to be here any minute," said Sonny Hine, trainer of the No. 1-ranked horse in North America and headline star of tomorrow's $750,000 Pimlico Special.
Just then the van rounded a corner into the stable area. And just then the rain stopped.
"See what kind of power this horse has?" Hine said, smiling the smile of a man blessed with a sound, beautiful and personable horse who has won $7.4 million.
Carolyn joined her husband as Jose Sanchez, Skip Away's groom, led the gray bombshell off the van, a couple of times around the shedrow and into stall 25, where Skip Away immediately collapsed and rolled in his fresh bed of straw.
"Everybody loves Skippy," said Carolyn, who grew up in Highlandtown. "What can I say? He's No. 1. He always has been."
The Hines arrived in fine spirits -- despite an 11-mile backup on the New Jersey Turnpike -- and Skip Away delighted his small greeting party by throwing his head up and down, snorting and staring into the camera as if he knew those clicks were for him.
Tomorrow, the 5-year-old Skip Away -- two-time Eclipse Award winner -- goes for his 14th victory against four horses who might be running for second place. Skip Away has won four Grade I races in a row -- all in commanding fashion. One was the $4.4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, in which Skip Away blew away his opposition by six lengths.
Despite that breathtaking performance, Skip Away lost the Horse of the Year balloting to the 2-year-old Favorite Trick, who won all eight of his races. Skip Away won four of 11 and never finished worse than third.
So far this year, Skip Away is 2-for-2 and Favorite Trick, after fading to eighth in the Kentucky Derby, is 1-for-3.
Is Sonny Hine surprised by Favorite Trick's record?
"Surprised?" he said. "The only thing I'm surprised about is that he was Horse of the Year.
"Who'd he beat? Name one horse of consequence he beat. He never ran a distance. My horse set two track records. He earned $1.2 million. My horse earned over $4 million. Who's the best horse?
"It was all political. Nobody in Kentucky wanted my horse to win because he's a Florida-bred. They had nothing against us, because they voted my wife an Eclipse Award as owner. They were just against the horse."
Three entities vote for the Eclipse Awards: National Turf Writers' Association members, Daily Racing Form employees and tracks' racing secretaries.
The year before, they voted for Cigar, even though Skip Away beat him late in the year at Belmont Park. This year, although it's still early, Skip Away and Silver Charm, who won the $4 million Dubai World Cup, are neck-and-neck.
"I don't think there's any question who's got the better horse," Hine said. "I do. And he knows it. He knows I've got the best horse."
"He" is Bob Baffert, trainer of Silver Charm. For the record, Baffert has said he believes that he has the best horse. So when are they going to tangle?
"It looks like I'm going to have to meet them on their home turf," Hine said. "But if Skip Away wins his next two races, he won't want to run against him. What if I go out to California, and he doesn't show up?"
Skip Away's calendar includes the Massachusetts Handicap on May 30 at Suffolk Downs, the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic -- two $1 million races in California -- two or three major stakes in New York and the Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Churchill Downs.
Somewhere along the line, Skip Away and Silver Charm, and maybe Gentlemen and Touch Gold, might meet in the race of the year.
But for now, there's the matter of the Pimlico Special, one of Maryland's marquee races, and its accompanying treats for the Hines.
"When I come back to Baltimore, I like to OD on crabs," Carolyn Hine said. "I told Karin De Francis I'm not worried about the purse -- just have plenty of crabs and crab meat."
Pub Date: 5/08/98