ELMONT, N.Y. -- On a day as gray as charcoal at Christmas, Skip Away fell short in his bid to overtake Cigar as the leading money earner of all time, finishing third yesterday in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
After Skip Away dueled with Gentlemen early and gave way to eventual winner Wagon Limit late, Sonny Hine, Skip Away's trainer, detected swelling in the horse's right front ankle. Jim Hunt, Skip Away's veterinarian, examined the horse and pronounced the injury neither serious nor long-lasting.
"The injury is cosmetic, believe me," Hunt said. "He should be all right in a few days."
Skip Away has battled swollen ankles since June, when he dumped his rider and ran loose around the racetrack while training here at Belmont. He has also raced -- and won -- after contracting fevers and infections.
"He seems to overcome anything," said Hine, who trained horses in Maryland for nearly 30 years. "But this is the first time I've ever seen him give up like that."
On a track sloppy from recent downpours, Skip Away battled Gentlemen stride for stride from the start of the 1 1/4 -mile race, down Belmont's distant backstretch and into the far turn. Usually at that point, Skip Away, like Cigar before him, exerts his dominance and pulls away.
But yesterday, dark and chilly on Long Island, Skip Away, the 1-5 favorite, began to fade. Gentlemen, the 2-1 second choice, churned onward, looking like an upset winner. But then Gentlemen suddenly tired. And here came Wagon Limit.
Wagon Limit? He was 34-1. But he is trained by H. Allen Jerkens. Before the payoffs even flashed on the infield toteboard, the murmurs began: "Giant killer."
Jerkens obtained the nickname after orchestrating upsets of the great Kelso and Secretariat. Wagon Limit, a 4-year-old son of Conquistador Cielo, had won only one of 11 races since finishing third in last year's Jockey Club Gold Cup.
"The horse was doing well, the other horses not quite as good as they'd been," said Jerkens, a member of racing's Hall of Fame. "That's a combination that makes you win in an upset. You've got to be prepared, that's the other thing."
A winner by 5 1/2 lengths, Wagon Limit, ridden by Robbie Davis, returned $70 to win, $21 to place and $2.10 to show. The exacta with Gentlemen, who finished nearly five lengths in front of Skip Away, paid $246. The trifecta returned $373.
Wagon Limit's winning time was 2 minutes, 3/5 seconds. Running Stag, Fire King and Pacificbounty completed the order of finish.
Jerry Bailey, Skip Away's jockey, offered no excuse for the performance -- not the sloppy track, not the early speed duel, not a stumble or a misstep.
"He just didn't seem his normal self today," Bailey said. "If he comes back all right, we'll live to fight again."
Hine didn't seem so sure, even though Skip Away, back at the barn, pranced and played as if he felt no pain.
"Thank God he's sound," Hine said. "The morning will tell us more."
But then he began talking as if he feared this might have been Skip Away's last race.
"We didn't get the money title, but we came close," Hine said.
Skip Away's third-place finish, snapping a nine-race win streak, earned $110,000 of the $1 million purse. That elevated his career earnings to $9,616,360 -- $383,455 short of Cigar's $9,999,815.
So the record of the Maryland-bred Cigar is safe, for the time being. Hine said he won't decide for at least a week whether to race Skip Away in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 7 at Churchill Downs. That's been scheduled to be the 5-year-old horse's final race before he's retired to stud.
"It's been a good run," Hine said.
Pub Date: 10/11/98