On the Money
A Woodward win put Skip Away a nose from the alltime earnings mark
Inside stall 11 in his barn at Belmont Park, the iron-gray horse heard the voice of his 67-year-old trainer, Hubert (Sonny) Hine, and lifted his head as if coming to attention for inspection. Hine slipped into the cubicle and, bending next to the horse's right shoulder, drew a hand down each foreleg. An old warrior now, Skip Away had been through this many times, and he craned his head around to watch. "Hi, champ," Hine said. "You're the best, and you've proved it again."
It was 7 o'clock last Saturday night, and what Skip Away had just shown—if the point needed repeating—was that he was indisputably the most capable racehorse on the planet Less than 90 minutes earlier, in the most definitive race run this year, the 5-year-old horse had rushed to the lead midway down the back-stretch, beaten back challenges by Coronado's Quest and Gentlemen, and pulled away in the stretch to win the 1?-mile Woodward Stakes by nearly two lengths.
It was another dazzling performance on his march into the record books. Skip Away has been unbeaten since Oct 18,1997, when he smoked around the Belmont track to win the 1�-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by 6� lengths, and his victory in the Woodward was his ninth in a row, seven of them in grade I stakes. His $300,000 Woodward purse gave him career earnings of $9,506,360, leaving only Cigar ($9,999,815) ahead of him on the alltime list, and if he wins his next scheduled start, in the Gold Cup on Oct. 10, he will become the richest thoroughbred ever. Should he repeat last year's triumph in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, on Nov. 7 at Churchill Downs, he will retire with more than $12 million in earnings—no small bag of oats for a horse that Hine bought for $22,500 as a birthday gift for his wife, Carolyn, in 1995. Aside from Sonny and Carolyn, no one was more buoyed by the Woodward result than Rick Trontz, owner of Hopewell Farm in Kentucky, who has nearly completed syndicating Skip Away as a breeding stallion for $18 million.
The manner in which Skip Away has accumulated all that lucre—showing durability, tenacity and consistency—brings to mind Cigar, who won 10 straight races in '95 on his way to tying Citation's record of 16 in a row. This year Skip Away won his first two races, the Dorm and the Gulfstream handicaps in February, by daylight in Florida. Then the road show began: In Baltimore, on May 9, he won the Pimlico Special by 3� lengths; three weeks later he won the Massachusetts Handicap by 4�; and on June 28 he won the Hollywood Gold Cup by almost two.
Only once this year did he look beaten, in the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park on Aug. 30. Under 131 pounds, the heaviest impost of his career, he was leading heading for the midstretch when a long shot named Stormin' Fever, carrying 113, charged past. But Skip Away battled back in the closing yards to win by the flare of a nostril in the gamest performance of his life.
Still, the Iselin raised suspicions that the grueling campaign was wearing him down. The Woodward—where Skip Away would face the gifted 4-year-old Free House, the improving 6-year-old Gentlemen and the late-blooming 3-year-old Coronado's Quest—was to be the race of the year for Horse of the Year. "If he runs his race, forget about it," Hine said last Friday.
The horse set a sizzling pace—a half mile in :45[2/5], three quarters in 1:09, the mile in 1:34[1/5]—and pulled jockey Jerry Bailey to the lead down the backside. By then Bailey was in a hand ride to the wire, and the crowd was on its feet. "What a birthday present!" cried Carolyn. And what a gift he has been to racing.
A Tough Break For Smith
When Coronado's Quest won the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 29, Mike Smith suddenly found himself aboard America's leading 3-year-old colt But when Coronado's Quest went to the post in the Woodward last Saturday, Smith was sitting in the broadcast booth at Belmont in a body cast, the result of a near catastrophic injury he suffered two days after his Travers triumph.