Skip to main content
Original Issue

Inside Horse Racing

A Woodward win put Skip Away a nose from the alltime earnings

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
backstretch, beaten back challenges by Coronado's Quest and
Gentlemen, and pulled away in the stretch to win the 1 1/8-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 1/4-mile Jockey
Club Gold Cup by 6 1/2 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 Donn 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 1/4
lengths; three weeks later he won the Massachusetts Handicap by
4 1/4; 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

Saratoga Spill

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

Riding a mare named Dacron in the ninth race that day, Smith was
skimming along Saratoga's turf-course hedge, going into the first
turn, when a filly on his outside slammed into his mount, driving
her into the hedge. As Dacron fell headfirst, Smith somersaulted
into the air and landed hard on the small of his back.

Unhurt, Dacron climbed to her feet and galloped off. Smith, 33,
felt a searing pain in his back and was gasping for breath. "It
hurt so bad, I thought I was going to die," he recalls. "My back
was in spasms. The wind was knocked out of me, and I was
panicking because I knew the horses would be coming around again."

Although Smith had fractured three vertebrae in his lower back
(after he landed, his mount rolled over on him as she got up),
he had been spared the fate that riders fear more than death:
paralysis. So he feels blessed these days, even as he faces four
to six months on the shelf. "It could have been worse," says
Smith, who has ridden racehorses for 17 years and has been one
of the nation's top jockeys for the past decade.

In a plaster cast that extends from his sternum to his waist,
Smith spends his afternoons on the couch in his Searingtown,
N.Y., home, channel surfing between soap operas and races
broadcast from Belmont Park. The cast is wrapped in red and
black fiberglass--the racing colors of the sport's powerful
Phipps family, for whom Smith has won numerous stakes. While he
wears the cast (for perhaps another six weeks), Smith isn't
allowed to exercise, but he can dream about his return to the
saddle, which he hopes will come at the Gulfstream Park winter
meeting that begins on Jan. 3. "I probably won't miss the money
for about four months," he says, "but I'm missing the action
right now."

Industry Watch

After years of decline, with signs that its demise was no
farther than an eighth pole away, racing is giving indications
that there is life in the sport's old bones. The average
purchase price was way up not only at major yearling sales this
summer--Keeneland's July figures showed a 35% increase over 1997
and one colt fetched $4 million--but also in sales of horses of
all ages. TV ratings were up for shows such as ESPN's Racing
Across America, bolstered by the spring performance of Real
Quiet, who came within a nose of winning the first Triple Crown
in two decades.

Yet another positive sign for the industry was the sale last
month of the doddering Daily Racing Form--for more than 100
years the bible of horseplayers--to a group led by Steven Crist,
a former New York Times turf writer who owns one of the keenest
minds in the sport. Primedia unloaded the paper for $40 million,
half the asking price just 18 months ago. The Form's troubles
stemmed from cutbacks that diminished the quality of the paper
and from its feckless response to the presence of a major
statistical competitor, Equibase, as well as to a sea change in
the sport: the decline of wagering on live races and the rise of
simulcasting. At its peak in the late '80s, the Form sold more
than 100,000 copies a day; it sells about 45,000 now.
"Circulation has been going down eight to 10 percent a year for
the last six years," says Crist. "That's a lot of bleeding. The
challenge is not to restore the lost circulation. It's to stop
the bleeding."

For starters Crist raided his alma mater to fill the top two
editorial jobs and hired a Times alum for the No. 1 advertising
post. Next he plans to make the paper more attractive to bettors
by beefing up its guts--the past performances.

"When I first fell in love with racing," says Crist, 41, "I used
to run out to the newsstand at 96th Street and Broadway every
night at 10 till nine to buy the Form. I couldn't wait to get my
hands on the paper. I want people to feel that way again."

COLOR PHOTO: JASON BURFIELD Turn of events Skip Away (second from right) pulled clear of the pack in the stretch.

COLOR PHOTO: NICK CARDILLICCHIO Winning colors Smith's cast reminds him of his comeback plans. [Mike Smith wearing body cast around torso]