First it was Holy Bull’s rampage in 1994 and then the reign of Cigar. No chronicle of the mid-to-late ‘90s would be complete without recognizing Skip Away’s career, which football pundits would call smash-mouth racing.
The story of Skip Away revolves around four basic elements – his remarkable statistics, his toughness, the love of his owner Carolyn Hine, and the inspiring final days of his trainer Sonny Hine.
I will focus first on his stats and toughness before getting to the human side of his story.
To give you an example of just how brilliant and resilient Skip Away was, I surprisingly will start off with his workouts before I even get to his racing record. You can search far and wide and you won’t find anything comparable to what Skip Away accomplished in the morning.
During his career, he turned in an amazing 53 bullet works, along with 21 works that were the second-fastest at the distance. Just think of it: 74 works that were the first or second-fastest times on the tab.
Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find trainers working their horses farther than five furlongs on more than an occasional basis. Skip Away worked six furlongs 30 times. In addition to having six works within the 1:10 and 1:10 3/5 range, he turned in a 1:08 3/5 drill at Belmont Park in 1997. At five furlongs, he worked in under 1:00 29 times, 10 of those under :59, including a :57 1/5 work at Gulfstream. At four furlongs, he had 11 works ranging from :46 1/5 to :46 4/5. From March 21 to April 21, 1998, he turned in six consecutive bullet works, and would have had seven had his 1:23 3/5 seven-furlong drill not been the only work at the distance.
Track conditions never stopped his trainer Sonny Hine, who worked Skip Away 19 times on an off track – 10 in the slop, five in the mud, and four on a good track.
OK, you get the picture. His racing career was no different, as he utilized that same brilliance and ruggedness in the afternoons as well, finishing in the money in 34 of his 38 starts. Of the four times he was out of the money, one was his career debut at five furlongs, in which he broke poorly; one came when he bled badly and was eased early in his 3-year-old campaign; and the other two came at Churchill Downs (in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic). Churchill proved to be the only track he couldn’t handle. Following his Derby fiasco, he finished in the money in 26 consecutive races, 25 of them graded stakes, 20 of which were grade I.
Skip Away was not the type of horse who would beat you in the final eighth of a mile, or even the final quarter of a mile. His strength (he was one of the strongest horses I’ve even been around) was his ability to run his opponents off their feet in the first three-quarters of a mile and keep going. He wasn’t going to dazzle you with his exceptional final quarters. But, having already demoralized his foes by running them into the ground, he didn’t need to close fast. When he had the lead turning for home, he was near-unbeatable. Of the 16 times he led at the head of the stretch, he won 14 of them. In those races, top-class horses Cigar, Gentlemen, Free House, Formal Gold, Will’s Way, Behrens, Deputy Commander, Louis Quatorze, Puerto Madero, and Editor’s Note couldn’t catch him. The only two times he didn’t win were in the Belmont Stakes after breaking from post 13 and the Gulfstream Park Handicap after going head and head every step of the way in demanding fractions, while giving nine pounds to the winner.
With Skip Away, there was no such thing as stealing a race with slow fractions. He didn’t believe in doing anything slow; that wasn’t his style. He ran hard, he ran fast, and he ran far. In his 1 1/4-mile victories, he set fractions of 1:09 3/5 and 1:33 4/5 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (run in a stakes-record 1:59); 1:10 and 1:33 4/5 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (run in 1:58 4/5); 1:09 3/5 and 1:34 in the Hollywood Gold Cup; and :46 3/5 and 1:10 1/5 in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. In his 1 1/8-mile wins, he went in :45 2/5, 1:09 flat, and 1:34 1/5 in the Woodward; 1:09 4/5 and 1:34 2/5 in the Haskell Invitational; 1:10 and 1:34 4/5 in the Philip H. Iselin (carrying 131 pounds); 1:10 1/5 and 1:34 4/5 in the Mass Cap (carrying 130 pounds); 1:10 1/5 and 1:34 4/5 in the Blue Grass Stakes; and in 1:10 3/5 in the Molson Million and 1:10 4/5 and Donn Handicap.
He did on occasion show the ability to win from off the pace in the final quarter, capturing the Suburban, Haskell, and Molson Million with strong stretch runs.
He didn’t even reach his peak until he was 5, putting together a nine-race winning streak, seven of them in grade I stakes, from Oct. ’97 to Sept. ’98.
OK, enough of stats. The real story of Skip Away is in actuality a love story. In fact, it is two love stories – Carolyn Hine and her horse and Carolyn and Sonny. It might sound a bit far-fetched to say that Skip Away was the child they never had, but that is the way Carolyn described him. Some may cringe and some may find it endearing, but the most familiar sound at the barn when Carolyn was there was “Skippy, mommy loves you,” which Carolyn would say constantly to the horse, much to Sonny’s amusement.
The relationship between Sonny and Carolyn was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Sonny, despite having a tendency to complain about a ride or other minor things, had the most easy-going disposition, which is why I chose him to work for at Monmouth Park in 1991 for a four-part feature I did for the Daily Racing Form, titled “Life on the Backstretch.” For five days, I mucked stalls, walked hots, held horses as they were being washed, did countless other jobs around barn, attended backstretch card games, night time prayer meetings, vanned down to Atlantic City with one of Sonny’s horses who was running in the United Nations Handicap, and attempted unsuccessfully to sit in on drug counseling meetings, but did speak to some of the participants.
Sonny’s barn was the stopping off point for anyone needing to borrow money or sell a horse, or simply indulge in a bagel and cream cheese or a donut. Some of the more recognizable backstretch characters that resided in Sonny’s barn were their cats Morris, Chi Chi, and Pepi.
Although the Hines’ certainly had enough money, that didn’t stop Carolyn from saving grocery coupons and searching for bargains at Fortunoffs. They preferred a Chinese buffet to a three-star restaurant, and never once in 37 years did they take a honeymoon or a vacation. Their life was the horses and their love for each other, and that was it. According to Carolyn, their entire life together was a honeymoon.
What makes Sonny’s story all the more remarkable, and one that seemed mind-boggling to those who knew him, was that prior to becoming a horse trainer he was an FBI agent and worked for Air Force intelligence and the CIA. On one mission he had to infiltrate enemy lines during the Korean War to monitor Russian and Chinese pilots who had been causing a great deal of damage to American facilities. The mission, coordinated by the Air Force and the CIA, was so important and hush-hush, Marines were sent in to protect them and battleships were positioned off the coast to prevent any further Communist movement in the area.
Sonny, was a good friend of J. Edgar Hoover, spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese, and became adept at breaking Chinese codes for the National Security Agency, for whom he worked, along with the CIA, in Hong Kong, investigating fraud cases. He also spent time in Vienna monitoring the Hungarian refugees who had converged on Austria following Hungary’s revolution. He was ranked one of the top 10 investigators in the world by the State Department, won the Outstanding Service Award, and did investigative work for the House Un-American Activities Committee.
This was such a far cry from the affable, cherubic Sonny Hine everyone knew that it was difficult to picture that aspect of his life. What I found funny was that Sonny would say about his life with Carolyn, “We’re so plain and simple it’s probably boring to most people.”
When Sonny and Carolyn first were married they had $900 to their name and lived in an attic at old Narragansett Racetrack. They had to cook meat on aluminum foil because they didn’t own a pot. When they were at Charles Town it was so cold they had to sit back to back on a bed in the tack room to keep warm. They carried all their possessions from track to track in a U-Haul and couldn’t even afford curtains for their windows.
So, one can understand why, when Skip Away came along over 30 years later, Carolyn would call him their “Gift from God.” Sonny always felt that he was Carolyn’s reward for having to endure so much in those early years.
Because of that, they turned down a $5-million offer for the horse after his devastating victory in the Blue Grass. And when Skip Away became a household name, Sonny and Carolyn didn’t hesitate to put up $480,000 to supplement him to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. When Skip Away retired, he had earned over $9.6 million and won an Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old in 1996, champion older horse in 1997, and Horse of the Year and champion older horse in 1998. But the rewards were far from over, which I’ll get to later on.
Sonny would kid Carolyn, asking her where he ranks in her life compared to Skip Away, and Carolyn would always answer: “Dead-heat.”
Perhaps they were even more appreciative of Skip Away knowing how they came to get him. Sonny had purchased the colt at the Calder 2-year-old sale for $30,000, only to have to return him on the advice of their veterinarian after X-rays revealed a chip in his ankle. Carolyn had already fallen in love with the horse, and she was disheartened as they left the sales pavilion and drove home. Sonny hung a leg on route 441, heading toward Hallandale Beach Boulevard, when he suddenly pulled off to the side of the road.
“Honey, there’s something about that horse,” he said to Carolyn. “I want to buy him anyway if you’re OK with it.”
Carolyn replied, “Well, it’s my birthday in a couple of weeks. That’ll be my birthday present.”
So, Sonny turned around and drove back to the sales pavilion and told the agent consigning the horse he still wanted to buy him, even with the ankle chip. The agent contacted the seller and breeder, who knocked $7,500 off the price in order to pay for any surgery that might be required. Sonny was confident in his ability as a horseman and decided not to have surgery performed. So, Skip Away went through his entire career, one of the most grueling in years, racing with a chip in his ankle, which was a testament to Sonny’s skills as a trainer.
Darkness had fallen on Belmont Park, and Sonny stood alone in Barn 3, which housed what remained of the retiring Woody Stephens’ string of horses. Inside the barn, the 3-year-old Skip Away was cooling out after having defeated the mighty Cigar in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. As he passed Sonny, the colt gave a single cough.
Sonny didn’t hesitate. “Uh-oh, he coughed,” Sonny said. “Must be Cigar smoke.”
If there was any smoke it was from the torch that had just been passed. The racing world had been given a glimpse of the future, and its color was battleship gray.
As Skip Away fought off Cigar’s challenge down the stretch, Carolyn stood in her box, pounding the rail with both fists, shouting, “Come on Skip. Come on Skip.” As soon as they crossed the wire, with Skip Away the winner by a head, one of Carolyn’s guests shouted in disbelief. “You beat Cigar! You beat Cigar!”
Skip Away and Sonny could not have given Carolyn a better anniversary present. In the executive offices following the race, Sonny saw Cigar’s owner Allen Paulson and said to him, “You’re a credit to the game. I really admire you. You’ve gone everywhere and you’ve run everywhere – you’re really a great sport.” The torch had indeed been passed.
At the barn, Sonny handed out hundred-dollar bills to just about everyone in the barn, from Stephens’ stable help to the security guards. He and Carolyn had to catch a helicopter to the airport, but there was one more thing he had to see before they left.
“First he’s got to go in his stall and lay down and roll and then I’ll be happy,” Sonny said. As if on cue, Skip Away was led into the stall once occupied by Forty Niner and rolled over on both sides.
“Look at him,” Sonny said. “He’s still full of himself. He’s not even tired. Isn’t he amazing? He doesn’t get tired; he gets tougher. OK, now we can go home.”
I knew what was coming and wasn’t looking forward to it. For Sonny and Carolyn, the gloom of a gray November morning befitted the occasion. It was time for them to say goodbye to Skip Away. They had followed the horse’s van from Churchill Downs to Hopewell Farm near Midway, and after their goodbyes they would begin their long drive home down to Florida, knowing Skip Away was no longer a part of their daily lives.
Carolyn had already done some heavy duty crying in the car, but she and Sonny knew the worst was yet to come. “The drive went too quickly,” Carolyn said after arriving at the farm. “It’s going to be such a void in our lives. It was like there was magnet drawing me to his stall every day.”
As Skip Away was led into his new home and stared through the Dutch doors in the back of his stall at his new surroundings, Sonny said, “He loves it here. Look at him looking around at everything. Well, you deserved it, buddy. You really earned it.”
Carolyn was in tears, feeling she was deserting Skip Away, and kept telling him she loved him. Even his groom, Jose Luis Sanchez, was crying, as Carolyn went over to console him. “It hurts,” he said.
Finally it was time for Sonny and Carolyn to leave. “Skip, we’ve got to leave you here,” Sonny said. “I’m sorry. I’ll let you go now. Goodbye old buddy. We’ll see you later.”
But Sonny would never see Skip Away again. All through the horse’s 5-year-old campaign he had been battling cancer and was too weak to travel.
Sonny always said it was Carolyn and Skip Away who kept him going when he found it difficult to put one foot in front of the other. When he became ill with the flu early in 2000, Sonny insisted on going to the barn, because, as Carolyn said, “He just loved his horses so much.” He developed pneumonia and in his already weakened state, was unable to fight it. It was the only fight Sonny would ever lose.
After he died, his physician was in tears. He had watched Sonny travel around the country with Skip Away, despite suffering the effects of chemotherapy, and knew it was only his courage and perseverance that enabled him to do it. It was that same perseverance and dedication that drove him to the barn to be with his horses, despite the risk involved.
Following Sonny’s death, Carolyn had to adjust to life without him, but found it increasingly difficult. Her first priority was to sell all the horses, keeping just one or two. She finally was able to visit Skip Away later that year, in Oct. 2000. Being in Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup, I met her at Hopewell Farm and witnessed the emotional reunion.
Carolyn’s main goal in life was to see Sonny and Skip Away inducted into the Hall of Fame. The first became a reality in 2003 when Sonny was voted in, and Carolyn asked me to make the presentation speech, which I was honored to do. The following year, Skip Away joined him.
“It’s a closure, Carolyn said afterward. “This is what I’ve been praying for. I’m grateful to have been blessed with such a wonderful husband and wonderful horse. I’m so proud of Sonny and so proud of Skippy. I don’t ever want that bubble to burst. Now I can go on and live with all my pride. The two most important men in my life are in the Hall of Fame.”
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