Skip Away, 'Trick' focus of honors debate Classic winner, 2-year-old rivals for Horse of Year

November 10, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The Breeders' Cup is horse racing's championship day. Sometimes the champions become clear. Sometimes they don't.

The previous two years, Cigar was the obvious choice for Horse of the Year. This year, after Saturday's Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park, the race has boiled down to prime contenders Favorite Trick and Skip Away, and longshots Gentlemen and Silver Charm.

Yesterday, on the backstretch at Hollywood Park, the debate turned lively as trainers touted their horses, other trainers evaluated the field and turf writers sparred as they sipped morning coffee.

Said trainer Sonny Hine, whose Skip Away demolished the field in the $4.4 million Breeders' Cup Classic: "Skip Away's just a rare horse. He's made twice as much money as anybody else. He's been consistent all year.

"The 2-year-old merits consideration. But 2-year-olds run in restricted races. Two-year-olds run against 2-year-olds. When horses run against 3-year-olds and up, when they give weight like Skip Away did all year, that's another story."

The 2-year-old is Favorite Trick, who demolished his field in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The victory culminated a sensational year of eight wins in eight starts.

That's the most impressive record for a 2-year-old since Native Dancer's nine-for-nine in 1952. Even the record of Secretariat, 1972 Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old, carried the blemish of two losses (one by disqualification) in nine starts.

Said Patrick Byrne, Favorite Trick's trainer: "If they don't give this horse Horse of the Year, they'll never give Horse of the Year to a 2-year-old."

His knock against Skip Away was that the field in the Classic was "soft," and that Skip Away had not been as overpowering most of the year as he was Saturday.

"Horse of the Year is supposed to be for overall performance, not this one race, right?" Byrne said. "And the horses that beat Skip Away this year weren't even in the race -- Gentlemen and Formal Gold."

In a rivalry that spanned the year, Formal Gold, injured before the Classic, beat Skip Away four times. Skip Away beat him twice. Gentlemen, who fell ill before the Classic, whipped Skip Away in the Pimlico Special.

Skip Away's strength is his consistency and durability. In 1997, he never finished off the board. His record: 11 starts, 4 wins, 5 seconds, 3 thirds.

His weakness? Winning only 4-of-11.

Bob Baffert, one of California's top trainers, stood firmly in the Skip Away camp, even though his Silver Charm is a longshot contender. Silver Charm won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. After narrowly losing the Belmont, he became ill and has not raced since.

"If he doesn't get Horse of the Year, it'd be a tragedy," Baffert said of Skip Away, "The man put up his money. That's what racing's all about."

He referred to Sonny Hine and his wife, Carolyn, who paid $480,000 to supplement Skip Away to the Classic. The payment was required because Skip Away was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup as a foal.

The Hines' payment of nearly half a million returned $2,288,000 in purse money. That increased Skip Away's earnings to $6,876,360, second in North America behind Cigar's $9,999,815.

Bill Mott, who trained Cigar, leaned toward Skip Away.

"He was there at the beginning of the year, and he made it to the end," Mott said. "His last two races were so huge. Whoever dances last is probably best remembered."

And finally, the trainer Richard Mandella, whose mighty arsenal for the Breeders' Cup succumbed to injury or illness, made a mild argument for his Gentlemen, who won four of six races this year.

"I think when you lay the [Daily Racing] Form out, Gentlemen's going to stack up against any of them," Mandella said. "Then again, Skip Away was awesome. The 2-year-old was awesome. You can't be much more dominant than that little guy's been."

The tit-for-tats will continue until the end of the year when the turf writers, racing secretaries and employees of the Daily Racing Form cast their ballots for Horse of the Year -- as well as champions in nine divisions and top owner, jockey and trainer.

Mandella said you can't overestimate what the awards, in the form of Eclipse statuettes, mean.

"There's nothing like a championship," Mandella said. "No money in the world buys that."

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