'Charm's' fever shatters chance for classic duel


June 28, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The buildup for today's Hollywood Gold Cup began in February, when trainer Sonny Hine was struck numb by Skip Away's losing Horse of the Year to Favorite Trick. Ever since, Hine has been seeking redemption -- or maybe revenge -- for the gray powerhouse owned by his wife, Carolyn.

Hine perched on the verge of perhaps achieving it -- until four days ago, when Silver Charm came down with a fever and was bumped from the $1 million Gold Cup. His withdrawal ruined what might have been the best race in years: Skip Away vs. Silver Charm vs. Gentlemen, the top three dirt horses in North America head-to-head, eyeball-to-eyeball.

Skip Away vs. Gentlemen is a fabulous matchup, but no blockbuster. And unfortunately, the Gold Cup at Hollywood Park (post time 7: 18 p.m. EST, live on ESPN) may have been the best chance for a heart-thumping showdown involving the three horses. As fragile as Gentlemen is, as unpredictable as Silver Charm trainer Bob Baffert is, and as fickle and unforgiving as the sport of racing is, fans may never see the three lined up in the same starting gate.

But if the handlers of Silver Charm and Gentlemen want to try again, they know where to find Skip Away. Hine announced his schedule months ago: after the Gold Cup, the Pacific Classic on Aug. 15 at Del Mar, the Woodward Sept. 19 and Jockey Club Gold Cup Oct. 10 at Belmont Park and the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 7 at Churchill Downs.

Then, the Hines plan on retiring the 5-year-old Skip Away -- as, they hope, the richest thoroughbred in history. Sonny Hine mapped out a schedule that would enable Skip Away, who has earned $8.3 million, to surpass Cigar, who earned $9.9 million.

Skip Away would earn $600,000 for a win today. It would be his seventh straight -- and ninth in 12 races since losing to Gentlemen by a half-length in last year's Pimlico Special.

For Gentlemen, this will be his first start since bleeding from the lungs and finishing last March 7 in the Santa Anita Handicap. He is the Gold Cup's defending champion, and his trainer, Richard Mandella, has saddled the winners of the last six $1 million races in Southern California.

"Other than we haven't had a prep race, he couldn't be better," Mandella said of Gentlemen. "I think he's up to his best race, and he'll need to be. Skip Away is surely in his prime, just doing things automatically. I think there's a great race coming."

Hine said he wasn't surprised that Silver Charm won't run. He said Baffert has been avoiding Skip Away all year.

"I think they only thought about running after it looked like my horse might not come," Hine said, referring to the potentially tragic incident nine days ago, when Skip Away dumped his rider and ran unrestrained around Belmont Park for 20 to 25 minutes.

Still, Hine said, today's race may be memorable.

"To me, this is the race of the year," he said. "These are two great horses. Skip Away is No. 1 and Gentlemen is No. 2."

The field in post position order with jockey and odds (all carry 124 pounds):

Floriselli, Corey Nakatani, 20-1; Skip Away, Jerry Bailey, even; Gentlemen, Gary Stevens, 7-5; Bagshot, Alex Solis, 15-1; Budroyale, Matt Garcia, 15-1; Don't Blame Rio, Frank Alvarado, 20-1; Puerto Madero, Kent Desormeaux, 7-5 (coupled with Gentlemen); Mud Route, Chris McCarron, 6-1.

Two for the ages

Maryland's pair of beloved senior citizens, 13-year-old Rebuff and 12-year-old D. Guilford, have returned to action after their customary winter layoffs.

Rebuff has run twice, finishing 10th and fourth in long turf races. His trainer, Frances A. Merryman, said he always needs a race or two to regain his form.

"Now he's ready to win," Merryman said. "We just need a race for him."

The old boy has gained a fan club. Merryman has begun giving riding lessons at the farm she rents in Baltimore County. As she instructs her young students, she sits astride Rebuff. Afterward, she takes off with him on his daily two-mile gallop.

When he races, the students flock to the track with handmade signs that read: "Go, Rebuff, Go."

"Here he is at 13 still competing against top-level claimers," Merryman said of the gelding, a winner of 17 of 92 starts. "He still thinks he's king."

A year younger, D. Guilford is back in Monkton with his trainer, J.B. Secor, after being stabled a short time at Delaware Park. Secor had placed him with the trainer David Taylor in hopes of getting him into races at Delaware Park.

D. Guilford won his 1998 debut, a five-furlong turf sprint May 22 at Garden State. That was his 34th win in 97 starts. In his 98th start, eight days ago at Pimlico, he finished eighth as the 3-1 second choice in another five-furlong sprint on grass.

He'll race two or three more times this year -- his 100th start may come at Colonial Downs -- and then retire, Secor said.

"It's very important to me that this horse retire sound," Secor said. "He's been an amazing horse. What more can you say about him?"

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