Skip Away at heart of love story Horse racing: The only thing Carolyn and Sonny Hine are more devoted to than their amazing horse, who'll end his career Saturday, is each other.

November 04, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Tears filled the eyes of Carolyn Hine. The Baltimore native usually presents a cheerful demeanor, complete with a smile, a cock of the head and this outlook: "The sun is always shining for me." But one subject had pierced her resilient shell.

The subject was the end of the racing career of Skip Away, the 5-year-old gray horse Hine has owned since early 1995. In those 3 1/2 years, Skip Away has compiled a record that assures his place among the sport's greatest stars.

For Carolyn and her husband, Sonny, who began his training career in Maryland, Skip Away became something personal, almost private.

He became the reward for years of struggle and dedication, for nights spent in attic and basement apartments, for 36 years of marriage without a vacation. He became their No. 1 son, the child they never had. They began calling him "Skippy," a nickname that rankled purists, but rolled off their tongues with affection and pride.

On Saturday, the fairy tale ends. Skip Away will race for the last time, facing the sternest challenge of his career in the Breeders' Cup Classic here at Churchill Downs.

Yesterday, he arrived by van from Belmont Park.

"I think when Skip is retired, I think that's when it's going to hit me," Carolyn Hine said, her voice cracking, in a recent interview at Belmont Park. "I've loved each and every one of my horses. But with him, it was something special from day one."

Her husband wanted to buy the horse, a son of Skip Trial, a courageous runner who Sonny had trained. But he wanted Carolyn to see him first. He took her to the Florida farm where Skip Away, a 2-year-old yet to race, stood for sale at the modest price of $30,000.

"I'm petting him, and talking to him," Carolyn recalled. "In the meantime, he's looking at me, doesn't take his eyes off me. It was just eye contact, something that was transmitted.

"And I said to Sonny, 'I like him. Buy him for me.' To this day, I'm still the only one who can go over to him, talk to him, touch him on the nose."

They got him for an even bigger bargain. After X-rays revealed a bone chip in one knee, the price dropped to $22,500, leaving the Hines $7,500 for surgery. But the chip never bothered Skip Away, and surgery was never performed.

Their meager investment became one of the great coups in the history of horse racing. By winning 18 of 37 races -- and finishing in the top three all but three times -- Skip Away has earned $9,616,360. If he finishes third or better Saturday, he will surpass Cigar's all-time record of $9,999,815.

Has fame and fortune changed Carolyn and Sonny Hine?

"Nope," said Chris McCarron, the Hall of Fame jockey.

From the beginning

McCarron started riding in 1972 at the Bowie racetrack in Maryland. Sonny was stabled at Pimlico. He used McCarron as a rider for four years until the talented jockey moved to California. McCarron and the Hines remained close friends.

"They're exemplary," McCarron said. "I honestly cannot think of anybody with a better relationship than these two.

"It's very difficult to be side-by-side with somebody 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and get along like this. But it's obvious the love they have for each other and the love they have for the game and the horses."

Sonny drives a gold Mercedes with his name on the license plate. But money's not important to them, he said. Carolyn still takes coupons to the grocery store.

"I don't think she'll ever change," said Florence Greenberg, a longtime friend from Baltimore. "That's the way she was raised. She saw how hard her mother and father worked."

Tillie and Abe Seaman ran a furniture store at Eaton and Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. The family lived in a small apartment above the store. Carolyn's three older brothers shared one bedroom. Carolyn shared the other with her parents.

"It was a struggle for my family," Carolyn said. "But it was a family affair. We had one marble step in front of the store. That was my job. Every day I took such pride in cleaning that white step."

When she was 16, the family moved to Forest Park. After graduating from Forest Park High School, she moved to Florida to work in the office of her oldest brother, Irvin, a doctor.

In Florida, Carolyn met Sonny on a blind date.

"When we started going out, I said, 'This can't be true. I mean, this guy, he doesn't have a line,' " Carolyn said.

"I remember this one doctor I had dated before Sonny, and he's analyzing the lines on my arm. I mean, what kind of nonsense is this?

"But Sonny was natural. What you see is what you get. He was fun. We're always having fun. We're always laughing."

Enemy lines 'before Rambo'

What she got in Sonny was a man, now 67, who grew up around the old half-mile racetracks in Maryland, where his father, Arthur, trained horses, but also a man who'd been dropped behind enemy lines in Korea and was one of the first in the Air Force to receive the Outstanding Service Award.

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