Louisville stage set for field of dreams Skip Away, 'Charm' battle in $5.12M race on sport's biggest day

November 07, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- After months of verbal sparring between their trainers, the great battle of the grays will be settled today on the quirky brown dirt of historic Churchill Downs.

Skip Away vs. Silver Charm. Silver Charm vs. Skip Away.

However you play it, their confrontation in the Breeders' Cup Classic is the sport's most eagerly anticipated showdown in years. Yet as tantalizing as their rivalry may be, it is merely one scene within one act of the seven-part drama that unfolds annually on Breeders' Cup Championship Day.

"This is our All-Star Game," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Silver Charm. "It's the best horses, the best trainers and the best jockeys competing for some really big bucks."

This is the 15th Breeders' Cup. With purses for its seven races totaling $13.22 million, it is the richest day in horse racing history. The $5.12 million prize in the Breeders' Cup Classic is the most ever offered for a single horse race.

Appropriately, the Classic has attracted what many say is the finest, deepest, most competitive field ever assembled. The owners of Gentlemen even paid $800,000 for the privilege of letting their horse race for the last time in such exalted company. No one has ever paid more to enter a horse in a race.

"It's probably the greatest race that's ever been run," said trainer Shug McGaughey, who arrived yesterday with Coronado's Quest, the final piece to the 10-horse puzzle.

But for all the adjectives and historical ramifications, it's still a horse race. The buildup can exceed the execution. In the case of this Classic, however, the buildup is justified.

The all-star field includes nine Grade I or Group I winners, eight millionaires, the winners of three Eclipse awards, a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, two winners of the Belmont, the winner and runner-up of the $4 million Dubai World Cup, a horse undefeated this year, the best horse from Europe and Skip Away, bidding to become the first winner of back-to-back Breeders' Cup Classics as well as the leading money-earner of all time.

If Skip Away finishes third or better, he will become horse racing's first $10 million horse and surpass Cigar's earnings mark of $9,999,815.

But Carolyn and Sonny Hine, owner and trainer of Skip Away, insist they did not bring their horse to the Breeders' Cup to run third. They could have retired the 5-year-old gray after his last race and still been assured of his winning the vote for Horse of the Year.

But in that last race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup three weeks ago at Belmont, Skip Away lost for the first time in more than a year, ending a nine-race win streak. The Hines did not want to send their Skippy to stud on a losing note.

So they sent him to Churchill Downs for his last hurrah in hopes of writing what Sonny Hine says in some interviews would be a "storybook ending" and in other interviews a "Hollywood ending." Either way, a Skip Away victory would craft a conclusion that racing lore would cherish for decades.

But as with all great quests, there are great questions. For Skip Away, there are two.

Does he dislike the track at Churchill Downs, which trainers say certain horses embrace and others reject? In his only race upon it, the 1996 Kentucky Derby, Skip Away finished 12th.

That was only one of three times in 37 races that he did not finish first, second or third. In 26 races since, his in-the-money record is perfect: 15 wins, seven seconds, four thirds.

Will the swelling in his right front ankle, a nagging concern since June, take its toll in the final quarter-mile of this demanding, 1 1/4 -mile race that promises to be swift early and swift late?

In answer to the first question, Sonny Hine said Skip Away, after relishing the Churchill Downs track while training, quit eating three days before the Kentucky Derby. Something physical was amiss, Hine said.

In answer to the second, Skip Away will race with the anti-inflammatory drug Butazolidin for only the third time. Hine assured his audience that his horse is sound. He offers as evidence Skip Away's three most recent workouts at Belmont Park, two of which were bullets, meaning no horse at Belmont trained faster at that distance that day.

"If these other trainers are counting on Skippy not liking the track, they've got a big surprise coming," Hine said. "He can run on anything. He's a great, great horse."

Waiting in ambush is another gray horse, popular like Skip Away and nearly as accomplished.

In 17 races, the 4-year-old Silver Charm has finished first or second all but once. He won last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness and this year's Dubai World Cup. The victory in the Derby, of course, was on this track at Churchill Downs.

"He loves it here," Baffert said. "I love it here. We couldn't be better. We're ready to rumble."

And so are the trainers of the other eight Classic horses, especially Pat Byrne, who conditions Touch Gold and Awesome Again, and Elliott Walden, who handles Victory Gallop.

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