`Sonny' Hine, trainer of Skip Away, is dead

1997 Horse of Year was greatest pride

March 18, 2000|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Hubert "Sonny" Hine, a thoroughbred trainer and owner nationally known for his work with Skip Away, died yesterday at 69.

Hine, who had battled the effects of cancer since 1996, died at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami from complications of pneumonia. He had been hospitalized for a week.

Hine spent nearly 30 years as a trainer on the Maryland racing circuit and had numerous good horses in his care, then struck it rich with the charcoal-gray champion his wife, Carolyn, called "Skippy."

Skip Away was the national Horse of the Year in 1997 and went on to win the second-highest money total of all time behind Maryland-bred Cigar, whom he beat in the 1996 Jockey Gold Cup in New York.

Hine was born Jan. 9, 1931, in New York City. He and his brother, Marvin, rode in match races as youths and his father, Arthur Hine, a haberdasher, raced horses at eastern tracks. In 1948, Sonny Hine hitchhiked to Charles Town Race Track and never returned home. He saddled his first winner at Marlboro Race Course the same year.

"We really struggled when we started out in this game," he said. "We really sacrificed, especially my wife."

Before becoming a full-time trainer, Hine attended Yale for a time, served in the Air Force, worked two years as an FBI fingerprint specialist and spent four with the State Department.

But the race track always beckoned, so he devoted the remainder of his life to conditioning horses. "This is more fun," he said of the track. "No government pressure or regulations. You make your own bed here."

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said: "He was a racing guy from start to finish. He woke up in the morning thinking about horses and went to bed at night thinking about them.

"That showed up in the way he took care of his horses and in the joy he had in their success."

In 1976, Hine had his first big-name horse in Cojak, who ran in the Triple Crown series. Guilty Conscience was the 1981 national sprint champion, and Amber Pass, Bet Big, Technology (another Kentucky Derby runner), Skip Trial (Skip Away's sire) and Norquestor were Hine trainees. Hine, who had a keen eye for bargains, purchased Amber Pass for $16,000 and sold him for $4 million.

None was as sturdy or resilient as Skip Away, whom Hine bought at the Ocala (Fla.) sale of 2-year-olds for $22,500, the price dropping by $7,500 after Hine talked down the seller when a veterinarian discovered a bone chip in the horse's ankle. The Hines had moved their permanent base to Florida 20 years earlier.

A Florida-bred, Skip Away was second in the 1996 Preakness and Belmont Stakes before really beginning to flourish. He won the Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old that year after edging Cigar, and won the Breeders' Cup Classic in 1997.

Often, the Hines expressed their affection for Skip Away. "My wife and I have no children. We love our horses," he said. "And when you've got a horse who tries as hard as Skippy does, he's really special to you. We're not ruled by the dollar."

Skip Away retired with career earnings of $9.8 million, second only to Cigar, and stands at stud in Kentucky.

Through more than 50 years in the sport, Hine earned immense respect and many friends. "The stable area is like their back yard," former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang once said of Hine and his wife, a Highlandtown native.

"The horses are their children. The workers are their family. Sonny and Carolyn are like your favorite aunt and uncle on the backstretch."

Carolyn Hine said from home in Hallandale, Fla., yesterday that the phone had been ringing all day with callers expressing sympathy. Some related stories about Sonny, such as the backstretch chaplain at Gulfstream Park.

"When I drove past his barn, Sonny was like a breath of fresh air," Carolyn quoted the chaplain as saying. "He'd call me into the tack room to watch the film of a race or something. He always treated you like a friend."

"And that's just the way he was," Carolyn said. "He treasured everybody. He was always there to give a helping hand.`

Although Carolyn and Sonny were partners in every sense of the word -- "We were lovers and friends and buddies," she said -- Sonny loved his horses perhaps more than anything.

"He was so dedicated," Carolyn said. "He sacrificed his whole life. I think he treated his horses better than he treated himself. He just loved his animals."

A graveside service will be held at 2: 30 p.m. tomorrow at Mount Nebo-Kendall Memorial Gardens in Miami.

Sun staff writer Tom Keyser contributed to this article.

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