05/20/2010 12:00AM

Loving memories of Skip Away


As sometimes happens in the zero-sum world of modern media, proper attention to the deaths of champions Skip Away and Snow Chief was lost in the coverage of the recent Preakness Stakes. These were two remarkable racehorses, among the most dominant of their generations, and vivid examples of exceptional runners coming from absolutely anywhere. Both were victims of heart attacks, and if nothing else, both of the old stallions deserved credit for reaching the end with classic timing.

Snow Chief, who at age 27 was still servicing a limited book of mares at Eagle Oak Ranch in central California, died on the day of the Preakness, May 15. Snow Chief won the 1986 Preakness on the way to an Eclipse Award that season as the best 3-year-old colt in the land.

Skip Away, an imposing presence at 17 and standing at Kentucky's Hopewell Farm, died the day before, on May 14. This was equally fitting, since Skip Away finished second in the 1996 Preakness on his way to his first of three championship campaigns.

Neither Snow Chief nor Skip Away was possessed of an up-market pedigree. Their value was on the racetrack - an old-fashioned notion - and they were managed accordingly.

Snow Chief raced for parts of three seasons, the extent of each dictated by physical challenges that did not prevent him from winning $3.3 million and major races in Maryland, Florida, New Jersey, and Arkansas, as well as his native California.

(Daily Racing Form colleague Brad Free, a close witness to the career of Snow Chief, has written a fitting appreciation.)

Skip Away was blessed with a more resilient constitution, which was put on display at 14 racetracks over a 41-month span. During that remarkable run, the big gray occasionally took time out for food, water, and a nap. After a while, though, for those who got to watch Skip Away at close range, it became amazingly apparent that he was performing mainly for the pleasure of his trainer, Sonny Hine, and his owner, Carolyn Hine. But mostly for his owner.

Love affairs between horses and humans are considered the stuff of high schmaltz and children's books, whether it involves Velvet and Pie, Alec and The Black, or Roy and Trigger. You take them or leave them, but don't ever believe that such romance represented anything less than the real thing.

Such was the story of Skip Away and Carolyn Hine.

Even though they found each other a little later in life, the Hines ended up sharing all the ups and downs horse racing could provide, from empty stalls and beans for dinner to racing the Horse of the Year, which Skip Away earned in 1998.

When it came to Skip Away, a typical exchange between the husband/trainer and wife/owner would go something like this:

Sonny: Honey, I gotta ask you a question. Who do you love more - me or Skip Away?

Carolyn: (silence).

Sonny: Why's it taking you so long to answer?

Carolyn: I'm thinking.

Sonny: Well, how long is that gonna take?

Carolyn: I'm sorry, Sonny, but it's a dead heat.

"Sonny always tried to protect me," said Carolyn Hine this week, from her home in Hallandale, Fla. "He'd remind me that with these animals, God forbid, anything could happen. But Skippy gave me so much happiness. I had no choice. He put a song in my heart and a smile on my face. And it went both ways. Sonny always said, 'He tolerates me, but he loves you.'

"I'll never forget the day he won the Hollywood Gold Cup," Hine said. "We had a number of people as guests that day, and we were standing around talking before the races as the horses came into the paddock. Sonny came over and said, 'Honey, will you do me a favor? Would you stop holding court and acknowledge the horse? He's getting very upset because he doesn't know where you are.' "

Let the record show that, after reassurances from Carolyn, Skip Away went out and comfortably defeated local stars Puerto Madero and Gentlemen in that 1998 Gold Cup.

"It was always risky, standing near me when he ran," Hine said. "I'd have my fingers crossed, waving my arms and screaming, looking up to the sky. 'She's making deals,' Sonny would say."

In 1999, Skip Away went to stud, and in 2000 Sonny Hine died. He was 69.

"The year Sonny passed away I visited Skippy at the farm," Hine said. "They told me to be careful, that they had just test-bred him. Well, I knew he wouldn't hurt me for anything in the world. When he saw me, and I said, 'Skippy, Mommy's here,' he walked over, and I have the picture. He's licking my hand."

Three weeks ago, Carolyn Hine had made plans for an early summer trip to visit Skip Away in Kentucky and then be at Monmouth Park for the running of the Skip Away Stakes, on June 12. It had been three years since she'd seen him. Now, she will bypass Kentucky, even though Hopewell Farm owner Rick Trontz has provided a fitting memorial.

"He said they will mount the plaque from Skippy's stall on his paddock fence, and no horse will ever be permitted to enter that paddock," Hine said. "I'm not too sure I'll be able to visit it. Something might draw me there someday. But it will be Skippy's forever."