04/29/2003 12:00AM

They didn't need Kentucky


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Kentucky Derby was not kind to Sonny Hine. Neither was Churchill Downs, for that matter. Twice Hine brought his superstar Skip Away to Louisville and twice they came to grief, first in the 1996 Kentucky Derby and then in the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic, the final race of Skip Away's career.

As it turned out, neither man nor animal really needed Churchill Downs for validation. They did just fine otherwise, banking $9.6 million and winning 16 stakes while performing at the highest levels of the game, from New York to Miami to Los Angeles. Only Cigar has earned more among North American Thoroughbreds.

Still, it was with a certain amount of satisfaction that Carolyn Hine, Sonny's wife and Skip Away's owner, was able to stand at the Churchill Downs pressbox podium Tuesday morning and proudly acknowledge her late husband's election to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The Kentucky Derby has been downright awful to Mike Smith. In 1993 he was second on favored Prairie Bayou. In 1994 he was 12th aboard favored Holy Bull. He was 12th again in 1995 with second choice Talkin Man, and then fifth in 1996 aboard favored Unbridled's Song. Last year, while atop the live longshot Proud Citizen, Smith beat everybody but the fleeing War Emblem. This year he doesn't have a mount.

But even without the Kentucky Derby, Smith has been able to amass purse earnings of more than $150 million and win 4,219 races, along with two Eclipse Awards and 10 Breeders' Cup events, including the 1997 Classic for Hine aboard Skip Away.

Smith wanted to be standing next to Carolyn Hine on Tuesday at Churchill Downs, reminiscing about "Skippy" and taking bows for his own election to the Hall of Fame. Acting on a "strong suggestion" last week from a representative of the Hall of Fame, Smith bought a Monday night red-eye ticket from Los Angeles to Louisville that would have gotten him to Churchill Downs in plenty of time for the Tuesday press conference.

Smith ate that ticket, along with a healthy chunk of Hollywood Park turf, last Saturday when a mount turned left in the stretch. Once Smith untangled himself from the PVC piping of the inner rail, he discovered he had a badly bruised right foot, a laceration along the outside of his right leg, a very sore groin, and a bruised derriere. He will ride again soon, but it wasn't pretty.

"I'm so sore I can hardly move right now, let alone get on a plane," Smith said from his home in Pasadena on Tuesday morning. "But I sure wish I could have been there."

Carolyn Hine expressed similar regrets for Sonny. Hine died in March 2000, at the age of 69, after a battle with cancer, and for the last three years Carolyn has lobbied ceaselessly for her man's election to the Hall of Fame. More than anything else, her campaigning was good therapy. They were married 38 years.

"I miss him so much," Carolyn said. "I feel that he's with me all the time, especially now, on this day. He would be so proud.

"We did everything together, went everywhere together," she said. "We would hold hands walking through the grocery store. On an escalator I would reach up to kiss him. He would say, 'What are you doing? Everybody's looking!' I said let 'em look.

"The only regret I have is that he declined to go forward with stem cell treatment when his cancer was diagnosed. It was a chance for him to live, but it would have taken time. He didn't want to be away from the horses. So this is my advice to anyone who has someone special - make every moment count."

While Hine's Hall of Fame credentials are pretty much summed up by his remarkable handling of Skip Away, Smith has spread his talents across a number of top runners. Among them were Lure, Inside Information, Holy Bull, Coronado's Request, Heavenly Prize, and Sky Beauty.

Still, there was a time, three years ago, when Smith was in the professional doldrums following a broken back and then a relocation to California from his comfort zone in New York. By then, he was convinced the Hall of Fame might pass him by.

"I really thought that if I stopped right there, or if things never got any better, I would never have a chance to get in," said Smith, now 37. "I was hoping for one more thing, one more great horse, because there's nothing like a great horse."

And then came Azeri to elevate Smith above the crowd, just as Skip Away transformed the lives of Sonny and Carolyn Hine. No one ever enters the Hall of Fame without a great horse by their side.

"Sonny once asked me who I loved more, him or Skip Away," Carolyn recalled.

When she paused to consider the question, Sonny grew impatient.

"What's taking you so long?" he said. She relented.

"Truthfully, hon, I think the best you can do is a dead heat."