Racing: Sonny shining on the right side of tracks

A former FBI man turned trainer has a Classic opportunity to make his mark.
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YOU DON'T mess around with the grey horse they call Skip Away in today's Breeders' Cup finale, the Classic.

If he wins, this big, mean beast will become, on one reckoning at least, the greatest equine ever to set a pulse beating on the racecourse. Skip Away has won 37 races and $9.6m in purses.

If he finishes third or better today, he will overtake another Stateside legend in Cigar and become a founder member of the $10m earnings club.

Like Cigar, Skip Away is always a presence seemingly intent on malice. His manner suggests he would damage you if he got the chance. And, in that respect, horse trainers must be like dog owners in that they come to resemble the animals in their keeping.

Skip Away is nominally owned by Carolyn Hine, a woman with an incandescent hairdo smouldering around the top of her head, but the man who does the training job is her 67-year-old husband, Sonny.

Hubert Hine's nickname is not always entirely appropriate as he has a scowling attitude to life. He is an aged tiger and the best way to twitch his tail is to be disparaging about Skip Away.

If you abuse the horse, you abuse his handler and Sonny is not a man to mess with. He is beyond his physical prime, but he hails from that cherry orchard in New York City they call the Bronx and you do not give him grief. Sonny is short, squat and dangerous and looks as though he has been hit from the top by a lift. One word out of place and he'd probably strike you with something even more damaging.

"If Skip Away runs his race, they'll have a helluva time catching him," Hine said this week. "He'd run through a brick wall right now. He's like a green beret."

The trainer himself has done his service. Hine was employed for almost two years as a fingerprint specialist for the FBI and played poker with the bossman, a fellow the history books record as J Edgar Hoover. In 1950 he left the Feds and was sent to work as a State Department investigator in Hong Kong. He could speak Mandarin, but it must have been with a strong New York accent.

Now, Sonny and Carolyn dote on Skip Away. Hine's father used to run a shoe shop in the Big Apple but moved to Philadelphia when too many people came in the outlet with guns in their hands.

Sonny has never been spoilt and refuses to do the same to himself. The Hines live in Hallandale, Florida, and recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary. They do not believe their equine money spinner gives them cause to be extravagant. "We've never taken even a three-day vacation," Sonny says.

The couple call their big horse Skippy, which confers an element of cuddliness, like the Australian kangaroo which used to be able to inform humans that a helicopter had crashed in a nearby gulch. Skip Away is not like that. In fact, he's rather nasty. And, more than that, he's good.

The beast housed in barn 36 in Louisville this week beat Cigar in the 1996 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and won the same race last year to start a nine-race winning streak that ended only in the Jockey Club Gold Cup this year.

Today's is his last race. Win, lose or draw, he goes to stud next year here in Kentucky. He has been syndicated at a value of $18m in the hope that he passes on some of his strength and speed. Skip Away broke a Breeders' Cup record 12 months ago when he won the Classic in a fast time at Hollywood Park. He had been supplemented at a cost of $480,000.

The worst display of the mean horse's distinguished career came here at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby but Sonny is not worried. He says the horse has been "sharper than jailhouse coffee" this week, though there remains the lingering thought that his last assignment in defeat in New York may have left the stuffing hanging out from between the springs.

The five-year-old Skip Away has had a harrowing week. Bits of aircraft fell on his barn on Wednesday and then he dropped his rider before completing a solo across the twin shadows of Churchill Downs. Yet he remains the one to beat. Philip Mitchell, who tries to conquer the grey horse again with Running Stag, knows the score. "Skip Away is a monster," he says. "He stands there like an old sheep, but then you just can't believe the sort of things he can do out there on the track."

The last assignment has arrived. It would be appropriate if it was one of the best.