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HORSE RACING

A Two-Horse Race Takes Shape for Top Eclipse Honor

January 09, 1998|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The contentious horse-of-the-year battle was narrowed to two candidates Thursday with the Eclipse Awards announcement that Favorite Trick and Skip Away had won divisional championships.

In the vernacular of the track, Favorite Trick was much the best in the voting for top 2-year-old male and Skip Away was all out to hold off Gentlemen for the older male title.

Gentlemen, therefore, dropped out of the picture for horse of the year, and if the divisional voting is any criterion, Favorite Trick will outpoint Skip Away when the national champion is announced at the Eclipse dinner in Rancho Mirage on Feb. 10.

The Thoroughbred Racing Assns., one of the Eclipse sponsors, said the race for horse of the year is between Favorite Trick and Skip Away.

Of the 301 voters, only one, from the Daily Racing Form, looked at unbeaten Favorite Trick's eight victories and selected another horse. That vote for Coronado's Quest, who lost by 14 lengths the only time he raced against Favorite Trick, prevented a rare sweep in the 2-year-old division.

By contrast, the three voting blocs favored Skip Away over Gentlemen by small margins. The count was 50-44 for the Racing Form, 19-12 for the track racing secretaries and 76-67 for the turf writers. Overall, Skip Away's edge was 145-123, giving him 49% of the vote. Eclipse winners are horses that earn a plurality from at least two of the three voting groups.

The only time they met, in May, Gentlemen beat Skip Away by half a length in the Pimlico Special, but a virus kept Gentlemen out of a season-ending showdown at Hollywood Park and Skip Away won the Breeders' Cup Classic in record time. That win, and another facile victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in October, gave many voters a reason to forgive the Skip Away who had only two victories in nine other starts last year.

Formal Gold, who missed the Breeders' Cup because of a leg injury, outfinished Skip Away in four of their six meetings, but finished third in the Eclipse voting.

"Gentlemen and Formal Gold were two tough horses," Skip Away's trainer, Sonny Hine, said Thursday. "We were fortunate that our horse ran his fastest races at the right time of the year."

Carolyn Hine, the trainer's wife and owner of Skip Away, paid a supplementary penalty of $480,000 to make him eligible for the $4-million Breeders' Cup Classic. Skip Away earned $2.288 million for winning as his earnings shot to $6.8 million. In 1995, when he was an unraced 2-year-old, the Hines bought Skip Away for $22,500.

In a close vote, Carolyn Hine won the Eclipse for outstanding owner. Finishing second were Bob and Beverly Lewis, but their Silver Charm, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, was voted champion 3-year-old colt and his trainer, Bob Baffert, edged Patrick Byrne for top trainer.

"In 1983, when I left Prescott Downs [in Arizona], training quarter horses, I never imagined I'd win something like this," Baffert said. "I didn't think I'd ever win a Derby or an Eclipse [for trainer]."

Byrne trained Favorite Trick and Countess Diana, who came within two votes of a sweep in winning best 2-year-old filly. Byrne won't train either champion this year, since he took a private job with Canadian industrialist Frank Stronach at the end of the year and this week Favorite Trick was sent to trainer Bill Mott.

In the anomalies of bloc voting, Byrne outpolled Baffert, 140 1/2-106 1/2, but Baffert won the Eclipse because of a 45-44 edge from the Racing Form and a 13-11 advantage among the racing secretaries. The Lewises polled 93 votes to Carolyn Hine's 83, but Skip Away's owner got a 9-6 nod from the racing secretaries and led, 52-49, among the turf writers.

Other Eclipses went to Ajina, best 3-year-old filly; Hidden Lake, older filly or mare; Chief Bearhart, male grass horse; Ryafan, female on grass; Smoke Glacken, sprinter; and Lonesome Glory, steeplechase horse.

Jerry Bailey, receiving 43% of the vote in a widely divided election, became the first jockey to win an Eclipse for three consecutive years. John and Betty Mabee of Golden Eagle Farm in Ramona, Calif., were named champion breeders for the second time, and Roberto Rosado and Philip Teator tied for the apprentice jockey award.

Horse Racing Notes

Trainer Sonny Hine said Skip Away ran a fever a couple of weeks ago, and his temperature hit 103 before antibiotics brought it down. Skip Away has worked once since then and Hine said that the $300,000 Donn Handicap, at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 7, is a possibility. The $500,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap, on Feb. 28, is Hine's major goal. Skip Away finished second in both races last year. It's unlikely that Skip Away would ship West for the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7. "That would only be an insurance race, in case we don't make the Gulfstream Handicap," Hine said.

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