Colorful Sonny Hine, the trainer who bought Skip Away, a problematic, unraced colt, for $22,500 and retired him four years later with a horse-of-the-year title and near-record earnings of $9.6 million, died Friday at a hospital in Miami.
Hine, 69, had been diagnosed with cancer in 1996. He died of complications of pneumonia after having been admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital a week ago.
Although there were those who referred to him as "Sonny Whine," because of his penchant for complaining when his luck went bad, Hine was a congenial, roly-poly horseman who followed his father into racing. On the night Sonny Hine graduated from high school in 1948, he hitchhiked to the Charles Town track in West Virginia to start a training career that peaked with the fortuitous arrival of Skip Away, voted best 3-year-old colt in 1996, best older male in 1997 and '98, and horse of the year in '98.
"He was the greatest horse I ever had," Hine said when Skip Away was retired to stud at the end in 1998.
Skip Away raced in the name of Carolyn Hine, the trainer's wife. The Hines had no children, and their beloved "Skippy" became an object of affection as they traveled the country, knocking off rivals from New York to California.
The money rolled in, but that seemed incidental. When Skip Away came to California, earning $2.28 million for winning the 1997 Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park, the Hines traveled on a no-frills airline and celebrated after the race with cheese and crackers in their hotel room. They had to risk a $480,000 supplementary fee simply to get Skip Away into the race.
"We just like to run him and enjoy it," Hine said. "My father used to say, 'If you got as much as you need, what good does it do to have one nickel more?' "
The Hines, who met on a blind date, were married for 37 years. In 1995, Skip Away was a birthday gift for Carolyn Hine, who wanted a gray horse so that she'd be able to easily see him when he ran. She suffered from impaired vision in her right eye.
Sonny Hine bought Skip Away for $30,000 at an auction in Ocala, Fla., but after the sale learned that the colt might need surgery for an ankle chip. The seller, Hilmer Schmidt, offered Hine a $7,500 discount to cover the cost of the surgery.
Hine accepted, but his partner in the deal, not wanting to risk an investment on a horse with potential problems, dropped out. Then, Skip Away's problem ankle healed on its own.
"It turned out to be quite a deal all the way around," Hine said as Skip Away's spectacular career wound down. "I got the horse for only $22,500, I got rid of a partner and now my wife can go shopping any time she wants."
One reason Hine liked Skip Away was that he had trained his sire, Skip Trial, a durable horse who won major races for him in the 1980s and earned $1.8 million.
"I bought Skip Trial for $25,000," Hine said. "He had chips in a couple of ankles and his knees, but it didn't bother him."
Skip Away won 18 races, along with 10 seconds and six thirds, in 38 starts. He earned $9,616,360, which left him $393,455 short of Cigar's earnings record. Skip Away missed a chance to pass Cigar when he finished a disappointing sixth in his last race, the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in 1998. But at least Skip Away had once beaten Cigar, the two-time horse of the year, in the Jockey Club Gold Gold Cup at Belmont Park in 1996. Sonny Hine said that that was the Skip Away race he most cherished.
Skip Away didn't duck any challenges, but Churchill Downs was the one track that stymied him. Before his swan-song defeat in the Breeders' Cup, he had finished 12th in the 1996 Kentucky Derby. After finishing second in the ensuing Triple Crown races, the Preakness and the Belmont, Skip Away finished the year with four wins in five starts and was voted divisional champion.
The next year, 1997, Skip Away won the Jockey Club Gold Cup again and finished the season with a six-length win in the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood, but Favorite Trick beat him out for horse of the year and the Hines were bitterly disappointed.
"It's politics," Sonny Hine said at the time, but a year later, with Skip Away well on his way to the title that had eluded him, he seemed to toss off his grudge when he said: "It's like today's fish. You wrap it in yesterday's newspaper."
Before Skip Away, Hine had already won more than 1,000 races, including the Florida Derby with Technology in 1992. In 1981, he trained Guilty Conscience, who was voted best sprinter.
"I've been at both ends of the horse business," Hine said about 12 years ago. "But through my wife's persistence, I've stuck with it and in my own mind we have been successful. We've made mistakes, but I never met a perfect trainer yet."