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It Should Be a Classic Finish With Field as Strong as This

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, the $4-million race on Breeders’ Cup day was Classic Lite. What Skip Away beat at Hollywood Park was a collection of grass specialists, 3-year-olds stepping out of their division for the first time and horses that didn’t belong.

Skip Away’s most serious potential challengers--Silver Charm, Gentlemen, Formal Gold and Siphon--were on the sidelines, either hurt, sick or recovering from the rigors of their campaigns. Skip Away won the Breeders’ Cup Classic by six lengths in a bravura performance, but the weakness of the field minimized his accomplishment and he was beaten by Favorite Trick, an undefeated 2-year-old, in the horse-of-the-year balloting.

This year’s Classic, to be run Saturday at Churchill Downs, will be stronger and richer than the 1997 edition, and another win by Skip Away would make the horse-of-the-year vote a banal exercise. Skip Away’s trainer, Sonny Hine, says his horse, with seven wins in eight starts, has already clinched the championship, but Silver Charm’s camp likes to think that the gray 4-year-old colt can muscle his way into contention with a victory here.

Silver Charm already has won a $4-million race this year, collecting $2.4 million for his hair-raising nod over Swain in the Dubai World Cup in March. The Breeders’ Cup Classic will grow to $5.12 million--and become the richest race ever run--if Silver Charm and Gentlemen both start. Before their first birthday, both horses could have been nominated to the Breeders’ Cup for a $500 fee. But they weren’t, and now their owners must pay dearly--$800,000 for Gentlemen and $480,000 for Silver Charm--for the chance to run. Gentlemen’s supplementary payment is higher because his sire also isn’t Breeders’ Cup-nominated. Most of the Silver Charm-Gentlemen payments will be added to the purse, with the winner earning $2,662,400.

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This Classic could arguably be the best ever run. “I’d say for sure that it’s the best race run in the 1990s,” said Bob Lewis, who races Silver Charm.

Indicative of the top-to-bottom strength of the 11-horse Classic field is that Victory Gallop, this year’s winner of the Belmont Stakes, is 15-1 on the Daily Racing Form’s early morning line. Others expected to run include:

* Swain, the 6-year-old who has come from England in a bid to become the oldest winner of the race.

* Trainer Pat Byrne’s tandem of Awesome Again, undefeated this year, and Touch Gold, still trying to recapture the form that produced a win in last year’s Belmont.

* Wagon Limit, upset winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup on a sloppy track on Oct. 10 at Belmont Park, where Gentlemen and Skip Away ran second and third.

* Coronado’s Quest, winner of the Travers at Saratoga.

* Arch, a late-developing 3-year-old.

The only real throw-out in the 1 1/4-mile Classic is the globe-trotting Running Stag, who has won only two of eight starts this year in England, Germany, France and the U.S.

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In his only race at Churchill Downs, Skip Away finished 12th in the 1996 Kentucky Derby, but that was 26 races, 13 wins and many millions of dollars ago. A nine-race win streak that ended in the Jockey Club Gold Cup has brought Hine’s 5-year-old to $9,616,360 in purses. In his 38th and final race, Skip Away needs to finish at least third to break Cigar’s record of $9,999,815.

Skip Away and Silver Charm have never met, but Hine is confident that he has the better horse.

“Silver Charm’s a good horse and runs hard,” Hine said. “I wouldn’t mind having him, but if I had a choice, I’d take my horse over him. I’m not worried about Silver Charm. He beat Free House by 2 1/2 lengths [at Santa Anita on Oct. 17], but my horse beat Free House by almost 17 lengths in New York [Sept. 19].”

In 1997, Silver Charm won the Kentucky Derby that had eluded Skip Away, but in June, trainer Bob Baffert’s colt was beaten at Churchill Downs, running second to Awesome Again in the Stephen Foster Handicap. Awesome Again, carrying 14 fewer pounds, beat Silver Charm by one length. The Stephen Foster was Silver Charm’s first start since his win in Dubai 10 weeks before.

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“He was a dull horse when he came back from Dubai,” Baffert said, “and he wasn’t at his best when he ran at Churchill. But that was a long time ago, and Silver Charm is doing great right now. He’s back. I’m glad I’m getting a shot at Skip Away, and I think I can beat him. But you can’t let Skip Away dictate a race. The only way to beat him is to get in front of him.”

A year ago, Carolyn Hine, the trainer’s wife and the owner of Skip Away, took the gamble of her life, supplementing Skip Away into the Classic for $480,000 for a chance to win $2.288 million. The Hines took advantage of a new Breeders’ Cup rule that added most of the supplementary money to the purse. Also, Skip Away’s owners don’t have to pay a supplementary fee this time. Under the old rules, it would have cost them another $480,000 to run on Saturday.

The R.D. Hubbard ownership group was ready to pay Gentlemen’s $800,000 supplementary fee last year, but a virus knocked the Argentine-bred out of the Classic. There is a possibility that trainer Richard Mandella might opt to run Gentlemen in the $1-million Mile, which is a grass race. The decision must be made by entry time on Wednesday. Gentlemen’s supplementary fee for the Mile would be only $200,000.

Gentlemen won four of six starts last year and finished third behind Favorite Trick and Skip Away in the horse-of-the-year voting. If he runs in the Mile, Gentlemen will have to beat Favorite Trick, who in recently switching from dirt to grass has taken on a new dimension. This year, as a 6-year-old, Gentlemen has been devoid of a finishing kick. He was run down in the stretch of the Jockey Club Gold Cup by Wagon Limit, suffering his fifth consecutive loss. Gentlemen beat Skip Away early last year, but has lost to him twice this year and hasn’t won since February.

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“I thought he ran a great race at Belmont last time,” Mandella said. “I thought he was home, and then that other horse [Wagon Limit] came out of nowhere.”


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