When he launched his career as a horse trainer, Tom Skiffington knew it would be tough to compete with stables that could spend millions of dollars for the best-bred young thoroughbreds. So he decided to carve out an area of the game where he could be a specialist.
He concentrated on training older horses who run on the grass -- most of them ones who had been imported from Europe. Racing fans on the East Coast are aware how successful he has been, for there seems to be a Skiffington horse in just about every important turf stake -- and often a Skiffington entry. In one major Florida stake last winter, Skiffington sent out a three-horse entry and ran one-two-three.
On Saturday the 37-year-old horseman could score the biggest turf victory of his career when he saddles the morning-line favorite, Anka Germania, for the Washington, D.C. International. The mare has won five races in a row despite a brush with death in the middle of the streak, and if she scores at Laurel she could be the country's champion female grass runner.
Skiffington had been a successful steeplechase rider in this country before going to Europe and riding there for three years. When he returned home and began to think about a training career, he said, "I asked myself how I could get where I wanted to be. I couldn't buck guys like Wayne Lukas and Woody Stephens -- I didn't have the budget. But I thought the three years I'd spent in Europe might be my edge.
"So, instead of having my owners buy yearlings, I bought proven horses from Europe. The quickest way to put an owner out of business is to buy five yearlings, wait two years and find out that none of the five can run. But I know that the right kind of European horses will more than pay their way here. I have scouts there, friends who will call me and say, 'This horse is all right,' who will know that when a horse got beat it might be because he had a bad trip."
Skiffington's model for success was Charles Whittingham, who has achieved great results with turf horses in California because of his infinite patience. He is quite willing to wait until an animal is 5 years old before sending him into big-money competition. But there has been nobody in the East employing the Whittingham approach -- until now.
Skiffington got off to a promising start in his bid to emulate Whittingham when he imported Mourjane, who finished third in the 1985 Breeders' Cup Turf. His success with turf horses began to breed more success by attracting more owners. "Everybody says 'He knows how to train grass horses,' and it snowballs," Skiffington observed.
This year he has won important stakes with acquisitions from abroad like Persian Mews, Akabir, Glaros and Palace Panther. But he has thought all year that the best horse in his stable is Anka Germania, even though she still hasn't proved herself against top-class male competition.
"She hasn't gotten a whole lot of publicity," Skiffington said, "but I've had a bunch of real nice horses and she's been the best one I've had in the barn. She'd won three races in a row when she got seriously ill this summer and developed a lung abscess. I asked people about the condition and they said, 'Either the horse will die or, if he survives, he'll never come back to run well.' And on a couple of nights I thought Anka Germania was gone. But the vet found the right antibiotic, shipped it in by air express from Omaha, and saved her."
When she returned to competition, Anka Germania won a stake for fillies at the Meadowlands, and then won her first race against males by rallying to score in the New Jersey Turf Classic, also at the Meadowlands.
Even though Anka Germania's winning streak looks impressive on paper, she has yet to demonstrate that she can beat competition of the class she will face in the International. The males she beat by less than a length in the New Jersey Turf Classic were little more than high-grade allowance runners. And the fillies she was beating earlier in the season weren't in this league, either.
The best argument on Anka Germania's behalf is not the cold dope in her past performances, but her trainer's conviction that she is better than any of the established stakes winners he has trained this year.
Where turf horses are concerned, it is hard to argue with Skiffington's record or his opinion.