Leaning forward in Box D-36 at New York's Belmont Park racetrack, Clifton Hickok sips a Coke, gazes at the milling crowd below and nervously discusses the day's big race.
For most of the thousands sweating in the 95-degree heat, that race is the Belmont Stakes, the famous Triple Crown event that will be run in four hours. Hickok, however, is focused on the sixth race - in particular, on Storm's Path, the No. 4 horse in that race, the Riva Ridge Stakes.Hickok, general manager of marketing and pricing at Hanjin Shipping's American headquarters, owns a share in Storm's Path through West Point Thoroughbreds, a racing partnership. His minority share is small but that makes it no less enjoyable. ''When one of our horses is running, he's my horse,'' he says. ''Just to be part of this is great fun.''
Hickok, who joined Hanjin four years ago after 20 years with APL, was introduced to racing at age 12, when an uncle took him to the track. He became an owner in 1993 after answering a Daily Racing Form advertisement for West Point (www.westpointttb.com) and meeting its managing partner, Terry Finley, a West Point graduate. Hickok's first race as an owner was his most unforgettable. The horse, Out Of The Realm, rallied from far back to win by two lengths, then had to wait out a stewards' inquiry before the results were made official. ''I can still feel how hard my heart was pounding,'' Hickok says.
The anxiety was worth the wait. ''Once you stand in the winner's circle, you're hooked,'' Hickok says. He now has 33 winner's circle photographs - about one per seven races. He's involved with six horses through West Point and another partnership, and says it's ''a thrill and a privilege.''
West Point keeps its partners updated on their horses' progress and consults with them on key decisions. Hickok attends as many races as his schedule allows - in addition to New York and New Jersey tracks, he's seen his horses race in New Orleans and Kentucky during the last year.
Hickok doesn't get rich as a racehorse partner. Upkeep on a thoroughbred typically runs $30,000 to $60,000 a year, with a good horse like Storm's Path at the high end of the scale. ''That means you've got to make $50,000 to $70,000 in purse money just to break even,'' he says.
But Hickok isn't in it to get rich. He remains foremost a fan. He lives four miles from New Jersey's Monmouth Park track, where he frequently takes his three children, ages 10, 12 and 15. He loves the horses, the diverse crowds that racing attracts, and the endlessly fascinating challenge of handicapping. Those who don't understand the sport think 25 minutes between races is too long; for true fans like Hickok, it's not long enough.
His handicapping of the Riva Ridge suggests that Storm's Path has a legitimate shot. Purchased for $77,000, the colt has won three consecutive races. But this race, a seven-furlong event with a $150,000 purse, pits him against stiffer competition. It's a Grade 2 race - the second-highest category. Of the 35,000 thoroughbreds foaled in 1997, only about 100 will compete at this level.
Though Storm's Path isn't the favorite, he goes off at 9-2 odds. Hickok positions himself in front of a small television in the owner's box. The starting gate opens, and Storm's Path joins a wall of horses vying for the lead. Hickok claps and urges jockey Pat Day -''C'mon, Pat! Keep him in there!'' Alas, the hot weather takes its toll and the field is vanquished by Trippi, a talented sprinter who set a fast early pace in this year's Kentucky Derby and wins the Riva Ridge by nine lengths. Storm's Path's fourth-place finish is good for $9,000 - enough to cover expenses.
Disappointed but not discouraged, Hickok shrugs and smiles. ''He's a good, healthy horse. We will see him again,'' he says. ''We lost to some good horses today, and that's no disgrace. We'll be back.'' Joseph Bonney