The hot favorite for the Kentucky Derby looked every inch the star as he was led into the paddock at Aqueduct racetrack last weekend just before the 37th running of the Gotham Stakes. Easy Goer kicked his heels in the air a couple of times, rolled his eyes and danced down the ramp leading to the saddling enclosure. It was show time, and the son of Alydar was on the muscle, ready to dazzle the tough New York audience.
The one-mile Gotham was the curtain raiser for a trio of Kentucky Derby prep races last Saturday, and before the day was done there would be laughter and tears, triumph and trouble. As Easy Goer was stepping onto the track, Awe Inspiring, his stablemate, was getting ready to race in the $300,000 Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah in Florida. And in California that singular sensation, the undefeated Houston, was preparing to knock 'em dead in the $500,000 Santa Anita Derby.
The opening act brought the house down. Easy Goer was sent off the prohibitive 1-20 favorite; carrying high weight of 123 pounds, he broke from the outside in the five-horse field, surged to second place at the first quarter behind a known bolter named Diamond Donnie, then settled comfortably back in fourth at the half-mile mark. On a track that had produced extremely fast times all day, Diamond Donnie ripped off swift fractions of :22⅖ :44[1/5] and 1:08⅗ but going into the turn for home, jockey Pat Day let Easy Goer out a scant notch. He blew past Diamond Donnie and hurtled down the stretch, going under the wire 13 lengths in front in an astonishing 1:32⅖ a full second faster than Secretariat's stakes record, set in 1973, and only [1/5] off the world record for the mile, set by Dr. Fager in 1968 at Arlington Park.
As owner Ogden Phipps, trainer Shug McGaughey and his wife, Mary Jane, hurried toward the winner's circle, McGaughey turned to Phipps and said in an awed voice, "One thirty-two and two...." He walked a little farther, turned to Phipps again and said, "One fifth off the world record!" Mary Jane, who cries every time Easy Goer wins a race, said tearfully, "I told you he had more to show you. I told you."
Down on the track, Day shook his head in wonder as he guided Easy Goer over to the McGaugheys. "What do you think he'd have done if I'd asked him to run?" Day said. "Never mind that," said Mary Jane. "Save that for the big race."
Forty-five minutes later another set of players took the stage for Act II of the day's drama, and once again a McGaughey protègè stole the show. In the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Flamingo Stakes, Awe Inspiring, ridden by Craig Perret and sent off as the 4-5 favorite, rallied along the outside leaving the backstretch, took the lead from Irish Actor in the stretch and won by two lengths. Awe Inspiring's performance, although a good one, was still not enough to win him a part in the Kentucky Derby. McGaughey had indicated that he wouldn't put the colt in the run for the roses unless Easy Goer flopped in his prep races. "They'll both train and go to the Derby," he said, "but I seriously doubt I'd run them both. I don't run for second money." After the Flamingo, Dinny Phipps, Ogden's son, said, "We're in a very fortunate position. We've got two horses at the top of their game at the right time of year. But I do believe Easy Goer is the better horse."
The only other horse in the land that anyone has suggested might be better than Easy Goer is Houston. An hour before the Santa Anita Derby, when the track announcer told the crowd of 42,000 that Easy Goer had won the Gotham by 13 lengths, just off world-record time, the reaction was a collective gasp. "Geez," said Houston's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, laughing. "He didn't have to make such a big splash. A six-length win in about 1:34 would have been fine."
Lukas was hoping for a similarly impressive performance from his headlines and Houston was the favorite in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile California race. Lukas had every reason to feel confident. The $2.9 million colt, a son of Seattle Slew, was the strong second choice in the Kentucky Derby future book off his 10½-length victory in the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct two weeks earlier. But McGaughey, from afar, was also keeping an eye on Houston's main competition at Santa Anita: the Charlie Whittingham-trained colt Sunday Silence. "When Whittingham's got one, you have to worry about it," said McGaughey the day before the races. "If he wins, and Charlie says his next start will be in the Kentucky Derby, you're gonna have him to beat."
And so, on a 94° afternoon at Santa Anita, the scene was set for the day's final act. Houston, under Laffit Pincay Jr., was jostled at the start, then took the lead going into the clubhouse turn; but down the backstretch the colt was double-teamed by Music Merci on the inside and Sunday Silence on the outside, and as the horses approached the‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö‚à´ pole, Houston spit the bit and, in effect, quit. Sunday Silence, at 5-2 the second favorite, surged to the lead and kept pulling ahead, to win by an impressive 11 lengths in a good time of 1:47[3/5]. Houston struggled home fifth in the six-horse field, beaten nearly 17 lengths.
"He didn't run his race at all," said a bewildered Lukas. "I knew the minute he made the break that he was out of it. That just wasn't him out there today." As Houston came back to be unsaddled, he was greeted with boos and catcalls from the irate crowd.
Such an unappreciative audience, however, is nothing new to Sunday Silence, a colt once so ugly that nobody wanted him. As a yearling, this son of Halo had some notable defects in conformation: He was knock-kneed and "weedy"—horse lingo for scrawny. Twice he was taken to public auction, but there was so little interest in him that his principal owner, Arthur Hancock, bought back the horse both times. On the way home from the second auction, the driver of the colt's van had a fatal heart attack while on the road. The van overturned, and a shaken Sunday Silence had to spend two weeks recovering at a clinic in Oklahoma. But when he finally got to the races last October, the ugly horse started to look darn good. He lost to Houston by only a short head in early December, and three weeks ago he won the San Felipe Handicap by 1¾ lengths. His impressive win in the Santa Anita Derby has Sunday Silence sitting pretty for the first Saturday in May.
The 75-year-old Whittingham, who was so excited by his colt's performance that his hands were still shaking long after the race, compared the horse with his 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand: "Sunday Silence has more natural ability, more speed, and is more of a willing worker. But it gets tougher the farther you go."
Whittingham will probably not run his horse in another prep, but there are still a few out-of-town tryouts before the really big show in Louisville. Easy Goer will test his speed around two turns in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 22. Awe Inspiring, in keeping with his role as understudy, will wait in the wings. Lukas said he may give Houston another audition in the 1[1/16]-mile Lexington Stakes on April 25. The only certainty in this drama is that when the curtain finally falls at Churchill Downs on May 6, only one horse's tale will have a happy ending.