For Jockey Pat day, things had been going so perfectly all day. But now, rocking toward the far turn on Kentucky Derby favorite Easy Goer in the damp, chilling gloom of last Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs, Day learned through the nudging of his hands on the colt's neck that what he wanted most of all would not be his.
Day, who has made the Downs his domain in recent years, had just won five straight races in the mud. After Day's fifth, with the 1¼-mile Derby coming up next, Easy Goer's trainer, Shug McGaughey, turned from the television set back at the barn and said, "Can you imagine that? Five in a row! Day's riding like he's possessed. He really wants to win the Kentucky Derby bad—and he's leading right up to it."
Day was 0 for 6 in his previous Derby rides, and this year he spoke almost wistfully about it: "Somewhere there's a Derby out there with my name on it." Indeed, this 115th running of the race appeared to have his name up there in lights. Easy Goer, last year's champion 2-year-old, was undefeated in 1989 and was already inspiring comparisons with Secretariat and other giants of the sport. This Derby was being offered less as a horse race than a coronation, the start of an odds-on favorite's five-week quest to become America's 12th Triple Crown winner. And then, just when Easy Goer's victory procession was about to begin—with five eighths of a mile to go—it began instead to end.
With the far turn looming ahead, Easy Goer was racing directly behind the 3-1 second choice, Sunday Silence, ridden by Pat Valenzuela. "Sunday Silence was up in front of me and I tried to stay in contact with him," Day said. "When he started drawing away from us on the backside under absolutely no encouragement from Pat, I nudged my horse a little bit and I got no response." Day's day was done. Moments later, when Valenzuela asked his horse for something extra, he got a better answer.
May 14, 1989
From the outset, the brilliantly fast Houston had led the 15-horse charge, making the early fractions; but as Houston swept around the far turn, his stride began to shorten. Sunday Silence, racing in fourth on the outside, began to close on the leaders as they made the bend. He pulled away from the sluggish Easy Goer, and when Valenzuela hit the gas on the turn for home, Sunday Silence suddenly rushed to the tiring Houston and the 48-1 shot, Northern Wolf, who was lying second. "He really accelerated," said Valenzuela.
And there began perhaps the weirdest, most unsightly stretch drive in the recent history of the Kentucky Derby. As they straightened for home, Valenzuela cracked Sunday Silence with a righthanded whip, and the colt, moving from its sting, ducked sharply left and brushed into Northern Wolf. Racing to the [3/16] pole, Sunday Silence drove to the lead. Now Valenzuela went to the left hand with the whip, and the colt reacted by swerving to the right. Trying to keep him straight as he drifted, Valenzuela switched the stick back to his right hand again, lashing Sunday Silence hard, and the youngster cut left once more.
Meanwhile, Easy Goer and a whole posse of horses struggled futilely after the leader, looking as if they were chasing the town drunk while he lurched down Main Street. They never caught him. Sunday Silence won by 2½ lengths, looking tired and groggy through the lane, covering the final quarter mile in a numbingly slow 27[1/5] to finish in 2:05, the slowest Derby in 31 years. The punchless Easy Goer finished second, a head in front of his stablemate, Awe Inspiring. Houston backed up to eighth.
The spectacle, played out in 44° weather, which made this the coldest Derby in 72 years, certainly lacked aesthetic charm, and it left whole battalions of true believers stunned and smarting at Easy Goer's loss. To that extent, the race was eerily reminiscent of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall at Churchill Downs, in which Easy Goer turned in a similarly dull and inexplicable performance in the mud, finishing second to Is It True.
No sooner were the saddles off the Derby horses than McGaughey was suggesting that the mud at Churchill Downs was probably not to the colt's liking—Easy Goer's dam, the champion mare Relaxing, did not like mud—and that things might have gone differently on a faster racetrack. "I'm not making excuses." McGaughey said. "The best horse won today. But Day said the colt was struggling in the stuff."
Clearly, something was not to Easy Goer's liking on Saturday afternoon. One trainer suggested that he may be the type of horse who does not run his best when his races are spaced too close together. Easy Goer's last three outings—the Gotham, Wood and Derby—came within a four-week period. Whatever, following the Derby, speculation was rife as to what had happened to the colt, and within hours of the race Easy Goer's backers were publicly itching for a second confrontation in the 1[3/16]-mile Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20, presumably under conditions more favorable to their horse. Meanwhile, all talk of Easy Goer being Horse of the Decade came under an immediate and indefinite suspension.
Now the only horse capable of winning this year's Triple Crown is Sunday Silence, and in the Derby aftermath trainer Charlie Whittingham was leaning into the bit to get to Pimlico, and then to the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes three weeks later to complete the sweep. So was Valenzuela.
"If ever a horse can go all the way, this one can." said the jockey. "He'll be another Triple Crown winner. Write that down."
Given the odds that Sunday Silence has already beaten just to get where he is today, he would be the unlikeliest Triple Crown champion in history—a reject born with a defect who has twice narrowly escaped death. He was foaled three springs ago at Arthur Boyd Hancock's Stone Farm near Paris, Ky., a son of the good stallion Halo, the sire of 1983 Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo, and the broodmare Wishing Well, a multiple stakes winner in California. They almost lost the colt that fall. On Thanksgiving Day he became so sick with an intestinal infection that a vet had to feed the colt intravenously to save him. "The vet thought he was going to die," Hancock says. The horse eventually recovered but was a less than perfect specimen. He was a badly cow-hocked youngster—seen from directly behind, his rear legs were, in effect, knock-kneed and toed-out, like a cow's, rather than straight, as is normal in a horse. He looked like a colt who would never make it to the races.
His breeders Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds Ltd., had five trainers inspect him as a yearling, and all doubted that he had what it took to be competitive. "Not one thought he'd make a racehorse," says Tom Tatham, the managing partner of Oak Cliff. So it was decided to sell the colt for whatever price he would bring at the non-select Keeneland summer sale in 1987. Hancock raised the Oak Cliff yearlings at his farm; at the sale, when the bidding on the colt stalled at a paltry $16,000, he bid $17,000 for him, thinking that surely the breeders would want him back for that price.
"I went and told 'em I bought the colt back for them because he went so cheap," says Hancock. "I couldn't believe he went that low." But when Hancock offered to sell Sunday Silence back to the breeders for the $17,000 he had paid, Tatham turned thumbs down. "We don't want him," he said.
The unwanted colt now belonged to Hancock, which was rather fitting: The 46-year-old Hancock had learned something about being an outcast himself when he was young. As the eldest son of A.B. (Bull) Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm and one of America's preeminent thoroughbred breeders, Arthur was the first in line to take over the operation of Claiborne at his father's death. But that was not to be. A self-described "black sheep in the family," Arthur was the renegade of the clan, a hard-drinking, fast-living playboy who bridled at authority and thus compromised his chances for ever wielding it at Claiborne. When Bull died in 1972, the three-man committee he had set up to administer the farm (it included Ogden Phipps, the owner of Easy Goer) decided to turn over its operation to Arthur's younger brother, Seth.
Arthur broke with Claiborne, bought some land just down Winchester Road and over the years built it into a thoroughbred nursery that would have made the old man proud. With the late Leone Peters, Arthur bred and campaigned Gato Del Sol, the 1982 Kentucky Derby winner, thus becoming the first Hancock to breed and race a Derby champion. (Two years later, Seth bred and raced Derby-winner Swale for Claiborne.) Last year Arthur's homebred Risen Star won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes on his way to being named the nation's leading 3-year-old.
Three years ago Arthur and his wife Staci moved into a stately five-bedroom stone house, where they are raising their six children and where Arthur now lives the life of a hard-working family man and country gentleman. The days of wine and roses have given way to simply the days of roses. "I haven't had a drink in four years," he says.
Still, he can be blessedly perverse, as he was in the matter of Sunday Silence, a horse he had liked and stuck with since the colt was a youngster on the farm. He was a fighter, even as a yearling," Hancock says. After buying him that summer at Keeneland, he sold half the colt to Paul Sullivan, a Lexington attorney and longtime friend.
That winter Hancock entered him in a California sale for 2-year-olds in training and put a reserve of $50,000 on him: Hancock would take the colt back if he did not get that price. One of Tatham's trainers, John Gosden, who had seen and rejected the horse as a yearling, looked at him again. This time Gosden cut out the page in the sales book describing the colt and sent it to Oak Cliff. On it Gosden had written "even worse." When the gavel fell on the high bid of $32,000, Hancock took the horse back.
A few days later Hancock nearly lost him again. On the trip from California back to Stone Farm, the driver of the van carrying the colt suffered a heart attack while traveling through north Texas; the van plunged off the road and tipped over. The colt suffered cuts and bruised muscles, and spent the next two weeks in a clinic. Sullivan had already decided that he wanted out of the partnership. Hancock tried to talk him into staying, but Sullivan was adamant, saying, "If I get out, he'll probably win the Kentucky Derby. But if I stay in, he'll probably break down."
So Sullivan was out. By then, Hancock had decided to race the colt himself. By then, too, Hancock and his wife had chosen a name for him that hardly bespoke the animal's assorted problems and misadventures. The Hancocks had received in the mail one day a list of 75 prospective names for yearlings. The names had been sent to them, unsolicited, by Phil and Becky Straw, a Maryland couple the Hancocks had never met. One of the names was Sunday Silence. Arthur liked the sound of it, and the fact that it played on the name of the colt's sire, Halo.
To share the costs of keeping the horse, he sold 50% of Sunday Silence and another horse to Whittingham for $50,000. "He didn't look like much," Whittingham says. "But he looked good walking and had a nice way of moving. And I have had good luck with horses by Halo." A friend of Whittingham's, Dr. Ernest Gaillard, asked the trainer if he could have a piece of the action. Whittingham obliged, selling him 25%. That left Sunday Silence with three owners, and last fall they began to find out what they had. By that time, too, the colt had begun to grow out of his cow hocks; if they ever were a problem, it was certainly not apparent when he ran.
After finishing a close second in his first start, which was at Santa Anita in October, Sunday Silence broke his maiden by 10 lengths at Hollywood Park on Nov. 13, racing six furlongs in a rapid 1:09[2/5]. Houston beat him a head in his third start, in December, but Sunday Silence won his next allowance race, in the slop at Santa Anita on March 2, by 4½. Seventeen days later, he won the San Felipe by nearly two, and that set him up for his smashing 11-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 8, when he raced nine furlongs in a fiery 1:47[3/5]. This was the race that announced Sunday Silence as a strong contender for the Kentucky Derby, and with that wind at his back, Whittingham came to Churchill Downs more confident than he had been with any of his previous Derby starters, including his 1986 winner, Ferdinand.
"We'll win it," Whittingham said on Friday before the Derby. "He has more ability, more speed, and is a more willing worker than Ferdinand. You can put him anywhere in a race, and mud don't bother him. He's got the breeding, too. Wishing Well could run all day."
Of course, all week reporters asked Whittingham about Easy Goer and the reputation he was bringing to Louisville. The afternoon of the Derby, dressed in a trench coat against the cold wind that whipped through the barn, Whittingham shrugged the question off again: "Eight million people are walking around here telling me how good Easy Goer is. Maybe they're all nuts."
Two hours later, the colt nobody wanted was veering down the homestretch at Churchill Downs, putting a whipping on the colt that almost everyone said could not be beaten. If they weren't all nuts, they were nearly all speechless. Except, of course, for Whittingham and Hancock.
"What did I tell you?" said Charlie.
"You just never know in this game," said Arthur.
"He would be an unlikely Triple Crown champ—a reject with a defect who had escaped death twice."