Sunday Silence roars in '89 Derby

From Easy Goer's first few gallops across the famed Claiborne Farm pastures, the chestnut-coated colt lived up to his royal pedigree and the lofty expectations that had surrounded him since birth. As for Sunday Silence, the lean, knock-kneed, dark as midnight colt withstood a deadly illness at eight months that foreshadowed an early life in which the odds were stacked against him.

Easy Goer and Sunday Silence were born just four days and a scant two miles apart in Kentucky bluegrass country. Three years later as the Kentucky Derby post parade unfolded on May 7, 1989 all eyes and most wagers were focused on the pair of special colts.

On a cold and rainy day, the Pauper morphed into the King.

Sunday Silence and his 76-year old trainer Charlie Whittingham stole the show at the 115th Derby when they upstaged the east coast "golden boy" and heavy favorite Easy Goer, who many pundits believed would halt an 11-year drought of Triple Crown winners.

Sunday Silence's early life was a string of brush-offs. Raised at Arthur Hancock III's Stone Farm, he was consigned to the 1987 Keeneland yearling sales, but the gawky, dark son of Halo and Wishing Well attracted no buyers and for $17,000 Hancock brought him back to Stone Farm. Nine months later, ditto. Put into the ring at a sale of 2-year-olds in California, there were no takers so Hancock bought him back, this time for $32,000.

On the van ride back to Kentucky, the driver suffered a fatal heart attack at the wheel and the van flipped over on a dusty Texas road. The hard-luck colt dodged death once more. Bruised, bleeding and banged up, Sunday Silence spent two weeks recovering in an equine hospital.

At that point Hancock's partner Paul Sullivan bailed. Hancock persuaded Whittingham, the king of California trainers, to purchase a half interest in Sunday Silence and then sold half of that half (for $25,000) to an elderly Louisville surgeon, Ernest Gaillard.

The name belied the demeanor. When Sunday Silence started to gallop at Santa Anita Park he was wild and unruly, rearing and bucking. His exercise rider Pam Mabe dubbed the fiery colt "Sunday Stop It." A wise and infinitely patient horseman, Whittingham recognized what many had missed: the colt's agility, quick change of pace and steely determination.

A marine in World War II, Whittingham fought in the Pacific theater, stationed in the Solomon Islands. He escaped without injury, but contracted malaria that led to the trainer's hair falling out prematurely which earned him his famous nickname, "The Bald Eagle."

Whittingham took his time with Sunday Silence who made his racing debut on October 30, 1988, losing by a neck but winning by 10 lengths two weeks later. He closed out his 2-year-old season battling the speedster Houston, already touted as one of the 1989 Derby favorites, losing by just a head in an allowance race.

"He was the perfect example of an ugly duckling that turns into a swan with age," Hancock related. "Like the skinny teenager that develops into a big strong athlete, some horses are just a little late in maturing."

Sunday Silence kicked off his three year campaign in March with an allowance win and the captured the San Felipe Stakes. In his final prep for the Kentucky Derby he swept the competition aside winning by 11 lengths in the Santa Anita Derby. Each race he ran faster and looked stronger.

Meanwhile his east coast rival was getting the superstar treatment in Barn 57 at Gulfstream Park. Trainer Shug McGaughey's phone rang non-stop as "Triple Crown winner" talk heated up.

"I don't mind it too much," confessed the quiet trainer. "This is the position I've dreamed of all my life."

Easy Goer won by 8 ¾ lengths in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream, then broke Secretariat's record (1:33 3/5), crushing the field by 13 lengths in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Early that April Easy Goer cruised home the winner by three lengths in the Wood Memorial.

When the sleek, black gunslinger from out west and the majestic, powerful chestnut arrived at Churchill Downs in early May, they were the two best colts in the country, and perhaps the world. Game on.

Beyond the 3-year old showdown, sub-plots abounded. Easy Goer's owner Ogden Phipps, 80, the patriarch of the Phipps Stable, was a longtime client of Claiborne Farms. In the aftermath of Claiborne president Bull Hancock's death, the farm's advisors passed over Arthur Hancock as their president. The advisor that carried the most weight was Phipps. Arthur, known for his hard partying and guitar playing, went on to establish his own thoroughbred operation, Stone Farm. And, in one of racing's greatest ironies, Arthur was the co-owner of Sunday Silence.

The bettors hammered Easy Goer down to the 4-5 favorite, while Sunday Silence went off at 3-1. The Bald Eagle was unfazed. No one was more confident than Whittingham who declared unequivocally that Sunday Silence would triumph.

A crowd of 122,653 turned out on a raw day that saw the temperature plunge to 43 degrees. The track was splattered by periodic rain, and even a small hail shower. The start of the Derby was delayed nine minutes after Triple Buck had to return to the paddock for replacement of his right front shoe which he had lost in the warm-up.

"He didn't break too sharp because of settling down so much before the race while he waited with the pony," said jockey Pat Valenzuela."But he showed a little bit of speed when he got rolling. I worked my way to the outside in the first turn, and I sat in a perfect position on the backside. I knew the leaders would come back to me."

With Houston winging it on the front end, Sunday Silence spurted to a length lead on Easy Goer and it remained that way down the muddy backstretch. Turning into the stretch, Easy Goer was fighting the sloppy track. Meanwhile Sunday Silence was zeroing in on the leaders. When Valenzuela tapped his colt right-handed he ducked in, brushing with Northern Wolfe. As Sunday Silence kicked away he weaved erratically through the mid-stretch apparently startled by the frenzied crowd. He dashed under the wire 2 ½ lengths in front of Easy Goer in a modest time of 2:05.

Jockey Pat Day said Easy Goer's rally came a little too short and a little too late.

"When I really started getting into him inside the three-sixteenths pole he came on enough to be second, but it wasn't his performance. It wasn't his race," observed Day.

Overlooked during Derby week with all the accolades showered on Easy Goer, Sunday Silence and his breeder got their revenge.

"It's one of the greatest days of my life," said Hancock, who had won the race in 1982 with Gato Del Sol.

"For a Kentuckian, there's just nothing like winning the Kentucky Derby."

The Preakness was two weeks later. Whittingham bristled at the lack of respect shown to his colt by nearly 100 sportswriters in attendance.

"They (sportswriters) couldn't tell you what color your horse is," scoffed the trainer.

Normally when you see a horse sweep past another like the way Easy Goer did to Sunday Silence, it's all over.

-- Co-owner Arthur Hancock

A record crowd of 90,145 turned up on a warm and bright morning for the May 20th rematch. Fans made the flashy Easy Goer the 3-5 favorite with Sunday Silence the second betting choice at 2-1. Reminiscent of Alydar and Affirmed's scintillating stretch duel in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, the two hit the top the stretch with Easy Goer on the rail and Sunday Silence just to his outside. Stride for stride, eyeball to eyeball the two barreled down the Pimlico stretch. In the final 70 yards Valenzuela urged his colt with an aggressive hand ride as Sunday Silence kept leaning on his nemesis. Sunday Silence snatched the race by a nose in the closest Preakness run in 114 years.

"Normally when you see a horse sweep past another like the way Easy Goer did to Sunday Silence, it's all over," Hancock related. "So when I looked up five seconds later and saw Sunday Silence right back up with him coming down the stretch, I was totally stunned. Sunday Silence was an amazing horse."

Longtime broadcaster Dave Johnson dubbed it the best horse race he ever witnessed. He called the race for ABC-TV from atop the roof at Pimlico.

"It is a memory that stirs the soul where chills run up my spine," Johnson declared. "Those who witnessed it in Baltimore or on television will never forget it."

Sunday Silence lost his bid for the Triple Crown at Belmont Park, his rival's home track where he was three-for-three racing as a two-year-old. Approaching the quarter pole, Easy Goer took command and just powered away from Sunday Silence, winning by eight lengths in 2:26 flat, the second-fastest Belmont ever run.

They would meet one final time in the 1989 Breeder's Cup Classic where yet once again Sunday Silence was the second choice. Turning for home Easy Goer trailed by 4-½ lengths, but he came flying in mid-stretch. Sunday Silence held off his late rally to triumph by a neck. To this day their fans and supporters still argue who was superior. And isn't that what racing is all about?


Sunday Silence notched seven wins in nine starts in 1989 easily earning him the 3-year-old championship and Horse of the Year honors. In 1990 he ran twice: winning the Californian and placing second in the Hollywood Cup before an injury ended his racing career. In 14 starts he never finished worse than second and bankrolled $4,968,554, placing him third among all-time money winners, trailing only Alysheba and John Henry. He was expected to stand as a stud at Stone Farm where he was born. But in one final snub, Kentucky horsemen showed little interest in breeding to the Horse of the Year and instead Hancock sold him to Japanese breeder Zenya Yoshida's Shadai Stallion Station on the island of Hokkaido.

Described as fiery and aloof, "the boss" of Stallion Station, Sunday Silence became a perennial leading sire and national superstar in the Land of the Rising Sun. He bestowed his colts and fillies with speed, class, courage and the will to win. After death from laminitis and heart failure in August 2002, Sunday Silence has continued to be represented by a stream of top-class horses. Deep Impact won the Japanese Triple Crown, dominating the sport in 2005 and 2006. The colt is regarded by many as the greatest horse Japan has ever produced. Sunday Silence also sired the winner of Japan's biggest race, the Arima Kinen, for four consecutive years, 2004 to 2007. At stud his sons and grandsons continue to pass on the magical genetic spark of Sunday Silence.

The gawky colt that no one wanted galloped into the Hall of Fame in 1996. Sunday Silence was buried on a hilltop overlooking the Shadai stallion operation.

Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He wrote a Sunday column on racing for several years for the Chester County (Pa.) daily newspaper and covers racing and the horse world for a number of regional magazines in the mid-Atlantic area. In addition, he has written many historical articles on the art world and business entrepreneurs for a variety of national and regional magazines. Contact Terry at tconway@terryconway.net