When I was twelve in 1989, I experienced my first Triple Crown campaign. Not from the rail at a racetrack or a barn with a classic-bound three-year-old in my corner, but from the small black-and-white television perched high atop my bedroom shelf. That’s when I fell in love with a coal-black colt with a squarish star and narrow blaze named Sunday Silence.
That spring was the first year of prep races being the center of my television viewing. Football was over and basketball was a nonstarter in my house. Whenever Jim McKay and Wide World of Sports were on, I was in front of a television, keeping track of the names flashing across my screen. I quickly came to see Easy Goer as the equine equivalent to the swaggering jocks that were a part of my pre-teen cohort and the hard-luck Sunday Silence as worthy of my horsey-girl heart. I had never even stood next to a thoroughbred, but I was convinced that this horse had everything necessary to be a champion.
Halo had already sired a Kentucky Derby winner, Sunny’s Halo (1983), when he covered Wishing Well, a stakes-winning turf specialist, in 1985. From the get-go, Sunday Silence was a chip off his sire’s block in terms of temperament, with the same fiery independent spirit, and, like his sire, his look belied the deep talent and heart that lay within. As a weanling, he survived a virus that nearly killed him, but he fought his way back to health and then went through the sales ring at Keeneland’s July Yearling Sale. When he failed to meet his reserve, Arthur Hancock, owner of Stone Farm, where Sunday Silence had been foaled and raised, bought the colt back for a paltry $17,000.
At two, Hancock sent this son of Halo out to California for a two-year-olds in training sale. By this point in his life, Sunday Silence resembled a gawky teenager rather than a lithe Thoroughbred, his hind legs often described as resembling coat hangers and his build wiry rather than bulky and muscular. Again, Sunday Silence failed to sell, with Hancock obligated to buy the colt back for $32,000. Yet the colt stood out enough that Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham called Hancock after the sale was over to ask about Sunday Silence, offering to buy half of the colt and train him. That is, if the son of Halo could make it back to Whittingham’s California base in one piece.
After his no-sale, Sunday Silence was on his van back to Kentucky when the driver suffered a fatal heart attack, the van skidding off the road and overturning on a lonely Texas highway. Somehow, Sunday Silence managed to escape that tragedy with only cuts and bruises. His form may not have been that of other horses of his caliber, but, time and again, Sunday Silence showed the heart and tenacity that legends are made of.
Under Whittingham’s tutelage, Sunday Silence overcame a late start at age two to end 1988 with one win and two seconds in three starts. He inserted himself into the 1989 Triple Crown conversation with victories in the San Felipe Handicap and the Santa Anita Derby, the latter coming the same weekend that his eventual rival Easy Goer won the Gotham Stakes. That win put Sunday Silence on the path to Louisville and a meeting with the horse that had already been anointed as racing’s next big hope.
From birth, Easy Goer had all of the advantages his immortal sire had. The son of Alydar, the only horse to ever finish second in all three Triple Crown races, Easy Goer also claimed stakes winner Relaxing as his dam and famed handicapper Buckpasser as his damsire. Owned by Ogden Phipps, Easy Goer came into 1989 as racing’s best hope to win the Triple Crown since his sire finished second to Affirmed in 1978. With a record of seven wins in nine starts, including just missing a world-record time for a mile in the Gotham, Easy Goer seemed well on his way to wearing roses on the first Saturday in May.
In Louisville they met, East vs. West. Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer. The field was officially fifteen horses, but only two mattered at the end of the day anyway. Charlie Whittingham, who only brought horses to the Kentucky Derby if he thought they had a chance to win, guaranteed a Sunday Silence victory. Ogden Phipps, legendary owner and breeder, had never won an American classic and Easy Goer seemed to be his best chance at winning the country’s most famous race. So much was riding on the coal black son of Halo and the golden chestnut son of Alydar. Twelve-year-old me was riveted in place on Derby Day, cheering Sunday Silence through the chill and the mud of Louisville from the warmth of my Alabama living room. He wove and ducked through the stretch, buffeted by the noise reverberating from under the Twin Spires, but the gangly black colt won this battle, striding away from Easy Goer in the stretch, his victory surprising many.
They followed up that battle on hallowed ground with a second one, this time at Old Hilltop two weeks later. Vindicated by Sunday Silence’s victory in Louisville, I just knew that the Preakness would showcase the colt’s talent and heart one more time. Arthur Hancock’s faith in the colt would continue to be rewarded as would Charlie Whittingham’s high estimation of this son of Halo. Easy Goer for all his advantages did not scare this fan of Sunday Silence. My faith in the colt was rewarded with what I still believe is the greatest race I have ever seen. As Sunday Silence and Easy Goer hooked up in the stretch, as they strode along in tandem, they looked each other in the eye and gave all they had with each flare of their nostrils, each step toward the wire, bodies straining toward victory. Again Sunday Silence tasted triumph, sticking his beautiful nose in front, taking another one for the West and setting up a potential Triple Crown.
In the end, this love letter to the coal black colt doesn’t come with the type of immortality I chronicled in my book on Sir Barton. Sunday Silence added his name to the list of those who came close, but Easy Goer got the better of him in the Belmont Stakes, the too-familiar sight of a Derby-Preakness winner falling short in the long stretch at Big Sandy. There was no loss of love in losing, no diminishment of his abilities in my estimation. He would always be a horse of my heart, even as twelve-year-old me has given way to the forty-two-year-old version. Thirty years on, with Sunday Silence and Easy Goer both gone, the memories of their battles and the legacy of that coal black colt that nobody wanted live on in surprising places: in Japan, where Sunday Silence made his greatest off-the-track impact; in Will’s Way, still charming fans at Old Friends at Cabin Creek; and on the lives of the humans around them. For Ogden Phipps, Easy Goer was his only classic winner and one of the four horses he bred to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. For Arthur Hancock, Sunday Silence helped alleviate some of the financial pressure that Stone Farm experienced during the 1980s, allowing the farm to continue operation to this day.
Perhaps the greatest contribution any Thoroughbred can make to the sport of kings is in the fans they make. To this day, I am sure I am not the only fan still thrilled by the coal black son of Halo, his weaving stretch run at Churchill Downs, and his game domination of Easy Goer in the Preakness. Forever will he reign as a horse of our hearts, one of the many who have helped generation after generation fall in love with horse racing.
Jennifer Kelly is the author of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, published by the University Press of Kentucky. After years of teaching writing and literature, she has now devoted her career to researching and writing about horse racing history, with a focus on the Triple Crown. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram
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