“Are you the greatest race horse there ever was,” Michael Blowen, president and found of Old Friends thoroughbred retirement farm in Georgetown, Ky. asks Sunshine Forever, while visitors on the tour of the farm watch to see the horse’s reaction.
Standing with his head over the paddock fence, Sunshine, one of the equine retirees on the farm, eagerly nods his head up and down in a “yes” motion, much to the delight of the visitors. Michael then gives him a few of his favorite treats – carrots – and tells the visitors about his racing history.
Blowen has a deep affection for Sunshine Forever, a sweet brown thoroughbred champion that he got to see race when he was on the track. Sunshine was also one of the first two horses, along with Creator, that were returned to the United States from Japan and brought to Old Friends, thanks to the efforts of Blowen.
The son of Roberto-Outward Sunshine, by Graustark, Sunshine Forever finished his career with eight wins in 23 starts, six seconds, three thirds and $2,084,800 in earnings.
Bred by John W. Galbreath, Sunshine was owned by Darby Dan Farm, trained by John Veitch and ridden, in most of his races, by Angel Cordero.
The admiration for Sunshine Forever by Blowen all came about because of the horse’s outstanding races in the Fall of 1988. It was eight weeks of racing that Blowen still eagerly, and enthusiastically, recalls to this day.
In 1988, racing was a different than it is today. At that time, trainers didn’t “rest” their horses for months on end before racing them like they do today. At that time, if a horse was fit, and a race was “right” for that horse, he would run.
That’s what happened to Sunshine that Fall. He was fit, the races fell into place, and he ran.
When all was said and done, Sunshine ran four Grade 1 races in eight weeks – one every other week. He won three – Man O’War Stakes, Turf Classic and Budweiser International – and came just a head short of winning the fourth – the Breeders’ Cup Turf. His efforts earned him an Eclipse Award as well.
It began after a third-place finish in the 1-1/4 mile Arlington Million on August 20, 1988. Veitch began looking for the next race to run Sunshine in. He was also looking to change jockeys, too, as Cordero did not ride Sunshine in the Million, John Velasquez did.
So, Veitch got Cordero back and pointed Sunshine to the 1-3/8-mile $500,000 Man O’War Stakes, which would be held on Sept. 24, 1988 on the turf at Belmont Park.
In that race, Face Nord took the early lead in the race, but Sunshine caught up and passed him in the backstretch, then held the lead around the far turn and into the homestretch. There the race turned into a dual between Sunshine and Pay the Butler, who began a charge of his own. But, Sunshine held on to win by a half-length, the closest win of his career to date.
The victory was the biggest of Sunshine's career at the time, and established him as one of the top turf horses in the 1988 racing season. But, his best was yet to come.
For his next race just 15 days later on Oct. 9, Veitch ran Sunshine in the 1-1/2-mile $500,000 The Turf Classic at Belmont.
Sunshine quickly opened up a lead out of the gate in the race, and for the first time in his career, he dominated. The only close moment came when River Memories took a very brief lead around the six-furlong mark, but Cordero got Sunshine’s attention, and the horse went on to win by 4-3/4 lengths over second-place finisher My Big Boy.
Still, Sunshine’s best was yet to come.
You see, as solid as his performance was in The Turf Classic, it would be his next race – the Budweiser International – that would turn out to be the defining moment of his career. It is also the race that Blowen still calls one of the greatest race performances he has ever seen, and the one that has so endeared him to the now 25-year old thoroughbred.
So, with just over a two-week break once again, Veitch entered Sunshine into the 1-1/4-mile Budweiser International, which would be held on the turf at Laurel Race Track on October 23. The total purse for the race was $750,000.
The Sunday of the race dawned cool and crisp, then warmed up and turned into a beautiful sunny Fall afternoon by the time the horses were led out to the track for the post parade. Cordero then proceeded to go through his regular race preparations, warming Sunshine up to make sure the horse was ready to go from the start.
The horses finished their warm-ups and slowly made their way up the track where the handlers loaded them into the starting gate. Once they were settled in, time seemed to stand still for a second until, finally, the starter pushed the button. The bell rang, the gates slammed open, and the horses exploded out of the gate.
Sunshine broke nicely and tracked the race leaders near the front. Then, at the far turn, he slipped between horses to take the lead heading into the home stretch. Coming down the stretch, two other horses, a French horse named Squill started charging after Sunshine on the outside, while on the inside Frankly Perfect also began to make a move. It would be Squill who would make the first move on Sunshine at the sixteenth-pole in the stretch, running past him on the outside and opening up almost a one-length lead. About the same time, Frankly Perfect passed Sunshine along the rail.
Now, usually when a horse gets passed in a race, especially if the horse is squeezed between two horses that are passing him, that is pretty much the end of the race for that horse.
But, not in this race. Not on this day.
Somewhere deep inside himself, Sunshine discovered something that few athletes ever find. It's that indescribable moment that leaves spectators awestruck and speechless.
Sunshine dug down, drawing deep breaths, and slowly began to work his way back between the two horses, passing Frankly Perfect first, and desperately lunging at Squill as the finish line approached.
At the wire, Sunshine beat Squill by a neck, securing his place in history and making him the favorite for both the Breeders Cup Turf race and the 1988 Eclipse Award as Turf Champion.
And, so, once again, after just another two week break, Sunshine was back on the track, this time at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. in the $2 million Breeder’s Cup Turf race.
From the start, Great Communicator and Sunshine made this 1-1/2 mile, Grade 1 affair a match race. Great Communicator took the early lead, while Sunshine made his move, desperately trying to catch up to his rival. He got close, but every time he got close, jockey Pat Sidle urged Great Communicator onward. It was a battle to the wire, with Great Communicator finally pulling out the victory over Sunshine by just a head.
That Breeder’s Cup race was the final outing for Sunshine in 1988, but not the end of his season. Just a few week’s later, Sunshine was awarded the Eclipse Award as the 1998 Turf Horse of the Year to cap his great racing season. It was a season that saw him race 12 times total and never finish out of the money. He won eight races, and took second three times and third once, while collecting $2,032,636.
The following year, Sunshine would race once again, but he just couldn't come close to replicating his grand performances from the year before and would be retired and sent to stud.
Back on the tour at Old Friends, Blowen completes his stories about Sunshine Forever to the delight of the visitors on tour. Then, once he finishes answering their questions, he leads them down the pathway between paddocks and over to one of the other great thoroughbred champions on the farm. Meanwhile, Sunshine follows along his fence line hoping for a few more carrot handouts.
It’s been 23 years since Sunshine Forever dazzled race fans on the track during the Fall of 1988, but the memory of his races are still remembered to this day.
Some great, great memories indeed.
(Photos by Rick Capone)