Twenty-five years ago, I sat at Suffolk Downs’ mostly vacant grandstand passing the time through a series of claiming and allowance races awaiting the 1989 Preakness Stakes simulcast. It was my father’s first post-op field trip coming off his second open heart surgery in 12 years and the thrilling Easy Goer-Sunday Silence stretch run was almost too much for his renewed heart.
I don’t remember whom I bet or if I won. But I certainly had the VHS tape rolling at home to catch what would become my favorite horse race of all time. I have watched the race repeatedly through the years up until the virtual end of videotapes – which means only a few years ago. I estimate that I’ve seen the 1989 Preakness over 500 times, watching in awe, wonder. More than a few times I shed a tear or two.
I can hear Dave Johnson’s race call at every pole. Horsemen and sports broadcaster, Jim McKay’s excitement picking up where Johnson left off and Charlsie Cantey’s “ding-dong” commentary as the PHOTO sign came down and Sunday Silence was posted as the winner.
ABC Sports had made a big deal during their Triple Crown coverage playing up the East Coast/West Coast rivalry, posting the differing odds from both coasts (Sunday Silence the favorite at California tracks, Easy Goer favorite at New York) and talking about it almost to the point of overkill.
There were many compelling story lines. Was Sunday Silence’s win two weeks prior, a fluke over the Derby favorite, Easy Goer? The august Phipps Stable versus Arthur B. Hitchcock’s almost mistaken ownership of a horse he tried and failed to sell more than once. There was the tall, elegant Charlie Whittingham training the gangly Sunday Silence and the rotund, kindly Kentuckian, Shug McGaughey, with the impeccable homebred, Easy Goer, who fell to the ground looking like a winner. The outspoken, substance-abusing Pat Valenzuela aboard the black, outsider and the Bible reading, clean living Pat Day on the pristine bay.
Good versus evil? Nah, more like a shot in the dark versus a sure thing.
For me the race unfolds with Johnson’s calls.
“Passing the stands for the first time, Northern Wolf takes the lead by a head, Houston with Cordero on the inside saving ground…”
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas almost always takes a shot in big races, and he did so with Houston. Seemingly overmatched beyond a mile, but fast in sprints, the son of Seattle Slew was given a chance to carry his speed a 1 3/16 miles in a race without a clear front-runner.
“The quarter was 23 and 2/5 seconds...is fast, but not that fast…”
Houston held his advantage, but Sunday Silence started to cozy up just outside his lead as they went the half in 46 and change. Along the backside, Pat Day surged Easy Goer outside of Sunday Silence and clearly made a race-riding move to force Valenzulea to check slightly and fall back before the horses entered the far turn.
Johnson called it this way: “Going down the backstretch, it’s Houston in front by a head. Easy Goer, the favorite, up to challenge. Sunday Silence between horses in tight quarters there back in third.”
At best, Day’s move was nuanced, at worst, premature as well as outside he’s typical, patient riding style. In fact, it was not uncommon to see the Hall of Famer move a horse up, back off and then move again while he awaited just the right time to pounce and win or miss by an inch. “Pat Delay” sometimes was a bettor’s lament at the time.
OK where was the rest were the rest of the field? Spinning their collective wheels against what arguably could have been the greatest singular stretch run of any Preakness.
As the two champions turned for home, Day, who seized the advantage an eighth of a mile earlier, was forced to race on the inside while Valenzuela had recoiled his charge from third to first in just a few strides. The advantage was now Sunday Silence’s, as you could almost feel Valenzuela smirk with the idea of pinning Day to the rail…which he did.
After his trademark, “And down the stretch they come,” Johnson tried in vain to capture the action, calling as much as he could while trying to maintain his breath.
“On the outside it’s Sunday Silence. Easy Goer with Pat Day back to challenge. Heads apart. Easy Goer on the inside with a slight lead. On the outside Sunday Silence. The rest of them far back…”
The horse racing world narrowed. Far back? The rest of field meandered toward the finish line in an alternate universe - a common place of less than spectacular. Meanwhile, step-for-step through the final sixteenth of a mile words were not enough to describe the spirit of competition, the biggest hearts unwilling to waver - a special place where the greatest athletes take us on the most rare occasions.
There was high drama following the less than two-minute race. Valenzuela raised his right arm in celebration in the jumps after the line while almost 100,000 gasped and the PHOTO sign flashed. For his part, Valenzuela plainly stated that he thought he had won the race, when asked by McKay, while also making the point, “Pat tried to screw me the whole way around and couldn't do it.”
Both trainers made their way toward the winner’s circle before the order of finish was posted. Day then filed a fruitless objection that was rejected by stewards.
There have been outstanding Preakness moments since, Rachel Alexandra’s purchase and breathtaking win following her devastating Oaks two weeks prior, and Afleet Alex, coming up from his knees and certain disaster to win, stand out. But for me, it would take something otherworldly to replace the 1989 Preakness in my mind.