As rivalries go, four races is a bit on the short side, but when those four races are the most prestigious four in American racing, you know you have something very special. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were two of the best horses foaled in the 1980’s. Honestly, they were probably the two best horses to come along since the glorious days of Slew, Bid, and Affirmed and Alydar. The fact that they came at the same time was just marvelous fate that gave racing fans four thrills of a lifetime. This rivalry may have been predicated on pure running ability, but it was fueled by difference.
Easy Goer was a chestnut monster. He dominated his surroundings since birth, and did the same when he hit the track. Trained by Shug McGaughey and ridden by Pat Day, he became racing’s next great hope as he rolled through his juvenile season. Only a nose defeat in his career debut, and a too-late rally in the mud at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile kept the equine blueblood from being a two-year-old legend. To say big things were expected of him at three was an understatement. Three easy wins to start his sophomore season, including the Gotham Massacre, only served to raise those expectations.
On the other coast, a storm was brewing under the watchful eyes of the legendary trainer, Charlie Whittingham. Sunday Silence was a near black son of a bitch that no one really wanted early on. The gangly, imperfect colt was born with a chip on his shoulder, thanks to his fiery sire Halo. Twice surviving near death situations before he even made it to the track, it was not until Whittingham had him under tack for a while that people started to think he may be worth the trouble after all. A 10 length winner in his second start, not even a win in the San Felipe made much impression on a national scale. Perhaps the East Coasters finally took notice when Sunday Silence destroyed his Southern California competition in the Santa Anita Derby by 11 lengths. Easy Goer was still the man, but the Bald Eagle was very confident in his ugly duckling that had grown into a swan.
Their first meeting would come on a wet track at Churchill Downs. The occasion was the 115th running of the Kentucky Derby. Easy Goer brought with him an air of invincibility. Coming in from New York, the Phipps runner was racing establishment in the form of a big powerful chestnut, that once rolling, could steamroll his competition. Sunday Silence, on the other hand, was the California upstart. Not even favored in his Santa Anita Derby virtuoso, he became the clear second choice in Louisville simply because his last race was too good to ignore.
In what would become common for the fantastic pair of bitter rivals, Sunday Silence would get the early jump on Easy Goer, despite an awkward start. Attempting to prevent a disheartening replay of the prior year’s BC Juvenile, Easy Goer was kept within striking distance of his main rival, but never quite looked comfortable on the muddy and slow racing surface. Sunday Silence, meanwhile, did. Doing everything asked of him by his young pilot, Pat Valenzuela, the black colt moved up on the turn and when the 15-horse field hit the turn, he was ready to take over. Easy Goer was still within striking distance, but still spinning his wheels a bit. The stretch run of this particular Derby was not pretty, as Sunday Silence bounced in and out like a pinball, but there was no doubt who the best horse was, as he hit the wire 2 ½ lengths clear. Easy Goer found his best stride late to get up for second.
Next came Baltimore for the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown. Easy Goer was still the favorite off his massive reputation, but the Derby winner would refuse to go quietly into the Pimlico night. To this day, I consider the 1989 Preakness to be one of the two greatest races I have ever seen. I will let you guess the other.
Pat Day, careful not to give Sunday Silence too much room for comfort, made a big move on the turn to go by his California rival. The Arthur Hancock III runner was squeezed and was suddenly two lengths behind. Easy Goer fans briefly thought they were going to get to see what they felt should have happened in Louisville, but Pat Valenzuela swung his charge to the outside and then something magical happened. Sunday Silence, using perhaps his greatest racing asset, an electrifying burst of speed, pounced like a cat on a mouse and was abreast of Easy Goer like a shot. The race was on.
The entire Pimlico stretch became a racing battleground for two horses that were too good to lose. The horses turned their heads slightly so that they could look at each other eyeball to eyeball as their riders vigorously urged their talented runners on. Sunday Silence on the outside, Easy Goer on the inside. Neither horse had one iota of give up; it was racing perfection encapsulated within a quarter of a mile. Easy Goer fought on gamely from the rail and gained a nose advantage in the stretch, but in the end, Sunday Silence edged in front by a whisker. Watching this race again, is still proof that horse racing is the purest form of athletic competition.
With the Triple Crown on the line things would head back to Easy Goer’s home base. Not only was Belmont his home, but it was the one track in which he was born to run. And so the Triple Crown was not to be, as the powerful Easy Goer relished the 1 ½ mile distance, the sandy surface, and the sweeping turns of Belmont Park. Sunday Silence would have no answers for the powerful New Yorker on this day. The Derby and Preakness runner-up had his time to shine with an easy victory over Sunday Silence in the Belmont Stakes. Easy Goer was at his impressive best and rolled home by 8 lengths.The nation would again have no Triple Crown winner, but the rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer was flourishing.
After going their separate ways after a fantastic Triple Crown, Easy Goer dominated things in New York. The son of Alydar swept through the Whitney, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club with disdainful ease. Meanwhile, Sunday Silence was lightly raced during the summer, but was coming off a rousing win in Louisiana’s Super Derby. There could be no doubt that either horse would win the three-year-old championship and the Horse of the Year title with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Both horses were treated as superstars by their throngs of fans in South Florida. The greatest match-up in Breeders‘ Cup history lived up to the expectations.
Sunday Silence took his familiar stalking position with Easy Goer a little farther back. Pat Day made the first move, rushing up to join his rival on the backstretch. It was Sunday‘s Silence‘s turn to respond and respond he did. Displaying the incredible acceleration that he was blessed with, Sunday Silence spurted away from the Phipps runner and carried himself to a clear lead in late stretch, only to see his great rival make one final run. I will let Tom Durkin say it one more time “Easy Goer with one final acceleration, and Sunday Silence holds on!!!”