Sometimes you love a race for an intensely competitive finish. The 1989 Santa Anita Derby would not be such a race. It was the moment where for the first time I would lay eyes on a black beauty who would go on to become one of my favorite horses of all-time. Despite a strong win in his stakes debut three weeks earlier, Sunday Silence was sent of a clear second choice behind a $2.9 million dollar yearling purchase named Houston. The two had grappled in a fast allowance race as juveniles, with the favored Houston earning a narrow victory in the 6 ½ furlong affair. Things would be decidedly different around two-turns.
In Santa Anita’s premier race for the sophomore set, the two colts broke in unison from the four and five post positions in the six-horse field. They would spend little time together from there on in. It was easy to see the fluid movement of the near black colt I would grow to love, as rider Pat Valenzuela sat chilly aboard Sunday Silence. Content to be third behind the pace of Houston, the son of Halo remained in close contact of the leaders despite the blistering early fractions. It still appeared his rider had yet to ask him when Sunday Silence blew right by the favorite early on the far turn. By the time the field had hit six furlongs in 1:09 2/5, Sunday Silence was in the lead and doing things effortlessly. Music Merci would stay close for a few strides, but by the time the Santa Anita Derby field hit the stretch, it was a one horse race.
As announcer Dave Johnson proclaimed on national television that he was the new leader of the West Coast three-year-olds, Sunday Silence, under strong urging from Valenzuela, kept pouring it on. The time they hit the wire, the pair was on their way to Louisville and the Kentucky Derby.
For legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham, the 11-length victory in 1:47 3/5 was an early birthday present. The Bald Eagle was just days away from his 76th birthday, and now he had a horse he believed to be the best one he would ever bring to Churchill Downs. Whittingham had won the Derby three years earlier with Ferdinand, but in Sunday Silence, he knew he had something quite special. After what I saw that day on television from the other side of the country, I felt the same way. There was only on roadblock to Sunday Silence’s quick ascent to super stardom, and it came in the form of a barrel-chested and beautiful chestnut, named Easy Goer.
With the reputation that Easy Goer had accrued in New York over the previous nine months, it would be a certainty that the West Coast charge would be the second choice once again. It would not matter. What unfolded over the five weeks of the 1989 Triple Crown was nearly as good as it gets.
Sunday Silence would use his athleticism, and natural speed to take the measure of his East Coast foe in a muddy Kentucky Derby, while Easy Goer’s power would be on full display as he ran right by my favorite in the twelve furlongs of New York’s Belmont Stakes. In between, the pair would run what I consider the greatest Preakness ever contested, as Sunday Silence and Easy Goer would battle eyeball to eyeball the entire length of the Pimlico stretch. In the end it was Sunday Silence who would get the win, as he would do later that year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was the best seasonal rivalry between two great horses since Alydar and Affirmed, and there hasn’t been as compelling a rivalry in American racing since.
Because of their great rivalry, and so much more, Sunday Silence had cemented an important place in my heart, and it was in the Santa Anita Derby that my feelings were born. It was one of the fastest editions in history, and the 11 lengths represented the largest winning margin ever in the important race. I don’t expect to see a Sunday Silence performance in this Saturday’s renewal, but maybe, just maybe we will see the first horse to win the Santa Anita Derby and then go on to win the Kentucky Derby since Sunday Silence turned the trick 23 years ago.