The race was the Grade 2 Mainichi Okan. The date was October 11th, 1998. The great match-up was Silence Suzuka versus El Condor Pasaat nine furlongs in Tokyo.
It was not expected to be a race of incredible significance. The four-year-old Silence Suzuka hadn't raced in three months and was using it as a prep for the Tenno Sho three weeks hence. The three-year-old El Condor Pasa hadn't raced in almost five months and had never started beyond a mile. For him, it would be a prep for Japan's most outstanding race, the Japan Cup.
Friday is the 15-year anniversary of the day when these two titans of the Japanese turf collided for the only time. For the sensational Silence Suzuka, it would be arguably his finest moment in a brilliant and later tragic season. For El Condor Pasa, it would be the only conclusive defeat he would taste in a remarkable racing career.
Silence Suzuka, a son of the great Sunday Silence, was a head-strong run-off type of speed horse who had a disappointing three-year-old season. Rather than fighting with him, his connections ultimately opted to let him do what he wanted to do, and that was basically to run as fast as he can for as far as he can.
Silence Suzuka's 1998 season was off to a tremendous start, with a pair of easy front-end wins in the Grade 2 Nakayama Kinen on March 15th and the Grade 3 Kokura Daishoten on April 18th.
His third start of the season, in the Kinko Sho, was the day that the legend was born.
In a freakish display of sustained speed, which you can see in the video above, Silence Suzuka dominated by 9 lengths in 1:57.80 for ten furlongs. The second-place finisher, Midnight Bet, had entered the race on a four-race win streak, culminating with a win in the Grade 2 Kyoto Kinen as the even-money favorite under French jockey Olivier Peslier. Two races later, Midnight Bet would win the Hong Kong International at 42/1 odds. He also won the following year's edition of the Kinko Sho.
Silence Suzuka's fourth start of the season was his toughest test of the campaign. Stretching out in distance to 11 furlongs, he held on to win the Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen by three parts of a length over Stay Gold and Air Groove.
Stay Gold was a Grade 1 winner and a very good turf horse. He would later beat the mighty Fantastic Light and Arlington Million winner Silvano in the Dubai Sheema Classic. However, Stay Gold is best-known as the sire of Orfevre, who has banked over $17 million in earnings and just finished second in the Arc De Triomphe for the second year in a row.
Air Groove was a very talented Grade 1 winner who was second beaten a neck to the European star and Breeders' Cup Turf winner Pilsudski in the 1997 Japan Cup, and she would ultimately finish second in the Japan Cup again--later in this 1998 season.
That was Silence Suzuka's path to the 1998 Mainichi Okan. The path for El Condor Pasa was cleaner and easier. He had obliterated five straight fields, by a combined 22 lengths, culminating in an easy win in the Grade 1 NHK Mile Cup over 16 opponents.
Without any further ado, here is the race that inspired this blog post:
As you can see, Silence Suzuka won by 2.5 lengths. He carried 130 pounds and ran the nine furlong distance in a supersonic 1:44.80
El Condor Pasa, under 126 pounds, finished second. Although soundly defeated, he was still five lengths clear of the third-place finisher in a race with quite a few accomplished horses in behind him.
Grass Wonder, who finished eight and a half lengths back in this race under just 121 pounds, returned to win a Grade 1 at 13/1 odds next time out. This was followed by a Grade 2 win, a nose defeat in a Grade 1, a three-length win in a Grade 1, a nose win in a Grade 2, and a nose win in a Grade 1. That adds up to five wins and a nose defeat in his next six starts, four of them at the Grade 1 level and two at the Grade 2 level.
Grass Wonder made almost $6 million in his 15-race career, and he is a full brother to Multiple US Grade 1 winner Wonder Again. He was smoked by Silence Suzuka and El Condor Pasa, even with the weight concession.
El Condor Pasa also displayed unbelievable form after this defeat. He dominated his elders by 2.5 lengths in the Japan Cup at 5/1 odds next time out. A North American turf champion Chief Bearhart was defeated five lengths in the race.
El Condor Pasa would go to Europe the following year and have tremendous success. He won the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud by 2.5 lengths over a star-studded field that included Tiger Hill, Dream Well, Borgia, and the previous year's Arc winner, Sagamix. In his final start, at odds of 7/2, El Condor Pasa came up just short when Montjeu wore him down in the final strides of the Arc, as seen below:
However, there was no subsequent glory for Silence Suzuka after his stunning win in the Mainichi Okan. He made his next start in the Grade 1 Tenno Sho at ten furlongs and was bet to 1/5 favoritism against 11 other opponents.
As you will see below (if you choose to watch), Silence Suzuka opened up a 12-length lead and seemed to be cruising to another devastatingly awesome victory, in front of 140,000 people, when he broke down on the far turn. At the very top of his game, this sensational son of Sunday Silence lost his racing career and life before he could continue his incredible front-running reign of terror. The plan had been to point him to a major International race the following season.
Sure, it was another interesting weekend in the world of racing, to say the least. Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan tasted defeat for the first time this year when he was beaten, in rainy conditions, over the polytrack surface after the Shadwell Turf Mile was taken off the turf. It was also a day that featured a very disappointing performance from Groupie Doll, who had none of her old sparkle in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes.
In New York, the two most exciting two-year-old maiden winners at Saratoga both delivered against more experienced horses in the Grade 1 Champagne. Havana and Honor Code, horses with polar-opposite running styles, hit the wire almost together in thrilling fashion.
In California, the horse who looked like the chief US opposition to Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup Mile, Obviously, chased a fast pace, opened up, and faded to fourth place in The City of Hope. The Santa Anita Sprint Championship was a good race, with strong Breeders' Cup Sprint implications, but one horse who didn't fire at all was last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint winner, Trinniberg, who finished a long way last in a terrible performance.
In Paris, six thousand Japanese racing fans who had traveled six thousand miles experienced more frustration when the post time favorite, Orfevre, finished second in the Arc de Triomphe for the second year in a row. The well backed Japanese three-year-old Kizuna could do no better than fourth place. Indeed, the race belonged to undefeated three-year-old filly Treve, who was a clear-cut winner.
With the Breeders' Cup still four weeks away, we will have plenty of time to analyze those races. This blog will be hot and heavy with race recaps at the end of October. So we won't bother right now with something that we will be doing--and doing thoroughly--in a few weeks.
Japan's bitter frustrations in the Arc live on, and so does the frustration of this racing fan, for I've never been able to forget Silence Suzuka. He was a most-intriguing horse, a horse of unbounded talent who had a front-running style that was so exciting, so brazen, even, that his form has grown more fascinating with the passing of every year since his heartbreaking death. Let him be remembered for what he did 15 years ago. Let him be remembered on Friday and ever after.