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Preakness Stakes 1989 Rewind

1989 Preakness


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. 



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Older Comments about Preakness Stakes 1989 Rewind...

I will do that tonight after the standardbred program
SSilence86@gmail.com. Easy to remember. I have SS pic crossing the wire in the Derby. I also have a Fred Stone of their Preakness.
give me your e-mail and I will photograph it for you
Lucky! I would love to have that photo in my collection. They truly were stride for stride down that stretch
I have that win photo autograpehed by P Val (who asked me where HE could get a copy since, surprisnigly to me, he never received one) SS is so in line with EG on the rail that you can only see one rearfoot on the finish line shot.
home in the Belmont.
I was in love with Easy Goer, I loved that colt and was so proud of him when he flew
Thank you for that excellent recap of one of the best races I've ever seen. My first love in a dog fight down the entire stretch with the East coasts golden boy (who was chestnut not bay :). First time I ever cried watching a race. Still get teary eyed to this day.
One of my favorites as well ... always thought the objection was pretty lame.

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Tony Bada Bing began his lifelong quest of finding winners more than 35 years ago as a fifth grade student. This is when his grandfather first took him to the many Off Track Betting facilities sprinkled throughout Long Island, NY. While many kids his age were clamoring to hit the beach or an amusement park during summer vacation, Bada Bing was spending it in stuffy, smoked-filled rooms filled with retirees and reprobates listening to Marshall Cassidy on tape delay calling Saratoga.

This passion was further lit by his father, who took Bada Bing to East Boston's Suffolk Downs, only after Bada Bing learned to read the Racing Form. For most of his young adult life a summer rotation of NY OTB, Suffolk, and the now shuddered Rockingham Park in Salem, NH filled his betting days. 

Notable winners along the way: Willow Hour's and Runaway Groom's Travers wins as well as Derby winners Grindstone, Thunder Gulch (which he called in print the day before) and Super Saver. His latest quest is to hit the Kentucky Derby superfecta.

Bada Bing plays tournaments at Derby Wars, bets through several account wagering sites and has blogged about Thoroughbred racing for the past four years. He prefers the bigger meets of NYRA and California as well as seasonal meets of Gulfstream, Churchill and Oaklawn. He likes vertical, multirace wagers like Pick 4s.

He has produced several Horse Racing Nation videos, in addition to blogging. He can be found at Twitter @tonycbadabing. While away from the track Bada Bing enjoys time with his wife, who tolerates and supports his passion, and his two children.


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