Willman: 30 years later, Sunday Silence still looks brilliant

By Mike Willman/Santa Anita Park
September 14, 2019 10:17am
Sunday Silence Derby 615 X 400
Photo: Churchill Downs Photo

It’s been 30 years since Charlie Whittingham’s brilliant Sunday Silence parlayed victories in Santa Anita’s San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby to victories over eastern-based rival Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic. But even though three decades have passed, his achievements continue to rank as some of the most compelling in the annals of American racing.  

A near jet black colt by Halo, out of the California-bred multiple graded stakes-winning mare Wishing Well, Sunday Silence was purchased for $32,000 out of the 1988 California March 2-year-old in Training Sale at Hollywood Park by a partnership that eventually included Whittingham, Earnest Gaillard and Arthur Hancock III.  

Born under a lucky star, Sunday Silence twice avoided death as a youngster, the first time as the result of a virus while still a yearling at Hancock’s Stone Farm in Kentucky and the second when riding in a horse van at age 2 in California; the driver suffered a heart attack, resulting in the van overturning.  

This proved to be a highly fortuitous mishap, as Hancock, who bred the colt, decided to let Sunday Silence stay in California with his old friend Whittingham instead of shipping him back to Kentucky as was originally planned.  

Under Whittingham’s guidance, “Sunday,” as he was affectionately referred to by those close to him, would be center stage 14 months later as he and the impeccably bred Easy Goer thrilled the racing world as a result of their epic Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup battles, which enabled the sport to transcend racing’s narrow boundaries and become one of the world’s biggest sports stories in 1989.  



A free-running horse with incredible natural speed, Sunday Silence was second, beaten a neck in his debut, a 6 ½-furlong maiden allowance at Santa Anita on Oct. 30, 1988. He broke his maiden two weeks later on Nov. 13 at Hollywood Park as he stretched out to win going a mile and one sixteenth under Patrick Valenzuela.  

Subsequently freshened by “The Bald Eagle,” Sunday Silence returned to action ready to roll on March 2 at Santa Anita, taking a 6 ½-furlong allowance in 1:15 2/5 over a sloppy track by 4 ½ lengths. From there, it was storybook time, as Sunday Silence and Valenzuela overcame an awkward start to team for a 1 ¾-length win in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe (G1) on March 19 and a devastating 11 length romp in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 8.  

The second choice in the 1989 Kentucky Derby wagering at 3-1, Sunday Silence exploded off the turn for home over a muddy track at Churchill Downs to win by 2 ½ lengths over 4-5 favorite Easy Goer, thus setting the stage for one of the greatest classic duels of all time in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later at Pimlico on May 20.  

In what Trevor Denman often referred to as the greatest race he’d ever called -- prior to Zenyatta’s 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic win at Santa Anita -- “Sunday” and his arch rival Easy Goer hooked up head and head at the five sixteenths pole, with Valenzuela applying outside pressure to Pat Day and his striking chestnut colt the length of the stretch. In the end, it was Sunday Silence prevailing by a nose as Valenzuela celebrated wildly.  

Incensed, Day lodged a claim of foul for rough riding, but it was disallowed by the stewards, setting off cries of joy up and down the West Coast as the normally understated Whittingham prognosticated a Triple Crown sweep three weeks hence at Belmont Park.  

Alas, it wasn’t to be, as the long striding Easy Goer seemed very much back at home on the big, sweeping Belmont turns and Sunday Silence had to settle for a non-threatening second, beaten eight lengths.  

With Horse of the Year and another Eclipse Award for top 3-year-old Male at stake, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer squared off for their fourth and final meeting in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Staged in near-darkness at Gulfstream Park, it was Whittingham and Sunday Silence again, as Chris McCarron, who had replaced a suspended Valenzuela, orchestrated a desperate neck victory over the late charging son of Alydar before a massive television audience on NBC.   

(With Easy Goer dispatched as the 1-2 favorite, Sunday Silence was the second choice at 2-1 and paid $6.00 to win).  

Second to eventual Horse of the Year Criminal Type in the 1990 Hollywood Gold Cup, Sunday Silence was then retired, with earnings of more than $4.9 million. A winner of six Grade 1 stakes, Sunday Silence won a total of nine races from 14 starts and was second five times. Subsequently sold for $31 million, he spent his entire career at stud in Japan, where he became that nation’s leading stallion for a record breaking 13 consecutive years. 

A clear sensation in the Orient, Sunday Silence would also have a wider ranging international impact at stud, as he produced the winners of major stakes in Australia, England, Hong Kong, Dubai and the United States as well.   

Sunday Silence joined his trainer in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1996. One of the greatest horses to ever compete at Santa Anita, his legend was greatly enhanced by his rousing 11-length romp in the 1989 Santa Anita Derby and by the steady, reassuring influence of Santa Anita’s all-time leading stakes winning trainer, the great Charlie Whittingham.

 

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