1989: Sunday Silence

Sunday, May 07, 1989



By Maryjean Wall, Herald-Leader Racing Writer

The old man and his knock-kneed colt were given the brushoff by a Kentucky Derby crowd that hoped to see the flashy Easy Goer crowned their hero yesterday at Churchill Downs.
But when Easy Goer choked in the mud just as he had last fall in the Breeders’ Cup, the heroes of the 115th Kentucky Derby were the odd couple of Sunday Silence — once an unwanted colt because he was sickle-hocked, or knock-kneed — and his aging trainer, Charlie Whittingham, 76.  They dashed Easy Goer’s highly touted bid for a Kentucky Derby and possibly a Triple Crown, leaving him 2 1/2 lengths behind in second place with his stablemate Awe Inspiring third. The upset occurred on a cold and rainy day that saw temperatures dip to 43 degrees and the track beset by periodic rains and a small hail shower.
And while Easy Goer couldn’t deal with the muddy track, Sunday Silence handled every curve ball thrown at him in the long 1 1/4 miles. He recovered when he had to be steadied soon after the start as Northern Wolf angled over in front of him. Then he recovered again after ducking and weaving through the stretch when he apparently was startled by the screaming crowd.
His number stayed safe as winner when he didn’t cause any interference against Northern Wolf, who was running inside him in the stretch, despite his weird gyrations that made him look as if he were staggering. Whittingham put aside the ducking as no more than a startled response from an inexperienced colt.
The Derby triumph gave jockey Patrick Valenzuela his first Kentucky Derby victory, to emulate the feat of his uncle Milo Valenzuela, who won the race in 1958 on Tim Tam, in the same time, 2:05, as the race was run yesterday, and on the same kind of muddy track. The race was the slowest Derby since Tim Tam’s, despite a fairly prompt early pace of :23, :46 3/5, 1:11 2/5 and 1:37 4/5. The final quarter, however, had slowed down to :27 1/5.
Valenzuela’s winning ride also cut short Pat Day’s bid to sweep the entire Pick-Six, after he’d won the five previous races. Day’s luck ended when Easy Goer failed to get hold of the track, coming up empty in a futile attempt to wear down Sunday Silence in the stretch.
“A jockey told me on the way out (to the post parade), ‘you can end his streak here,’ ” Valenzuela said about Day’s bid for an unprecedented perfect Pick-Six, which would have culminated in the Derby. “But I said, ‘No, I’m not going to end his streak, I’m just going to start mine.’ ”
Easy Goer stalked Sunday Silence most of the way around the track, after breaking out of the gate three stalls to the outside of him. Easy Goer had been moved from stall No. 14 to No. 13 after Notation, in post No. 12, scratched earlier in the afternoon.
Yet although Valenzuela was aware of Easy Goer running just behind him, to the outside in their run to the first turn, he lost sight of him after that. His mind was on keeping good position behind Houston, Clever Trevor and Northern Wolf as he raced in fourth place in the first quarter-mile.
Even Whittingham had lost sight of Easy Goer, while he kept his eyes on his own colt.
“Where was he, second?” asked Whittingham, long after the race was over and the numbers had been posted on the board. “He’s got to be a good colt to be second.”
For the first time in anyone’s memory, the start of the Derby was delayed nine minutes after Triple Buck had to return to the paddock for replacement of his right front shoe, which he lost in the warm-up.
Other jockeys dismounted to keep the weight off their horses’ backs while the rest of the field circled and waited behind the gate. “Put some Velcro on there,” cried a fan as Triple Buck was led back to the paddock on three shoes.
Valenzuela said the only problem the delay caused Sunday Silence was that “he didn’t break too sharp because of settling down so much before the race while he waited with the pony.
“But he showed a little bit of speed when he got rolling. I was on the inside of Easy Goer and I think Dansil, and I worked my way to the outside in the first turn, and I sat in a perfect position on the backside,” said Valenzuela. “I knew the leaders would come back to me.”
Houston kept his lead down the backstretch, nearly two lengths in front of Clever Trevor and Northern Wolf, who was well in front of Sunday Silence.
Easy Goer continued to race behind the Whittingham colt. Jockey Pat Day said: “I tried to stay in contact with him. When he started drawing out away from us on the backside under absolutely no encouragement from Pat, I kind of nudged on him a little bit, and I got no response.”
Day might have guessed he was in trouble. Going into the far turn he’d already gone to the whip, while Sunday Silence took off in hot pursuit of Houston and Northern Wolf.
Awe Inspiring’s jockey Craig Perret could also see Easy Goer was in trouble. Awe Inspiring, who’d been as far back as 11th, had moved up to sixth on the far turn, right off Easy Goer.
“When I eased him out on the second turn,” Perret said, “I was right behind Pat. Easy Goer was right in front of me. I thought, ‘Come on, Pat; let’s go on with it.’ I realized then that his horse wasn’t going to dominate the whole race like a lot of people thought.”
Sunday Silence got the lead coming into the stretch. Houston began to drop back (he eventually finished eighth), but Northern Wolf still hung tough, while Easy Goer was struggling behind Dansil.
Northern Wolf’s jockey, Jo Jo Ladner, told how his colt stuck his head “right up there with the leader” at the head of the stretch. “But that other horse (Sunday Silence) kind of went by me, and you could see that he was really in gear.”
Sunday Silence had got only partway home when he began his ducking and diving routine, and Valenzuela hit him first right-handed and then switched his stick to hit him on the left. Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring were making up ground behind him. Then Day took Easy Goer inside Dansil when that one came out in front of him.
But Sunday Silence had not lost much momentum when he zigzagged, and he was still rolling when Easy Goer rallied to second place, only a head in front of Awe Inspiring.
Day said the rally came a little too short and a little too late.
“When I really started getting into him inside the three-sixteenths pole he came on enough to be second, but it wasn’t his performance. It wasn’t his race,” Day said.
Fourth-place Dansil drew praise from his jockey, Larry Snyder. “He ran hard the whole way. I was proud of him. He ran his heart out.”
Blue Grass Stakes winner Western Playboy, who had suffered a hock infection two weeks ago, finished last in the field of 15.
“He never got into the race,” said Western Playboy’s jockey, Randy Romero. “I don’t understand it. He didn’t come back sore or anything.”
Fans were clearly disappointed in Easy Goer. Some greeted him with catcalls when he returned for unsaddling.
“He choked again,” one fan hollered when Easy Goer was being led away.
But owners Whittingham, Ernest Gaillard and Arthur B. Hancock III were enjoying their colt’s victory to the fullest, especially because they had been overlooked during Derby week with all the attention paid Easy Goer.
“There’s just nothing like winning the Kentucky Derby, for a Kentuckian,” said Hancock, who had won the race in 1982 with Gato Del Sol.
“It’s more exciting than the first one,” said Whittingham, remembering Ferdinand, his first and only other winner, in 1986.
Whittingham and Sunday Silence stole the show when they upstaged the acclaimed Easy Goer, whom many thought would end an 11-year drought of Triple Crown winners. Yet Whittingham left the Derby crowd of 122,653 with the hope there still might be a Triple Crown winner this year.
“I think he has a very good chance to win the Triple Crown (of Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes). If ever a horse could go all the way, this one can,” said Whittingham. Sunday Silence paid $8.20, $3 and $3.60 in earning $574,200 to boost his bankroll to $982,000. The entry of Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring returned $2.60 and $3.40.

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