It was 25 years ago this spring. There hadn’t been a sweep of the Triple Crown in what then seemed to be an interminable 11 years. Racing fans had been spoiled by the Roaring Seventies when three horses swept the Crown and two others captured the first two legs. And on three other occasions, a horse won either the Derby and Belmont or Preakness and Belmont. So in eight of the 10 years, a horse captured two legs of the Triple Crown.
And only one year into the Eighties, in 1981, we had Pleasant Colony winning the Derby and Preakness. We then had to wait six years for Alysheba to come along and sweep the first two legs.
But 1989 was different. That year, we had two superstars competing in the Triple Crown, but the horse most everyone felt would capture all three races at the beginning of the year was not the one attempting the sweep. After all, Easy Goer was the 2-year-old champ owned and bred by Ogden Phipps, was the closest thing physically to Secretariat, and had run the fastest mile in history by a 3-year-old, winning the Gotham by 13 lengths in an astounding 1:32 2/5, one-fifth off Dr. Fager’s coveted world record.
Going into March, no one had ever heard of Sunday Silence, other than a handful of Californians who had seen the colt break his maiden the previous November by 10 lengths. But he was beaten in an allowance race in his next start by a D. Wayne Lukas upstart named Houston, who was thought to be the star that would emerge out of the Golden State.
If there was portent of things to come it was the fact that the Adonis-like Easy Goer was by Alydar, who was best known for coming along in the wrong year, playing the victim to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races the last time it was swept.
Trainer Shug McGaughey was smitten with Easy Goer the first time he saw him, but really felt he had something special when he watched him for the time with a set of horses. “He gave the impression he could gallop those horses to death,” McGaughey said.
While Easy Goer was placed upon a throne at an early age and justified all the adoration after the silver spoon was removed from his mouth, Sunday Silence was unwanted as a youngster and, unlike Easy Goer, appeared to come into the world with the proverbial black cloud over his head. Bred by Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds and purchased privately by Arthur Hancock, he was consigned to the Keeneland summer yearling sale with a $50,000 reserve. There was so little interest in the son of Halo, Hancock bought him back for a meager $17,000.
Hancock then tried to sell him twice as a 2-year-old in California but found no takers. He eventually convinced trainer Charlie Whittingham to buy half-interest in the colt for $25,000. Whittingham then sold half his interest to Dr. Ernest Gaillard for the same amount.
Sunday Silence also bore severe physical and mental scars from a horrifying incident at 2. After failing to sell at one of the 2-year-old sales, he was being shipped back to Kentucky when his van was involved in an accident after the driver suffered a heart attack. The van went off the road and flipped over. Sunday Silence was fortunate to escape with cuts and bruises and was treated at a veterinary clinic in Oklahoma before being shipped home. Back at the farm, he appeared uncoordinated and unbalanced, and it was feared he was a wobbler, but he eventually began returning to normal.
So, one could say that the early days of both colts were as different from each other as two childhoods could be.
It must have been Sunday’s Silence’s toughness that helped him overcome his adversity, because once on the racetrack, he was an absolute terror and just a nasty horse to be around. His exercise rider Pam Mabes said every trip aboard the colt was an adventure.
“He’s put me through some of the most hair-raising rides I’ve ever had,” she said. “He used to hit the track leaping and bucking, and he’d rear up easily. Charlie put some long two-mile gallops into him and that took some of the vinegar out of him. It didn’t surprise me when I heard about him surviving that van accident, because he’s so tough.”
As for Easy Goer, I was at Belmont Park to see him off to Kentucky, as he walked onto the van, along with his talented stablemate Awe Inspiring. The feeling of optimism was high in New York, as most people were convinced Easy Goer was embarking on a historic journey that would bring him back to Belmont Park racing’s newest hero and with a Triple Crown in his grasp. If he could get past the first two legs, nobody was going to beat him over his home track going a mile and a half.
Most people in Kentucky were surprised how confident Whittingham was in the days leading up to the Derby. Sunday Silence’s 11-length romp in the Santa Anita Derby in 1:47 3/5 made Easterners sit up and take notice that perhaps the Triple Crown was not going to be handed to Easy Goer as first thought.
As we are well aware, Sunday Silence took advantage of a muddy track and Easy Goer’s disdain for a wet Churchill surface, as he had demonstrated the year before when upset in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over a similar Churchill surface.
The Derby was an ugly race, with Sunday Silence running like a drunken sailor down the stretch and still winning, and Easy Goer just getting up for second over Awe Inspiring. The mile and a quarter was run in 2:05 over the deep track.
The Preakness, however, was just the opposite, and many still regard the stretch battle between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer as one of the greatest races of all time.
That brings us to the Belmont Stakes, with some Easterners abandoning Easy Goer and others disheartened over the two defeats and still believing Easy Goer was the better of the two horses. Californians were in all their glory, chiding the New York “snobs” and “crybabies” for their “East Coast bias.”
While all this was going on, the New York Racing Association, despite their disappointment at the turn of events, still had one heck of a attractive product to sell to the American public.
Earlier that March, Ed Siegenfeld, NYRA’s vice president of marketing, said, “If only we could have a horse going for the Triple Crown, everything would be perfect.”
Siegenfled,, like everyone else at NYRA, was convinced that horse was going to be Easy Goer, and that their idea of perfection was beautiful weather; fans pouring into HorseFair, the spectacular equine event being held at Belmont the past couple of years; a massive crowd for the races; and Easy Goer drawing off in the stretch with the crescendo building with every powerful stride.
Well, that’s just the way it happened. The final chapter of the Easy Goer story went exactly according to the script. But no one had counted on Whittingham and Sunday Silence doing a complete rewrite of the first two chapters.
So, NYRA had its Triple Crown horse, but instead of Easy Goer, their job was now to promote the possible coronation of this California invader who had knocked their hero off his pedestal.
By now, not only was a heated rivalry building on the track, but in the media as well. When one California columnist wrote that some New York reporters actually had tears in their eyes following the Derby, it caused quite an uproar back east.
Easy Goer’s idolaters claimed it was the track that beat their hero at Churchill Downs and that the tables would be turned at Pimlico. Things didn’t look good for Sunday Silence when the colt suffered a foot bruise a week before the Preakness, and Whittingham stated if he couldn’t work him the following day he would have withdraw. That’s when noted Kentucky veterinarian Alex Harthill flew to Pimlico to work on the colt’s foot, going into his stall and closing the top and bottom doors, something no one had ever seen before.
The next day, Sunday Silence turned in a sensational work and was right back in the Preakness picture. When Sunday Silence out-dueled Easy Goer in an epic stretch battle, the latter’s followers blamed jockey Pat Day for giving the colt a bad ride.
Easy Goer, who was plagued by terrible ankles his entire career, was least effective running on the turns, which happened to be Sunday Silence’s strength, and it was on the far turn at Pimlico that Sunday Silence got the better of Easy Goer and maintained his narrow advantage to the wire. Immediately after the race came the cries to replace Day, who had gained an advantage over Sunday Silence nearing the half-mile pole, only to let the Derby winner come back around him, putting Easy Goer down on the rail. The pair battled eyeball to eyeball every step of the way, with Sunday silence prevailing by a nose.
It was on to New York and a chance of redemption for Easy Goer, who no doubt was happy to be back home. While the media battles and the many critiques were causing a strain on McGaughey, Day, and even Whittingham, Ed Siegenfeld went about his business of promoting HorseFair, while executive director of media relations Steve Schwartz dealt with the onslaught of media requests.
Siegenfeld was loving every minute of it and felt people were taking the East vs. West rivalry too seriously. A week before the race, a striking ad for the Belmont Stakes began to appear in all the major newspapers, showing the photo finish of the Preakness and a quote from Charlie Whittingham predicting a Triple Crown sweep. A radio commercial was highlighted by Dave Johnson’s calls of the Derby and Preakness finishes.
“With the addition of HorseFair, it’s a three-ring circus going on, and I have to capitalize on that edge,” Siegenfeld said.
Meanwhile, Schwartz and his staff were trying to handle media requests from places they’d never seen before.
“Newspapers who normally send one guy are sending two or three,” Schwartz said. “I’m getting West Coast calls from people I’ve never heard of. I’ve received requests from Seattle and they have never sent anyone to cover the Belmont.”
In 1987, when Alysheba was trying for the Triple Crown, NYRA issued 1,100 media credentials. They were already up to 1,600 this year, and an auxiliary press box was set up on the third floor of the clubhouse. Schwartz also sent out postcards to some 900 TV and radio stations around the country, informing them of the availability of promotional news feeds.
“We don’t have to sell the race, because the Derby and Preakness have already done the work for us,” Schwartz said. “In publicity, they always say you sell the sizzle, not the steak. We’ve also benefited from all this East vs. West controversy.”
Several days before the race, the local newspapers began to step up their coverage. The New York Daily News had an eight-page pullout section on the Belmont, and the New York Post also had extensive coverage.
“We’ve definitely put more emphasis on horse racing the last three months, “ said Post sports editor Bob Decker. “I think having a California horse trying for the Triple Crown is good for the sport because pride is at stake.”
Post columnist Ray Kerrison said, “I’ve noticed that this year’s Triple Crown has generated a lot more interest from non-racing people. It just seems that everyone is talking about these two horses.”
Meanwhile, on the backstretch, the strain of the Belmont was taking its toll on Whittingham and McGaughey, whose wife at the time, Mary Jane, was expecting to give birth at anytime. By Belmont day, Whittingham, then 76, had had enough of the Triple Crown,
As he looked at a group of people congregating at the barn, he commented, “I think the day of the race, they should keep everyone out of here. All they can do is worry your horse. I’ll bet they’re not down there bothering Shug’s horse. They ask the same questions day after day.”
In addition to losing patience with visitors and questions from the press, Whittingham also was losing his battle with Sunday Silence, who was making a habit of sending his trainer to the first aid room. During his stay at Belmont, Sunday Silence managed to bite Whittingham on the leg, bite him on the finger, and kick him in the head. The last incident occurred when the colt became spooked by a camera crew waiting for him at the entrance to the track leading from the paddock. As Sunday Silence emerged from the tunnel, with Whittingham walking alongside, he spotted the cameras and reared up. As he came down, he clipped his trainer on the head. Pam Mabes looked back to see if he was OK and asked what to do, and Whittingham waved to her to continue on to the track and go about her business as usual.
A quick trip to the first aid room, where he had become a regular visitor, resulted only in an application of iodine, which stood out on Whittingham’s bald head. All he would say of the incident was “I zigged when I should have zagged.”
That night, every TV news telecast showed the incident, one of them using the sound of broken glass as Sunday Silence’s foot came down on Whittingham’s head.
Whittingham also had been upset over a published report about possible covert activities in Sunday Silence’s stall at Pimlico when Harthill worked on the colt behind closed doors. The day before the Belmont, a torrential rain fell on Belmont, turning the track sloppy, the last thing McGaughey and the Phipps family wanted to see. The morning of the race, Whittingham became irate when NYRA decided to close the track for training to allow the maintenance crew to get an early start drying out the track. There was no doubt this unusual move favored Easy Goer. By 9 o’clock the track was already fast or close to it.
“Charlie’s starting to run to the end of his tether,” Mabes said. “We had people come in the barn asking, ‘Is Silent Sunday here?’ You’d be surprised how many people want to give him peppermints or pet him. Before you can keep them away, they’re at his stall looking in. Let’s just say we’re looking forward to getting back home.”
Things weren’t much better over at McGaughey’s barn. Many members of Easy Goer’s once loyal legion had gone over the hill, deserting their hero. And McGaughey was receiving a great deal of mail, a good portion of it negative.
“People have written me letters criticizing Pat Day, telling me to change jockeys or to put blinkers on the horse or to put him on the lead,” McGaughey said. “Only two inches separated these two horses in the Preakness, and everybody who jumped off Easy Goer’s bandwagon and went to Sunday Silence is criticizing Pat’s ride. To tell you the truth, I haven’t read a newspaper in four or five days. I actually heard that someone wrote I was going to use Easy Goer as a rabbit for Awe Inspiring.
“I enjoy talking to the press. I’m a big racing fan and the game has been good to me. If I wrap a canvas around myself, it’s not going to help our game. We’re worn out, truthfully. The last six months have hurt our overall stable. Even with the baby coming, Easy Goer and the Triple Crown have been the center of my attention all spring. We’re glad it’s finally over.”
As for Belmont day, nearly 65,000 fans showed up on a glorious afternoon. HorseFair was a rousing success. “Sunday Silence” and “Easy Goer” T-shirts were a sellout, with hundreds of back orders taken. In some ways it was everything NYRA had hoped for.
Following Easy Goer’s resounding eight-length victory, the colt quietly grazed next door at John Veitch’s barn. Holding the shank was assistant trainer David Carroll, who would go on to become a top trainer himself.
No one was back there with the horse, other than two or three visitors, which gave one a feeling of tranquility, like the calmness following a storm. As Easy Goer continued to graze, his golden chestnut coat glimmering in the evening sun, one could almost hear the thunderous roar from the crowd off in the distance. New Yorkers had their hero back.