Silence Roars Once More - 11/13/1989
Courtesy of Sports Illustrated. By William Nack
In the race for Horse of the Year, Sunday Silence outran Easy Goer in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Chris McCarron, the reins taut in his hands, sat like a statue on the back of Sunday Silence, rocking only slightly as he bent forward in the saddle and waited for Easy Goer. McCarron was not the only one waiting for Easy Goer at 5:37 p.m. last Saturday. At that moment the field of eight horses had straightened out along the backstretch at Gulfstream Park and had begun racing through the sixth furlong of the 10-furlong Breeders' Cup Classic, looking like a cavalry troop racing cross-country, stretched some 20 lengths along the track. This was precisely what everyone in racing had long been waiting for: It was a showdown between America's two best horses, with the title of Horse of the Year at stake, all wrapped in a race designed specifically to reveal the fastest, finest racehorse in the land.
Now, suddenly, the chestnut Easy Goer was gaining speed on the outside. As the odds-on favorite surged forward, the crowd of 51,342, strangely subdued through the first half mile of the race, began to quicken and sent up loud cries: "There he goes!" It was thus, in the dimming light of a late Florida afternoon, that arguably the most dramatic moments of the decade in racing began.
Sunday Silence was lying third, behind front-running Slew City Slew and Blushing John. McCarron, who knew that Easy Goer would be coming any time now, looked up as they raced toward the far turn. Slew was out there winging it under jockey Gary Stevens, on his way to racing six furlongs in a dashing 1:10[2/5], and had two lengths on Blushing John, with Angel Cordero Jr. hanging on. Easy Goer had been lying sixth around the first turn and had appeared to be struggling during the first three furlongs, striding as if climbing with his front legs, in the way of a horse who doesn't fancy the surface. But once the Goer straightened out on the back-stretch, he settled into his long, rhythmic stride.
Easy Goer's jockey, Pat Day, did nothing, letting the colt settle on his own. "When we turned into the back side, the colt really leveled off and dragged me into contention," Day said.
Picking up speed, Easy Goer swept into fifth position down the backstretch, and McCarron was now listening for him on his outside. "I heard him coming at the half-mile pole," McCarron said. "I was kind of expecting him. So I glanced over and saw a chestnut—I assumed it was Easy Goer."
It was. Day figured he was in a perfect spot, ready to pounce. Heading for the far turn he had an armful of horse under him, and there were still 900 yards to run. He figured he could follow right on the tail of Sunday Silence until the final 400 yards and then blow past him. He figured Easy Goer could dominate Sunday Silence as he had in the Belmont Stakes five months before, when the Goer had spoiled the black colt's chance to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown. In the Kentucky Derby on May 6, Silence had whipped Easy Goer by 2½ lengths; he outgunned him again in the Preakness two weeks later, winning by a flared nostril. Then Easy Goer crushed his rival in the Belmont, winning by eight lengths and, as things turned out, setting up this final showdown of '89 in the much anticipated Classic.
But as the horses approached the far turn at Gulfstream, McCarron had more horse than Day realized. Hearing Easy Goer moving up on his right, McCarron thrust his hands forward a notch, and Sunday Silence picked up the beat at once, edging away from his pursuer on the bend. "When Chris called on Sunday Silence then, he spurted away from us," said Day. "I was hoping we could go with him, but when he moved away, we didn't follow. I pushed and tapped my horse and chirped to him, but he was slow finding his stride."
Mistakenly, McCarron thought that he had finished off Easy Goer and sensed that this richest horse race in the world, with a winner's purse of $1.35 million, was his. Just as mistakenly, Cordero was thinking he was riding the winner as he sent Blushing John after Slew City Slew and swallowed the leader in a few quick gulps of ground past the three-eighths pole.
"I thought I was going to win it when I passed that horse," said Cordero. "I hadn't even asked him to run. It was so easy."
Stevens, aboard Slew, thought too that Cordero had won his first Breeders' Cup Classic. "When Blushing John hooked me, I looked over and saw him and thought, Here comes Angel! He's gonna win it. He had a real good hold of his horse."
Two strides later, as Cordero rushed away from him, Stevens glanced over again and there was Sunday Silence, striding boldly against the bit for McCarron. "He passes me too, chasing Angel," said Stevens. "Then I look over again, and here comes Pat on Easy Goer. He was riding that horse like hell."
By now the grandstand and the jerry-built bleachers erected to accommodate the crowds were vibrating in the din as the horses rounded the final turn. Blushing John, who was nearly 22-1, was still feeling like a winner to Cordero. But as he peeked over his right shoulder, Cordero saw that distinctive black head with the little white kite on the forehead. Cordero did a double take. "I thought. Oh, no! Here's the big little horse. All of a sudden Sunday Silence was right there next to me."
Just behind the leaders, Day had gone to the whip on the turn and was driving Easy Goer forward. But the horse was having trouble staying in the chase, a consequence perhaps of his recent racing schedule. Trainer Shug McGaughey ran Easy Goer four times between the Belmont and the Classic, first winning the 1⅛-mile Whitney and the 1¼-mile Travers at Saratoga and then the 1¼-mile Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park. At the time of the Aug. 19 Travers, McGaughey had shown little inclination to run Easy Goer in the 1½-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 7 at Belmont. Sometime after the Sept. 16 Woodward, however, he changed his mind.
This came as no surprise. After all, Easy Goer's owner, Ogden Phipps, is a former chairman of The Jockey Club, after which the race is named; his son, Ogden Mills Phipps, is the chairman today. Over the past few years, faced with competition from the richer Breeders' Cup Classic, the Gold Cup's prestige has waned, and it certainly would have been a further blow to its reputation had Phipps chosen to pass up the race with his champion horse.
In the end, Easy Goer beat six ordinary horses in the Gold Cup, winning by four lengths and earning $659,400 for his exertions, but that victory may have exacted a dear price. It meant that Easy Goer would be coming to the 10-furlong Classic off the 12-furlong Gold Cup—a potentially tricky parlay for a trainer, because the longer race can have the dangerous effect of dulling the colt's natural speed, of blunting the quickness that he might need in the shorter race.
In contrast, trainer Charlie Whittingham had run Sunday Silence only twice in the five months since the Belmont, both times over a 1¼-mile distance—in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood, where he finished second, and two months later in the Sept. 24 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, which he won by six. Time and again, the 76-year-old Whittingham has shown that there is no trainer more adept than he at preparing a horse for a single goal over an extended period of time. In the week before Breeders' Cup Day, he was plainly buoyed by what he perceived to be his advantages going into the Classic.
"My colt will win," Whittingham said on the eve of the Classic. "He's fresher than Easy Goer, he's quicker, and I know from experience that the longer races are harder on a horse than the shorter ones. Easy Goer just had a long one. You don't get over them so easy."
Whatever the reasons, when McCarron put his hands forward and Sunday Silence dashed away from Easy Goer into the turn, there was no denying Whittingham's point that Easy Goer's chances in the Breeders' Cup Classic—and hence his bid to be voted Horse of the Year—may have been compromised by his efforts in the Gold Cup. Turning for home, Sunday Silence had to beat only Blushing John and Cordero, who screamed at his mount and pumped on him as Sunday Silence drew alongside. "Come on, Johnny!" he shouted. "Go on with it, Johnny!"
For all of Cordero's whooping and hollering, Blushing John could not hold on. From the quarter pole to the stretch, Sunday Silence whittled into his lead, with McCarron tapping his colt lightly on his shoulder, pushing on him and waving the stick in front of his left eye. Sunday Silence has never responded well to the whip, and Whittingham had instructed his jockey accordingly. "Charlie said to use the stick only as a last resort," McCarron said.
He did not use it even then, despite the fury of the final drive. At the eighth pole, with 220 yards to the wire, Sunday Silence was pinning his ears as he pulled away from Blushing John and took off for the wire in the gathering dusk. It was so dark by the time they ran the Classic, the final event on the seven-race Breeders' Cup card, that Gulfstream officials had turned on the lights to illuminate the wire for the photo finish camera. As Silence raced for the wire, the crowd grew frantic, the noise deafening.
Out of this eerie twilight, on the outside, Easy Goer emerged to make a last, desperate run at Sunday Silence through the final 110 yards. Cordero, still hoping for second, saw Easy Goer first. "He was like a giant swooping down on me," said Cordero. "But he was going after Sunday Silence, and I just watched them run to the lights at the wire. A great race!"
McCarron couldn't believe what he saw in those final yards. "I felt I had the race won," he said, "and then I saw Easy Goer again. I thought I'd put him away leaving the half-mile pole. I thought. Here he comes again! But I didn't hit my horse. I just kept shaking the stick."
Easy Goer was two lengths back, but he was running at Sunday Silence in long, devouring jumps. "He finally found his stride," Day said. "I thought we could catch him. I never gave up on him." He was a length behind with 30 yards to go. Then half a length. With 10 yards to go, Easy Goer was closing with a rush, and a good many of the bettors in the place were leaning toward the wire with him, like so many palm trees bending in the wind. But in the final jump, under the yellow beam shining across the track, Easy Goer fell a neck short. The winning time of 2:00[1/5] represented an extremely fast performance on this track.
It was a tremendous horse race. Up in the box seats, Arthur Hancock, one of the three owners of Sunday Silence, knelt in front of his seat in a prayerful pose with his hands clasped over the railing, then rose to embrace his wife, Staci. Sunday Silence was born and raised at the Hancocks' Stone Farm in Paris, Ky., and on a day dedicated to the business of thoroughbred breeding, Hancock was a winner in more ways than one: He now not only owns half of a Horse of the Year, but he also stands the colt's sire, Halo, at Stone Farm. The way his year is going, Halo could end up as the nation's leading sire in money won by his offspring, a much-coveted achievement for a farm in the Blue Grass.
Ultimately, though, this was Whittingham's hour. Since those stunning defeats in the Belmont and the Swaps, he meticulously charted his plan to bring the colt to the Breeders' Cup Classic. After the victory, horseplayers and horsemen alike feted him. From the second-floor balcony of the clubhouse, bettors called and chanted his name. He waved to them and winked at a friend. "If I ran for governor of Florida now, I'd probably get elected," he said. On his way back to the barn to see his weary colt, he spotted trainer John Gosden.
"We caught him, John!" Whittingham yelled.
"You caught him just right," Gosden said. Then, speaking for all his fellow horsemen, Gosden added, "Brilliant stuff."
Loud and Clear - 10/2/1989
Courtesy of Sports Illustrated. By Demmie Stathopolos
Sunday Silence belied his name in the Super Derby. Next : Easy Goer once more.
When trainer Charlie Whittingham last week shipped Sunday Silence 1,400 miles from Arcadia, Calif., to Bossier City, La., for Sunday's $1 million Super Derby, it wasn't for the money. Winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, had helped increase his bank balance to $2.6 million. Trouble was, Sunday Silence hadn't won a race since May 20. So what the 3-year-old son of Halo needed now was a little respect. Hard to believe, but Sunday Silence had become the Rodney Dangerfield of horse racing.
The decline began with the Belmont Stakes in June, when Easy Goer, runner-up in both the Derby and Preakness, whipped Sunday Silence by eight lengths. Perhaps worse, he also lost his next race, the 1 1/4-mile Swaps at Hollywood Park in July, to a good but not great 3-year-old named Prized. Meanwhile, Easy Goer was ripping off three straight stakes wins—the Whitney, the Travers and the Woodward—and emerging as the heavy favorite for Horse of the Year. So, whatever happened to what's-his-name, the Derby winner?
The 76-year-old Whittingham was understandably peeved that his star had all but been dismissed even before the balloting began, and he blamed it not on Sunday Silence but on the Eastern media. "Hell, those New Yorkers still don't think Easy Goer got beat in the Derby and Preakness," he said before the Super Derby. "They aren't sure. They probably keep running them tapes over and over again."
Whittingham did allow that, to be Horse of the Year, Sunday Silence would have to win the 1 1/4-mile Super Derby at Louisiana Downs and go on to beat Easy Goer in the 1 1/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Gulfstream Park in Florida. The first part was a snap. Sunday Silence was sent off the heavy 2-5 favorite in the field of eight in the Super Derby, and he finished six lengths ahead of Big Earl, a local horse. Awe Inspiring, Easy Goer's stablemate and the winner of the Jersey and American derbies, was just behind in third.
The race was everything Whittingham had hoped for. Jockey Pat Valenzuela settled Sunday Silence on the rail in fifth place going into the first turn and then moved him up to fourth at the half-mile mark. There he appeared to be boxed in, but Valenzuela found daylight, split two horses, surged to the lead before the three-quarter mark and never looked back. "I had no use for the whip today," said Valenzuela. "He was running so well I never even had to uncock it. I hand-rode him all the way to the wire."
As Whittingham headed for the winner's circle, a fan yelled, "Bring on Easy Goer!" The elated Whittingham nodded and replied, "We're ready." Of course, he had felt ready all along. He never lost confidence in Sunday Silence. He blamed the poor performance in the Swaps—Sunday Silence was about five lengths in front turning for home—on his colt's keen vision. "He jumped when he noticed the marks left on the track by the starting gate," said Whittingham, "and when Valenzuela gave him a whack to get him back on course, he ducked again. He sees everything." But by that time, Prized had taken the lead. Sunday Silence got back in gear but could finish only second, by three-quarters of a length.
After that race Whittingham put a shadow roll on Sunday Silence for the first time. The effects of visual stimulus on the colt were evident two days before the Super Derby, as he stood in his stall checking out the action on nearby Interstate 20, his head swinging back and forth. "He's been like this all week," said Whittingham. "He's counting the cars." Earlier, Sunday Silence had become so excited by the sight of visitors standing outside his barn that he banged his head against the top of the stall, nicking his forehead in two places. "He was his old wild self again," said Pam Mabes, his exercise rider. "He was rearing and bucking and feeling good when I galloped him this morning."
This was the 10th running of the Super Derby, a race designed to attract national attention to little Louisiana Downs. The event was originally billed as "the fourth leg of the Triple Crown," a chance for late-blooming 3-year-olds to show their stuff and win big money. It has, in fact, been elevated to Grade I status and has attracted some outstanding talent: Temperence Hill, Alysheba, Sunny's Halo and Gate Dancer are all former winners of the event.
Sunday Silence's cruise-control victory was so impressive that Shug McGaughey, Easy Goer's trainer, who attended the race, said afterward, "Looks like I'd better have Easy Goer right on Breeders' Cup Day. If both horses get there the right way, it's going to be quite a race."
"I think Sunday Silence can beat any horse running if things go his way," said Whittingham. "He's as good as Easy Goer. As good a horse as I've got, maybe the best I've ever had. And I've had a lot of good ones." Whittingham then announced that the colt would not race again before the Breeders' Cup.
"It's almost sweeter to come back," said Sunday Silence's part-owner Arthur Boyd Hancock. "To be beaten twice and then come back to win—it vindicates a horse." Then he paused for a moment. "I hope he got his respect back today. In my mind, he did."
Nose to Nose - 5/29/1989
Courtesy of Sports Illustrated. By Demmie Stathoplos
In a jewel of a dual at the Preakness, Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer by a snout.
Arthur Hancock stood on a chair in his box at Pimlico Race Course last Saturday afternoon, transfixed by the sight of his colt Sunday Silence, the Kentucky Derby winner, looming outside Derby runner-up Easy Goer on the turn for home. The outcome of the 114th running of the Preakness Stakes would be decided over the next 440 yards. As the two colts dueled down the stretch, first Sunday Silence and then Easy Goer moved ahead. They ran side by side, eyeball to eyeball, so close they brushed each other gently again and again. They even changed leads—switching from left leg to right—in unison, the black colt on the outside, the chestnut on the inside. The two jockeys, Pat Valenzuela on Sunday Silence and Pat Day on Easy Goer, went to their whips with opposite hands, furiously and rhythmically thrashing their mounts as they drove toward the wire.
Six jumps from the finish, Valenzuela put his whip away; a stride later, so did Day, and they hand-rode their colts home. At the wire, Sunday Silence seemed to be a nose ahead, but the photo-finish light flashed on the tote board.
A bewildered Hancock, ashen-faced and trembling, called out in a voice mixed with hope and dread, "Did we win? Did we win? What happened?"
The people around him shouted, "You won it! You won it!" But Hancock wasn't convinced. "I don't know if I won it," he said, shaking his head. "I just don't know."
Sunday Silence's trainer, Charlie Whittingham, had no doubts. The second the horses hit the wire, he was on his feet and heading for the winner's circle. Easy Goer's trainer, Shug McGaughey, was also certain and threw down his program in disgust.
But Hancock didn't move. Finally, when the photo of the finish appeared on the infield TV screen and confirmed that Sunday Silence had won by a nose, Hancock began to work his way through the crowd. As he reached the top of the stairs leading to ground level, the OBJECTION light flashed. Day had claimed interference by Sunday Silence just before the turn for home; the stewards would have to make a ruling. Hancock, unsure of what to do, paused for a minute, then headed for the winner's circle. At 5:47 p.m., 10 minutes after the race had ended, the OFFICIAL light was finally lit, and the record crowd of 90,145 roared. Sunday Silence had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and Hancock, 46, the somewhat eccentric owner of Stone Farm near Paris, Ky., began somewhat eccentrically to recite lines from a poem by William Cullen Bryant:
Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;
Th' eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,
And dies among his worshippers.
Puzzled onlookers asked one another what he was talking about. But then, people had been asking questions about Sunday Silence all week. He had bruised his right front foot on May 13, the result of either a stone or a misplaced nail in his shoe. A blacksmith and a veterinarian had been summoned from Kentucky to treat the horse. The injury and 13 straight days of rain in Baltimore had caused the colt to miss two workouts the week of the race, a major interruption of his training. There had been so much uncertainty about Sunday Silence's health and his slow winning time in the Kentucky Derby that the bettors had sent him off as the 2-1 second choice.
The odds-on favorite was Easy Goer, who had a few questions to answer himself. Before the Derby two weeks earlier, where he had also been the favorite, Easy Goer had been talked about as the second coming of Secretariat. But he failed to fire on the muddy Churchill Downs track and finished 2 1/2 lengths behind Sunday Silence. It might have been that Easy Goer didn't care for the off track or that he was running on the anti-inflammatory Butazolidin. (The only other time he used Bute was last November in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where the colt also finished second on an off track at Churchill Downs.) All week, McGaughey had been asked to explain Easy Goer's Derby loss. Was it the off track? The Bute? Something else? "I don't have an answer," said McGaughey, who added that Easy Goer definitely would not be on the drug for the Preakness.
Saturday dawned hot and sunny, and the newly resurfaced track at Pimlico was playing fast. When the gates opened for the Preakness at 5:35 p.m., Easy Goer broke slowly, and Sunday Silence was bumped by 33-1 shot Northern Wolf, who raced to the front just ahead of Houston. At the half-mile mark Houston surged to the lead, with Sunday Silence in third place and Easy Goer in fifth. Then Day kicked Easy Goer into high gear and made a monster move on the outside, passing Houston and pinching off Sunday Silence to grab the lead after three quarters of a mile. It appeared to be the decisive move of the race, as Houston faded and Sunday Silence had to be checked, losing momentum. But Valenzuela took his horse outside and put on a move of his own, surging to catch Easy Goer on the turn. The two colts rounded for home together and began a stretch duel that will be talked about for years. They crossed the finish line a scant nose apart in 1:53[4/5] for the 1[3/16]-mile distance, the third fastest Preakness in history.
Valenzuela was euphoric in the winner's circle. "The stretch run was the battle of the century!" he whooped. "It's the ultimate, it's the biggest high in my life! It's the best race in the history of horse racing, as far as I'm concerned."
A few moments later Hancock caught up with his jockey, and they headed through the clubhouse together on their way to the press box. It was a moment of vindication for both of them. For months, racing reporters in the East had concentrated so much attention on Easy Goer that Sunday Silence, who had raced almost exclusively on the West Coast, seemed to catch them off guard at the Derby. The continental divide was so sharp for the Preakness that bettors watching the race broadcast at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles installed Sunday Silence at odds of 6-5, while bettors watching at Belmont in New York had him as a long shot 3-1, an unusually wide disparity. As he met the press after the race, the delighted Hancock took advantage of the moment to recite something new, this time from Aretha Franklin: "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Found out what it means to me...."
Whittingham, meanwhile, was looking toward the Belmont Stakes on June 10 and the prospect of his first Triple Crown winner. Will the Belmont be another match race? he was asked. "I hope so," he replied. "I think Sunday Silence will run a mile and a half, because he's got that long, easy way of running, and he's got a lot of that Mahmoud blood, and that line can run forever."
It is likely to be not only a match race, but also Affirmed-Alydar redux. In 1978 those two great horses—Affirmed from the West and Alydar from the East—galvanized the world with their duels in the Triple Crown races, finishing one-two, Affirmed-Alydar, in all three. Easy Goer is a son of Alydar, and so far he seems to be following in his father's footsteps. That irony is not lost on McGaughey. "I guess I'm going to start hearing a whole lot of Affirmed-Alydar talk," he said as he stood outside his barn after the Preakness. "In the Belmont, you've got a horse that's going to try and win the Triple Crown. And a horse that's going to try to stop him."
Sunday Silence Captures Derby - 5/7/1989
Courtesy of the Boston Globe. By Ron Indrisano
Charlie Whittingham was right.
Sunday Silence and rider Pat Valenzuela made the 76-year-old trainer look like a prophet as he captured the 115th running of the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths over the odds-on favorite Easy Goer with Awe Inspiring, Easy Goer's stablemate, a head farther back in third.
All week the trainer of Sunday Silence insisted his West Coast champion deserved equal billing with Easy Goer, the East Coast champion who has been billed as a superhorse. Now Sunday Silence gets top billing.
The gods smiled on Whittingham. Sunday Silence needed a muddy track and a bad trip for Easy Goer and Pat Day to turn the tables and he got both. The Churchill Downs strip was muddy for the first time since Tim Tam won in 1958 and the final running time of 2:05 was identical to Tim Tam's.
Sunday Silence, a son of Halo, relishes mud; Easy Goer does not. Mud was the main reason Easy Goer lost the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year.
Also, as predicted, equine stiffs who did not belong in the Derby got in the way in the 15-horse field.
Northern Wolf, the only horse left in the auxiliary gate after Notation was scratched and Wind Splitter moved into the main gate, came over and tightened up Easy Goer in the front stretch costing Easy Goer his action.
Easy Goer recovered from the Wolf attack and stalked Sunday Silence from the outside but Day lost contact with Valenzuela around the far turn. After that, Easy Goer was all out and under a heavy whip to drive up between horses from sixth place at the eight-pole and get the place over his entrymate and Craig Perret.
Sunday Silence, a 3-1 second choice, paid $8.20, $3.00 and $3.60. Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring, at 4-5, returned $2.60 and $3.40 to show. The show price was a blow to the win bettors who would have received only 20 cents more at $3.60. The exacta was worth $15.20. Churchill Downs does not have trifectas.
Houston, as expected, put on a show of speed past the grandstand the first time but he collapsed under Laffit Pincay after a mile, winding up eighth at 5-1. For the record, the fractions Houston set were :23, :46 2/5, 1:11 2/5 and 1:37 4/5. After trainer D. Wayne Lukas' horse gave up, the only horses who mattered were Sunday Silence and the entry trained by Shug McGaughey. And Sunday Silence, who ran through the stretch like a drunk walking over a rope bridge, was just too good in the mud.
"He's a good horse, he trained good and I thought his record was just as good as Easy Goer's," said Whittingham. "He won the Santa Anita Derby easy and they were a tougher bunch of horses than they have in the East.
"The race came up perfect for us. It couldn't have been better. The track was off and he doesn't mind an off track. It turned out the way we thought it would and I want to thank everybody."
Whittingham, who is considered the greatest trainer ever to race on the West Coast, won his first Derby in 1986 with Ferdinand. "This one is more exciting than the first one," he said.
Valenzuela explained Sunday Silence's erratic path.
"He shied from the crowd," said Valenzuela. "I hit him righthanded and he began luggin in. This is the biggest crowd that there is in racing (yesterday's attendence was 122,653, held down by a record low Derby temperature of 44 degrees). If it wasn't for the big crowd he would have really finished and he would have won by more."
And the Last Shall Be First - 5/10/1982
Courtesy of Sports Illustrated. By William Nack.
After trailing early in the Kentucky Derby, Gato del Sol shifted into high and thundered to the line ahead of 18 competitors
Trainer Eddie Gregson was walking 10 feet behind his Kentucky Derby horse, Gato del Sol, when they emerged from the quiet of the stable area at Churchill Downs and began that long trek around the clubhouse turn toward the saddling paddock. There were 141,009 people packed into the Downs last Saturday afternoon—a warm, bright day in Louisville—and thousands lined the clubhouse turn, a few yelling at Gregson as the colt strode by: "What's the name of your horse?" And "Do you like him?"
Gato del Sol's sire, Cougar II, the champion grass horse of 1972, had been poised and unflappable, and he passed these characteristics on, but now the colt was coming to his toes, doing a nervous little waltz, and sweat streaked his flanks. Gregson's face was strained. This was his first Kentucky Derby, a mile and a quarter for which he had been judiciously pointing his horse for weeks, and Gato del Sol was in a sweat before he even got to the paddock.
Gregson glanced at the crowded grandstand. "It's amazing," he said. "I schooled this horse in the paddock, but you could school a horse every day and not re-create this. You have to have a horse physically fit to run this far in May and mentally ready to go through it. To win, it's like climbing Mount Everest."
Thirty minutes later, of course, the 43-year-old Gregson found himself at the summit, for win the Derby he did. After finally settling down in the paddock and handling the raucous post parade like old Cougar himself, Gato del Sol galloped leisurely through the first part of the race with all the urgency of a kid going to school. At the end of the first half-mile, he and jockey Eddie Delahoussaye still trailed in the 19-horse field and were some 16 lengths behind the leader. Since definitive charts of the Derby were introduced in 1903, no winner had come from so far back. But the colt began picking up horses as he pleased down the back-stretch and then, rounding the far turn, bounded from 16th place to fourth in a single quarter-mile. He won his Derby right there. Outrunning Laser Light, an 18-1 shot, and Reinvested to the wire, Gato del Sol won the race—and the $428,850 first money—by 2½ lengths.
"A trainer fantasizes about this," Gregson said. "It just bowls you over. Twenty or 30 years from now, it will make for a nice evening around the fire."
Gato del Sol paid $44.40 to win to the gambling clientele who preferred him, among them Arthur Hancock III, who was down for $100. He went dry-mouthed into the winner's circle, trying to wet his lips. "I still don't believe it," said the Kentucky breeder, who co-owns Gato del Sol with Leone J. Peters, a New York real estate tycoon. "Is it official? Has it been declared official yet? I can't believe we did it. It's like a dream. My dad would sure be proud, I know that."
It was thus that a neatly balanced gray colt, named in memory of a tan-colored cat who used to sleep in the morning sun, won the 108th Kentucky Derby at 21-1 for a trainer who was once a Hollywood actor, since reformed; a co-owner who came of age as the maverick son of the greatest thoroughbred breeder in American history; and a Cajun jockey who broke his maiden at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La.
Arthur Hancock came to this Derby representing the fourth generation of Hancocks to breed thoroughbreds. But until last Saturday no Hancock had ever owned the winner. Hancock's father, the late A.B. (Bull) Hancock, is regarded by many as America's most influential horse breeder. He was the man who turned Claiborne Farm, outside Lexington, into a showcase of the bloodstock business. Horses Bull Hancock imported and ideas he espoused would produce Derby winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid, among others.
No one coveted the Derby more than Bull. "I saw how much Daddy wanted to win it," says Arthur, 39, Bull's oldest son. "We talked about it a lot. He'd plan a mating with Derby breeding, sire and dam, and then he'd get a filly or something. He had some bad luck."
Bull's best colt, Drone, was undefeated and training for the Florida Derby in 1969 when he broke down. Still, Bull almost won the Derby that year, when Dike got beat a neck and a half-length by Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters. But Bull would tell you that finishing third was no cigar. He died in 1972, his dream unfulfilled.
Arthur and his younger brother, Seth, ran Claiborne jointly for a few months after Bull's death. "Then the executors decided Seth would make a better president," Arthur says. "He was married, I was single then. He was more serious than I was. I like to shake out the straw in my stall in my own way. Seth was the right man for the job. He still is. I sort of got fired, really. I said, 'Well, I'll see what I can do with my own life.' "
Arthur Hancock established Stone Farm down the road from Claiborne and built it from nothing to what it is today—a 2,500-acre spread with 210 broodmares and nine stallions, including the 1976 Kentucky Derby winner, Bold Forbes, and Cougar II. One of his earliest backers was Peters, with whom he owns 30 mares. In fact, together they bred Gato del Sol. The colt's pedigree wasn't fashionable enough to get him into the posh summer sale at Keeneland in 1980. Nor did he promise to bring a big price in the fall sale. "He'd have probably brought $25,000, $30,000," Hancock says. "We didn't want to sell him for that. So we kept him."
Hancock thought of the name, which means cat of the sun in Spanish. "I had a cat at the farm that would sit by the barn in the morning sun," he says. "That image always stuck in my mind. Cougar is a cat, and the mare was named Peacefully. We named the colt in Spanish because Cougar II was from Chile."
When Gato del Sol was 2, Hancock and Peters sent him to Gregson, who came to the racing business by way of his family's breeding farm in Southern California, called Conejo Ranch. One of the residents there was Determine, winner of the 1954 Kentucky Derby. Gregson attended Stanford, where he eventually got a degree in Eastern European history, and for a while he considered studying law. During his freshman year he dropped out of Stanford briefly to go to Hollywood and try to get in the movies. Under contract to Warner Bros., Gregson appeared in one film, The Naked and the Dead, playing the part of a soldier who is killed by a snake. He then moved over to Twentieth Century-Fox, but the studio let him go after six months. "They gave up on me," Gregson says. He did some summer stock, kicking around looking for work, then went back to school. "I couldn't act," he says. Once out of college, he also decided against studying law.
Gregson instead went to work in a cattle feed lot in California as a cowboy, but he eventually returned to the horses, his first love. He started training in 1968, and it has been his life ever since then. Gato del Sol had his moments as a 2-year-old—he won only two of eight races as a juvenile, but one was the Del Mar Futurity—and he finished the year with earnings of $220,828. Gregson had seen Cougar II win in California, and he was struck by the similarities between father and son.
"Gato del Sol has the same runnning style, the same high action in front," Gregson says. "This horse also has the most beautiful eyes in the world."
More to the point, the colt appeared to have inherited from his sire the capacity to go a mile and a quarter. Not that Gato del Sol was any world beater in his four previous races this year. After finishing third in the first, at Santa Anita on Feb. 25, beaten 3¼ lengths in a sprint, he lost by just a neck in the 1[1/16]-mile San Felipe Handicap, closing ground through the stretch. Under the circumstances, it was a sharp performance.
"He stumbled at the start and sprung a shoe," Gregson says. Advance Man hung on to win. Two weeks later, in the 1⅛-mile Santa Anita Derby, Gato del Sol again made up ground through the lane, but wound up fourth, beaten 3¼ lengths by Muttering. Gregson wasn't happy. "It was a disappointing race," he says. "He dropped back and didn't kick in like he does. And he had to go around horses."
But the colt was Derby bound, with a stop at Keeneland for his final prep in the Blue Grass Stakes. With Gregson's eye on the Derby nine days later, a prep is precisely what the nine-furlong Blue Grass proved to be. Gato del Sol finished second, 5½ lengths behind Linkage, but Gregson liked the race. "Linkage had it all his own way," he says, "and my horse wasn't trained to be his fittest for that race. I wanted something left."
In his final work on Thursday, two days before the Derby, Gregson caught him a half-mile in 49[3/5], with a last quarter in 24 seconds. Perfect, the trainer figured. Jockey Bill Shoemaker, in town to ride Star Gallant in the Derby, told Arthur Hancock that Gato del Sol would win it. "He's probably the only horse in the race who can go a mile and a quarter," said Shoemaker, who was Cougar II's regular rider.
This had certainly become the ideal year to have a 3-year-old sound of limb and with some ability who wanted to go that far. In the two weeks leading up to the Derby, the prohibitive favorite, Timely Writer, was stricken with a stomach ailment and it took emergency surgery to save his life. When Linkage jumped up and won the Blue Grass, he appeared to be the horse to beat, but his Maryland-based trainer, Henry Clark, resisted all entreaties to run in the Derby and shipped the horse to Maryland for the Preakness. (But Gato del Sol won't be there, the distance being too short and the turns too tight to suit him.) That made Hostage, the well-bred winner of the Arkansas Derby, seem particularly formidable. On the Monday before the Kentucky Derby, however, Hostage broke down during a workout at the Downs and was retired. The result of this was that the field, expected to be 15 horses, swelled to 20, the maximum allowable under the rules. Nineteen started, after Rock Steady was scratched on race day.
Thus Gato del Sol, although he hadn't won a race since last September, looked better day by day. There were serious doubts that Air Forbes Won, off his neck victory in the Wood Memorial, could get the distance. El Baba had won eight of 10, but his daddy, Raja Baba, wasn't building them to go that far. Muttering hadn't run since winning the Santa Anita Derby on April 4, and there were questions whether he had done enough to get 10 furlongs over the more tiring Churchill Downs surface. The axiom still holds: A horse has to be absolutely dead fit to win the Kentucky Derby.
Gregson obviously had his colt right where he wanted him. Moreover, he had Delahoussaye, a 30-year-old native of New Iberia, La., who is one of the nation's leading riders. Last year his horses won $6,126,489, placing him fourth among all U.S. jockeys.
Delahoussaye's ride in the Derby was supremely confident. Gato del Sol broke from the 18th post position, next to the extreme outside hole, and only Clyde Van Dusen (post 20 in 1929) had ever overcome a worse post to win. Clyde Van Dusen, though, had excellent speed and was on the lead after a quarter of a mile. Gato del Sol is a plodder. He cannot be rushed, because he tends to climb if he is, so Delahoussaye let him settle. Cupecoy's Joy, the only filly in the Derby, rushed to the lead, with El Baba tracking her, and Air Forbes Won, the tepid $2.70-1 favorite, stalking him. Delahoussaye had his colt outside of horses, clear of trouble—"so I wouldn't get trapped," he said later—as he rounded the first turn. Gato del Sol started picking up horses as they raced down the backside. As the filly turned for home, El Baba moved to her right flank and Air Forbes Won came up outside of him. They turned for home three abreast.
By now, though, Gato del Sol was rolling. As the leaders drove toward the eighth pole, El Baba, Air Forbes Won and the filly suddenly chucked the bit, and in a trice Delahoussaye had the lead. Laser Light and Reinvested made their runs but didn't have enough. Gato del Sol had won his Derby, and so had Ed Gregson, Leone Peters and Arthur Hancock. Above all, it was the Kentuckian's race. "This is the greatest thing to happen to me in this life," Hancock said, as if he'd lived another. "I want to dedicate this Derby to Daddy."