The Next Generation of Racing RivalryEasy Goer vs. Sunday Silence
By Teresa Genaro, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor
How many meetings does it take to make a rivalry? Ohio State and Michigan play each other every year; the Red Sox and the Yankees play each other so frequently that it’s practically boring; Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova faced each other a whopping 80 times.
In the face of such regular, intense competition, it might be hyperbolic to label the relationship between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer a rivalry. The colts met each other only four times, in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But they met on racing’s four biggest stages, and they finished first and second in every contest. And the emotion that they inspired, the fierceness of loyalty, made those four races among the most memorable in racing history.
Twenty-one years later, it’s difficult to conceive of Sunday Silence as an underdog, but his beginnings would not have inspired anyone with Triple Crown dreams; in fact, one might be forgiven for wondering whether the horse would ever make it to any winner’s circle. It is now the stuff of racing lore that Sunday Silence twice failed to sell at auction, and that on the way back from that second sale, the driver of his van suffered a heart attack. Sunday Silence’s van overturned, and the colt spent two weeks in the hospital.
Easy Goer, on the other hand, had racing royalty written all over him. Owned and bred by Ogden Phipps, trained by Shug McGaughey, he was a son of Alydar, who a decade earlier had broken New York’s racing hearts by finishing second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races. Even before he hit the racetrack, Easy Goer had star power.
In the summer of 1988, the chestnut Easy Goer was making New York racing fans dream as perhaps they hadn’t since his sire was racing: on August 1 at Belmont, Easy Goer finished second by a nose in his first start, and on August 19, he got his first win, at Saratoga by two and a half lengths. Racing ever more impressively, he wheeled off a string of four straight wins, the last two Grade 1’s in the Cowdin and the Champagne. On his first foray out of state, he finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. He was voted 1988’s champion 2-year-old.
On the other side of the country, Sunday Silence began his career in October of 1988; racing at Santa Anita and at Hollywood Park, he made three starts in a short 2-year-old campaign, winning once by 10 lengths and finishing second twice by a head. The dark bay/brown son of Halo out of Wishing Well stamped himself early as a contender, despite that less-than-auspicious beginning.
After a break over the winter, Easy Goer returned in March at Gulfstream Park to win the Swale by more than eight lengths, which looked ho-hum compared to the 13 lengths by which he crushed the Gotham field a month later. He sealed his role as Derby favorite with another dominating win in the Wood Memorial. In each of his nine races, he’d gone off the favorite, odds-on in all but his first start.
Sunday Silence stayed in California at the beginning of 1989, winning an allowance at Santa Anita in March by four and a half lengths. He stepped easily into stakes company, winning both the Grade 2 San Felipe and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, the latter by 11 lengths. Though his wins were dominating, he was not the racing force of Easy Goer; in the Santa Anita Derby, Sunday Silence went off at nearly 3-1.
The 1989 Kentucky Derby recalled the 1988 Breeders’ Cup, also held at Churchill Downs on a wet, cold day. And just as Easy Goer had finished second on that day, he finished second again on the first Saturday in May, shocking the supporters who had sent him to the post as the odds-on favorite by finishing second by two and a half lengths to Sunday Silence. The Next Great Horse had been defeated.
Undeterred by their colt’s loss, Easy Goer’s connections sent him to the Preakness for a re-match with Sunday Silence. Though Easy Goer again fell short, this time it was by only a nose, a heartbreaking nose, after an epic stretch duel. Despite Sunday Silence’s Derby win, Easy Goer was again the odds-on favorite, and again he had lost; his jockey, Pat Day, lodged an objection against Sunday Silence’s jockey, Pat Valenzuela, but futilely: Sunday Silence would head to the Belmont as the favorite, to try to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.
With unwavering faith in their colt, Easy Goer’s connections didn’t shrink from a third meeting with the California horse that had dashed their Derby dream. Following the Preakness, Demmie Stathoplos reported in Sports Illustrated that McGaughey, Easy Goer’s trainer said, “‘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.'”
His words turned out to be prophetic.
For Easy Goer fans, the Belmont was the stuff of which legends are made. Even in the face of his two losses, they believed that their horse was the best. Just as fervently, the supporters of Sunday Silence believed that their horse, the invader, the underdog turned favorite, would sweep the series and join the elite company of Triple Crown winners.
A crowd of 64,959 turned out on a beautiful June afternoon to witness a contest that turned out to lack the intensity and drama of the Preakness. For Easy Goer’s fans, redemption came, sweetly, in a dominating eight-length victory over the colt’s home track, in front of his home fans, in a race that looked to be over as the field, led by Easy Goer, entered the stretch, a race that was decided by the eighth pole. Three losses by Alydar to Affirmed, two by Alydar’s son Easy Goer to Sunday Silenceâ€¦and finally, finally, the hometown favorite, if not the favorite on the toteboard, vindicated his fans’ belief. For the first time since his first start, Easy Goer went off at odds higher than even money.
Following the Belmont, Sunday Silence left New York; he finished second in the Grade 2 Swaps at Hollywood Park and won the Grade 1 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. Easy Goer stayed home and reeled off four consecutive multi-length victories in Grade 1 races: the Whitney, the Travers, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. November would bring them together again, this time in Florida, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
And once again, Sunday Silence would emerge the victor. Easy Goer looked hopelessly beaten at the eighth pole, but he charged relentlessly to challenge the two horses in front of him. He vanquished Blushing John, but he couldn’t get to Sunday Silence, falling a neck short. In the lifetime series, the score was Sunday Silence 3, Easy Goer 1. The total margin of victory in Sunday Silence’s three wins was under three lengths. In their four races, the horse that was favored never won.
Sunday Silence raced twice more, winning the Grade 1 Californian and losing the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup by a head. Easy Goer trounced the field in the ungraded Gold State before finishing third in the Grade 1 Met Mile and winning the Grade 1 Suburban in the final start of his career.
The fans of Sunday Silence have the preponderance of wins on their side; in the conversation about which horse was better, the Californian wins, though Easy Goer’s fans will continue to make their case. And the win in the Belmont went a long way towards easing the wounds inflicted by their favorite’s losses in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. As Steven Crist put it, “â€¦there was that extra grace note of revenge when Easy Goer won and everything came together in that glorious stretch runaway: Easy Goer, New York, and Alydar all avenged and restored in one mighty swoop.”
What the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer rivalry lacked in longevity, it made up for with intensity, and short-lived though it was, it was a gift to racing and its fans. In an era in which star horses meet each other far too infrequently, we’d be fortunate, and grateful, to have such a rivalry todayâ€¦even we only got it for four races.
1989 Kentucky Derby
1989 Belmont Stakes
1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic