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Searching and Hoping for A Straw-Free Path

After more than three decades of Kentucky Derby experiences, a good portion of my brain is brimming with stories of success and disappointment on the big day, and reasons for those results.

But one memory that always downloads, offers a combination of those outcomes: the 1989 East-West showdown between New York-based hero Easy Goer and West Coast star Sunday Silence.

Easy Goer, a striking and muscular chestnut, carried the famed black-and-red silks of Phipps Stable, one of the great “old money” racing stables and still in search of its first Derby win despite racing the likes of Bold Ruler and Buckpasser. Lexington native Shug McGaughey, who learned valuable lessons at Churchill Downs before moving to New York to train for the Phippses, seemed poised to collect the biggest prize his profession and home state could offer.

Sunday Silence had a Kentucky connection of his own in co-owner Arthur Hancock III, on his own then as owner of Paris, Ky.’s Stone Farm after departing Claiborne Farm, his family’s breeding and racing legend that had teamed with the Phippses for many of the their greatest successes. The preparation of the sleek and nearly-black Sunday Silence was handled Charlie Whittingham, the legendary “Bald Eagle” who had returned from a self-imposed Kentucky Derby exile of nearly 30 years to win his first “Run for the Roses” with long shot Ferdinand in 1986.

Sunday Silence, 1989 Kentucky Derby winner, with jockey Pat Valenzuela. Photo Courtesy Churchill Downs

Sunday Silence, 1989 Kentucky Derby winner, with jockey Pat Valenzuela. Photo Courtesy Churchill Downs

Veteran Derby fans will recall that Derby Day 1989 dawned with snowflakes and shivers.  It warmed a bit in the afternoon, but the track was muddy for the meeting of two horses that proved to be among the most talented and accomplished of the final quarter of the 20th century.    

Easy Goer was the favorite, but he caught a track with a peanut-butter consistency nearly identical to the Churchill Downs surface over which he had been upset by Is It True six months earlier the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile run on a similarly gray day.  Sunday Silence rallied from just off the pace to assume the lead draw clear through a somewhat meandering run thought the stretch. Meanwhile, fans of Easy Goer searched in vain for their star, whose wheels had been spinning throughout the race.

Easy Goer arrived very late on the scene with a mild rally to nip stablemate Awe Inspiring for the runner-up spot, but never threatened Sunday Silence on that bone-chilling Derby Day.

The winning time for the 1-2 finish by the future Hall of Famers was 2:05, one of the slowest modern day Derbys. It proved, at least for a day, the adage that “time only matters when you’re in jail.”

The spine-tingling Sunday Silence-Easy Goer showdown finally materialized, but did so two weeks later in the Preakness.  Still, that strangely-run Derby stands out personally for two reasons.

One is Dave Johnson’s ABC race call. If you listen closely, you’ll notice the absence of six key words: “And down the stretch they come.”

The phrase was Johnson’s signature throughout a long and distinguished career, but the words never passed his lips on Derby Day 1989. I’ve never asked Dave about it, but always believed that he was so busy looking for Easy Goer’s rally-that-never-happened that he simply ran out of time.

But the most compelling memory was a post-Derby thought by Whittingham as he recalled weeks of nearly flawless preparation by his second Derby winner.  When he needed a fast track, he got one; weather was never an issue. When Sunday Silence had to work, the job was done on schedule.

“I never had a straw in my path,” The Bald Eagle recalled.

It’s difficult to find any horse aiming for Kentucky Derby 2015 who has enjoyed such clear sailing.  Major players American Pharoah and Texas Red have spent significant time on the sidelines with injury, and weather woes have delayed scheduled prep races over the past two weeks in Arkansas (snow and ice) and Florida (flooding from torrential rains).

In most years, it is a seasoned and experienced horse that finds his or her way into the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle. But if you can find a 3-year-old with talent and anything resembling Whittingham’s straw-free path in this unusual year, he or she might be the horse to beat in Derby 141. VT