If trainer Charlie Whittingham knows what he has got in Sunday Silence, he's not telling.
"All I know now is that he's the best (3-year-old) I got," Whittingham said. "He almost beat Houston, and (Wayne) Lukas says Houston is the best he's got."
Although Sunday Silence and Houston have been impressive, neither horse has been tested in stakes competition.
Houston, the $2.9-million yearling who won his only two starts as a 2-year-old, will be sent to Aqueduct this week for his 3-year-old debut, in the seven-furlong Bay Shore next Saturday. That leaves Sunday Silence and five others to compete today in the $150,000 San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita.
Half of the field for the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe--favored Music Merci, Mountain Ghost and Runaway Dunaway--is trained by Craig Lewis. This is a tactic that Whittingham has frequently used in important stakes races, something that the 75-year-old trainer characterizes as "surrounding them."
The other starters today are Flying Continental, who Friday was made eligible for the Triple Crown races, for a late fee of $3,000, and Yes I'm Blue, one of the lightweights in the stake at 115 pounds. Mountain Ghost and Runaway Dunaway will carry 114 pounds apiece, 10 fewer than the top-weighted Music Merci, who in his 3-year-old debut won the San Rafael at Santa Anita three weeks ago. Sunday Silence carries 119 pounds, and Flying Continental has been assigned 118.
Whittingham saw the potential in Sunday Silence before the horse even raced. Last October, while at Churchill Downs for the Breeders' Cup, Whittingham was tempted to make a quick trip to Los Angeles, to see Sunday Silence in his debut in a maiden race at Santa Anita.
Whittingham finally stayed in Louisville. Sunday Silence, racing greenly, led at the top of the stretch of the 6 1/2-furlong race before losing by a neck to Caro Lover.
Two weeks later, at Hollywood Park, Sunday Silence was again matched against maidens. He won by 10 lengths, running six furlongs in an excellent 1:09 2/5.
On Dec. 3, Sunday Silence graduated to allowance competition, and the field for the 6 1/2-furlong race included Houston. It was only the second start for Lukas' huge colt, a son of Seattle Slew. Only one horse--a Northern Dancer colt who sold for $3.7 million--had cost more than Houston at the 1987 yearling auctions.
Houston had made only one start--a 13-length victory at Belmont Park four months before--and based on that performance, he was sent off a 4-5 favorite. The odds on Sunday Silence were 9-5.
With both horses carrying 120 pounds, Sunday Silence led by 1 1/2 lengths at the top of the stretch, but Houston wore him down and won by a head at the wire.
After that, both horses got some time off.
Sunday Silence returned to the races on March 2 at Santa Anita and scored a 4 1/2-length victory, proving he could also handle an off track by running 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15 2/5.
"Sunday Silence is a big and growthy colt," Whittingham said. "But he acts like he can run. He went head and head with Houston through the stretch."
Sunday Silence is not as well-bred as Houston--who is by Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew out of the champion filly, Smart Angle--but his bloodlines are respectable. Halo, the sire, has accounted for a string of successful horses, including Sunny's Halo, the 1983 Kentucky Derby winner. Wishing Well, the dam, was a multiple stakes winner in California, and Sunday Silence is her first foal to race.
Halo's offspring have been good for Whittingham's morale as well as his wallet. Lively One was a top 3-year-old last year who bled in the San Felipe, ran second in the Santa Anita Derby and became a major winner after finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby. Goodbye Halo has earned $1.4 million and is one of the best distaffers in training.
"Halos are very feisty, they show a lot of fire," Whittingham said. "This colt is no different. We should find out more about him after this race."
Arthur Hancock, a Kentucky breeder who is one of the owners of Goodbye Halo, is the principal owner of Sunday Silence. The other owners are Whittingham and Ernest Gaillard, a surgeon from La Jolla.
Hancock had a horse who ran a neck short, to Advance Man, in the 1982 San Felipe. All was forgiven six weeks later when Gato Del Sol won the Kentucky Derby.
Horse Racing Notes
Besides Gato Del Sol, other non-winning horses in recent runnings of the San Felipe have gone on to major victories. They include Alysheba, Skywalker, Nostalgia's Star and Gate Dancer. . . . Chris McCarron, who has won the San Felipe four of the last seven years, doesn't have a mount in today's race. . . . Runaway Dunaway isn't nominated for the Santa Anita Derby or the Triple Crown. . . . Because they have different owners, trainer Craig Lewis' three horses will run separately in the betting.
Making his first start since beating only one horse in the Breeders' Cup Classic 3 1/2 months ago, Lively One won a $60,000 allowance race Saturday by 3 1/2 lengths over Prove Splendid, with Sarhoob, making his first start on dirt, finishing third. . . . Robbie Davis, replacing Pat Valenzuela, rode Lively One for his third winner of the day. Valenzuela told Santa Anita stewards late Saturday morning that he had the flu and was excused from his mounts. Valenzuela is scheduled to ride Sunday Silence in the San Felipe.
Clever Trevor, a Remington Park horse, won the $250,000 Remington Derby Saturday with California shippers Manastash Ridge and Double Quick running fourth and seventh, respectively. . . . Russell Baze rode Invited Guest to victory at Golden Gate Fields in the $100,000 Golden Poppy Handicap, which was taken off the grass and run on a sloppy main track. . . . Bill Shoemaker rode Present Value to victory in the $100,000 Portland Meadows Mile.