Sunday Silence, whose recent victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic more than likely clinched the 1989 horse of the year title, will undergo surgery Thursday for the removal of a bone chip in his right knee.
The 40-minute procedure will be performed at the Hollywood Park Equine Clinic by Dr. Greg Ferraro. The prognosis is for a full recovery, and for Sunday Silence to be able to return to competition in about five months.
Trainer Charlie Whittingham had little doubt that Sunday Silence suffered the injury in defeating archrival Easy Goer by a neck in the Nov. 4 Classic.
"We know he didn't have it going into the race, and yet the chip is so small it didn't show until we'd galloped him two or three days after he got home," Whittingham said.
Ferraro described the injury as nothing out of the ordinary.
"If he had to have a chip, this is the best kind to have," the veterinarian said. "Unless something else is found, this type of chip has the best prognosis."
Whittingham, who also owns 25% of Sunday Silence, is likewise optimistic that his champion 3-year-old colt will come back to the races next year as good as ever.
Besides his victory in the Classic, Sunday Silence won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Santa Anita Derby and a record $4,578,454 in 1989. He ranks third in all-time earnings behind Alysheba and John Henry.
Arthur Hancock of Lexington, Ky., owns 50% of Sunday Silence and Dr. Ernest Gaillard of La Jolla owns the other 25%. Reached at his Stone Farm on Monday, Hancock said he briefly considered retiring the colt to stud.
"From what Charlie told me, though, he'll come back 100%," Hancock said. "Anyway, I think 4 is a little too young to send a horse to stud. They don't really mature as a racehorse until they get to be 4 or 5.
"If everything goes all right, I'd like Sunday Silence to have a shot at winning the Classic again next year," Hancock said. "Maybe even get the earnings record. Racing needs stars, and he's certainly a popular horse."
Whittingham said he detected heat in Sunday Silence's knee late last week, a few days after the colt's return to Santa Anita from his victory over Easy Goer in the Classic at Gulfstream Park. Ferraro said that X-rays revealed a chip about the size of the nail on an adult's index finger.
"It is located above the joint, and not on a weight-bearing surface," Ferraro said. "That's why a horse can recover quickly and be able to run very well."
Said Whittingham: "I've had many horses come back better than ever from that kind of injury. We took a chip out of Balzac's knee and look what he went on to do."
As a 3-year-old in 1978, Elizabeth Keck's Balzac injured his knee while finishing second to Affirmed in the Santa Anita Derby. He returned for Whittingham the next year, won the Oak Tree Invitational and earned nearly half a million dollars after his operation.
Spend a Buck was another high-profile thoroughbred who bounced back after knee surgery for removal of a bone chip. He had that surgery in November of his 2-year-old season, then returned in the spring of 1985 and won the Kentucky Derby and, eventually, was voted horse of the year.
"There's some people who would go ahead and train a horse with a chip still in there," Whittingham said. "You can get away with it, but sometimes the chip gets to grinding away at the cartilage, and you end up with worse damage. Just as well to get it out of there and start fresh."
Plans originally called for Sunday Silence to get a brief vacation and be pointed for the San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita in mid-January. The injury will deprive him of a chance to run in the $500,000 Strub Stakes in February and the $1,000,000 Santa Anita Handicap in March.
"That doesn't break my heart," Whittingham said. "If he wins a lot early in the year, he ends up carrying too much weight in handicaps later on. Anyway, he's still growing. A little extra time off will do him a world of good."
Sunday Silence was shipped from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park early Tuesday morning with the rest of Whittingham's stable. The colt will remain at the track during his recovery, and if all goes well, Whittingham said, Sunday Silence could go back into training in about three months.