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For That Happy Traveler Sunday Silence, Getting There Is More Than Half the Fun

July 27, 1990|JAY HOVDEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No one is immune to the anxieties of air travel. Athletes, entertainers, business people--everyone usually leaves an aircraft in worse shape than they get on, whether it's because of claustrophobia, long legs, bad chicken Kiev or a recent viewing of "Airport '75."

Now, meet the guy who loves to fly: Horse of the year Sunday Silence.

The $10-million colt fairly runs up the van ramp when trainer Charlie Whittingham sends him out of town. He can hardly wait to be loaded onto one of Tex Sutton's 727s, bound for some kind of glory at a far-flung race track. Last year, Sunday Silence logged more miles than any horse of the year since All Along, who made a Paris-Toronto-New York grand circuit with a side trip to Maryland.

Sunday Silence's latest excursion finds him bedded down comfortably at Arlington International Racecourse in suburban Chicago, where he will run in the Arlington Challenge Cup on Aug. 4.

With the retirement of Easy Goer, the Cup has been dropped from a million-dollar stake to a $600,000 race. And with the defection of Criminal Type, Sunday Silence needs an impressive victory to get his horse of the year title defense back on track, but so far the new surroundings haven't fazed him. He remains the same delightful delinquent he's been since day one, a cross between James Dean and Indiana Jones, with four legs, two Eclipse Awards and an attitude.

Sunday Silence arrived in Chicago Monday morning with his familiar entourage--Whittingham, groom Charles Clay and exercise rider Pam Mabes. He jogged Tuesday, galloped Wednesday and worked six furlongs Thursday morning in about 1:12. So much for jet lag.

"He's seems to know he's here for a serious purpose," Mabes said Thursday from her Arlington Heights hotel. "He struts to the track and struts back to the barn, letting everybody know just who he is."

Despite traveling with Sunday Silence on the 1989 Triple Crown trail, to Louisiana for the Super Derby and to Miami for the Breeders' Cup, Mabes continues to be amazed at the ease with which her companion handles the hubbub.

"Some horses just lose it," Mabes said. "Not Sunday. It's not stressful to him at all. If anything, flying seems to settle him down. He's a lot more relaxed than he is at the barn back home. His ears go up, he looks around, listens to everything. Really enjoys himself.

"During the flight, he'll eat a little hay," Mabes added. "His eyelids will droop and he'll sleep a little bit. Who knows what's going on in that mind of his."

Many times, a horse will require a tranquilizer to cope with air travel. Sunday Silence flies clean.

"We don't believe in tranquilizing our horses for flying," said Whittingham's assistant trainer, Rodney Rash. "Charlie trains his horses to handle a flight just like anything else. They learn what they're supposed to do."

Unfortunately, not all thoroughbreds have been so well prepared. Kathy Baird, who works for the Tex Sutton horse transport organization, cringes when certain horses are booked on a flight.

"If a horse has been trained to be a good shipper, it doesn't matter if he's going by van or plane," Baird said. "They've been taught how to act, and they rarely give us trouble.

"Horses who are bad at the starting gate can have that carry over to when they ship. If they haven't learned how to be led in a straight line into a smaller space and then stand quietly, chances are they'll give us trouble loading and, maybe, shipping. You can tell which ones have learned their lessons."

The Easy Goer spin doctors have been hard at work since the colt's ankle injury and retirement were announced last week.

Pat Day, who rode Easy Goer in each of his 20 starts, told columnist Don Grisham in Thursday's Daily Racing Form: "I've said it before, I think Easy Goer was better than Sunday Silence, even though he beat us three out of four."

New York Times racing reporter Steven Crist insisted that Easy Goer had "legitimate excuses" in two of his losses to Sunday Silence. He, too, conceded that Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer in three out of four meetings, " . . . but never in a way that proved he was just plain better."

Sigh. Fans of both colts had better brace for more of this silliness. We've seen the same thing happen in the case of 1978 Triple Crown rivals Affirmed and Alydar. To some, the plain facts of Affirmed's clear dominance on the race track have been blurred by Alydar's superior record as a stallion. As retired racing secretary Jimmy Kilroe likes to say when confronted by such tortured logic, "That way lies madness."

Anyway, to continue defining Easy Goer's career in terms of Sunday Silence is blatantly unfair. Easy Goer was a remarkable racehorse, handsome beyond words, and the personification of grace in motion. Of the 51,065 registered thoroughbred foals of 1986, Easy Goer was lengths better than all of them . . . save one.

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