DEL MAR — Pat Valenzuela didn't think that death would ever claim Sunday Silence. After all, the gifted colt had never failed Valenzuela in the saddle.
"He was always such a fighter, I think he'll get through this," said Valenzuela, not long before Sunday Silence, at 16, died from complications of three surgeries on his right foreleg. The painful end, on Aug. 19, came on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, far from the U.S. venues where the near-black beauty scored his epic victories, but in a land where he had become the premier stallion.
American horsemen were always turning their backs on Sunday Silence, from the time he was a yearling and Arthur Hancock tried to sell him, to the day when injuries forced his retirement and it was time to start a stud career. Unwanted in the U.S. as both a runner and a stallion, all Sunday Silence could do was to keep throwing wins and successful foals at his detractors. He'll be remembered as one of America's greatest racehorses, and Japan's greatest sire.
In fairness to the naysayers, the son of Halo and Wishing Well was not of blue-ribbon breeding, especially on his dam's side, and his back legs were shaped like parentheses. "Cowhocked" was the operative word.
"He was weedy in the beginning," said Hancock, son of the legendary Kentucky breeder Bull Hancock. "He reminded you of a skinny teenager."
At a Keeneland yearling sale, Hancock thought he had bought the colt back for $17,000--that's where the bidding stopped--in a deal with Sunday Silence's breeder, Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds. After the ticket was signed, though, Oak Cliff's people told Hancock that he could keep the horse--and the $17,000 tab--with their compliments.
Hancock tried one more time to sell Sunday Silence, at a Hollywood Park auction of unraced 2-year-olds in 1988, but the bidding stalled before it reached the pre-sale reserve of $50,000. Hancock's buy-back that time was $32,000.
If you've got a young horse who you think might contend for the Kentucky Derby one day, you don't try to unload him on the cheap, or later send him cross-country, from California to Kentucky, by van. But after the Hollywood Park nonsale, this was Sunday Silence's lot, and somewhere in Texas, the van driver suffered a fatal heart attack and the vehicle overturned. Hancock's colt luckily suffered only minor injuries. A believer in fate to a fault--he not only looked downward for lucky pennies, he'd check the penny to see if the year of the penny was right with the stars--Hancock saw this as a harbinger of monumental magnitude.
Still trying to cut his losses, Hancock sold half of the horse to trainer Charlie Whittingham, an old friend, for $25,000. Whittingham then sold half of his half, for another $25,000, to Ernest Gaillard, a retired surgeon from La Jolla. Before Sunday Silence ever got to the races, Hancock and Whittingham had taken on the look of the movie and hit Broadway show "The Producers," in which the resourceful Max Bialystock tries to sell more than 100% of his turkey of a play to investors.
"People going to those sales must have thought I was trying to sell my culls," Hancock said. "For some reason, Halo was no longer a popular sire, even though he had sired Sunny's Halo [the 1983 Derby winner]. Then he also sired Goodbye Halo [Hancock's Kentucky Oaks winner in 1988]."
In 1989, even though Sunday Silence had won the Santa Anita Derby by a record 11 lengths, the Kentucky Derby was being widely conceded to Easy Goer, the 2-year-old champion from 1988 whose regal bloodlines dwarfed Sunday Silence's sketchy pedigree. The Derby would be Round 1 in a ring-a-ding-ding, season-long rivalry between the colts.
At the end, it was 3-1, Sunday Silence, but Easy Goer's backers were a stubborn bunch. By the time Sunday Silence had beaten Easy Goer for the third time, in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, the loser's supporters concluded that jockey Pat Day, not the ability of the horses, was the difference.
Day might have been outridden by Valenzuela at Pimlico, in one of the best Preaknesses ever, but in reality Sunday Silence won with a turn of foot that usually left Easy Goer gasping. The exception was in the Belmont Stakes, over Easy Goer's home track, where he won impressively and spoiled Sunday Silence's Triple Crown bid.
At the Kentucky Derby, run on a muddy track on a raw, 50-degree day in Louisville, Whittingham's confidence cup ran over. Three years before, with Ferdinand, the shiny-headed hall-of-fame trainer had reached the winner's circle at 73, the oldest conditioner to ever win the race. With Sunday Silence, a 2 1/2-length winner, he updated that record to 76 years. Pat Day had won five races earlier on the card, but with Easy Goer the best he could do was second place.