By early 1989, horse racing had dug itself deep into my heart, the sport destined to define my life in one way or another. At the tender age of twelve, I had been writing letters to institutions like the National Museum of Racing, seeking the information that my local libraries were woefully bereft of, and creating my own cast of characters that were pursuing the sport’s greatest heights in a handwritten novel housed in one of my old school notebooks. I was hooked and bereft of opportunities to share the enthusiasm for the upcoming Triple Crown campaign, but I didn’t let that stop me from being parked in front of the television each Saturday.
I watched Mercedes Won surprise everyone in the Florida Derby, while Dixieland Brass was pulled up with a career-ending injury. I remember the Flamingo Stakes, won by Awe Inspiring, and wondering where Hialeah Park was (south Florida, boo). I don’t remember watching Sunday Silence or Easy Goer win their preps, but it might have been their wins in the Santa Anita Derby (Sunday Silence) and the Wood Memorial (Easy Goer) that brought me to the Kentucky Derby somehow steadfastly in the Sunday Silence camp.
So what that Easy Goer was the son of Alydar? So he had the weight of the Phipps family and Claiborne Farm behind him, with the ascendant trainer Shug McGaughey — AND? I heard the story of Sunday Silence, with his old man trainer Charlie Whittingham and his black sheep owner Arthur Hancock III, and the jet black colt had my heart completely. The Derby, draped in gray and chill, saw Sunday Silence somehow emerge from the cavalry charge at the start, boxed in for a couple of furlongs, and then take to the outside, stalking the front-runners. The fractions were typical for the Derby, faster than one might anticipate on an off track, but, as they came around the final turn, the black colt took the lead and controlled the action. Shying away from the noise of the crowd, Sunday Silence wove through the stretch, holding off the late change of Easy Goer, to win by two lengths. Like all Derbies, it was thrilling, but the remark from ABC’s Charlsie Cantey that Easy Goer would not win the Triple Crown now made me root even harder for the jet black colt. Maybe Sunday Silence could win the Triple Crown instead?
In order to do that, he would need to win the Preakness two weeks later and then the Belmont Stakes another three weeks after that. Could Sunday Silence prove to everyone that their eyes had been on the wrong colt?
The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico was again on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and I was planted in front of the television, VCR recording, absorbing every second. At the race’s start, it seemed like it would play out like the Derby had, with Easy Goer hanging back and Sunday Silence sitting mid-pack, but, on the backstretch, Pat Day shot Easy Goer past Sunday Silence and the others to the lead, the half-mile around 0:46 and then the three-quarters in 1:09 and change, lightning fast for a race that was 9.5 furlongs. On the final turn, jockey Patrick Valenzuela brought Sunday Silence up to challenge Easy Goer. The two colts — black vs. brownish gold, elite vs. upstart — dueled, the rest of the field forgotten in the thrall of their battle. That last furlong, the inches ticking away as one tried to gain something on the other, Day and Valenzuela using every bit of riding experience and skill to find an advantage. In the end, Sunday Silence had the little something extra necessary to win the Preakness Stakes, taking two of the three jewels of the Triple Crown and setting up my first experience with a horse vying for that most elusive of prizes.
To this day, like American Pharoah’s victory in the 2015 Belmont Stakes and Justify’s victory in the same race in 2018, the 1989 Preakness Stakes remains one of those races that chokes me up, a few tears building as I watch them battle again on YouTube. Easy Goer won the Belmont Stakes three weeks later, spoiling the Triple Crown for Sunday Silence. The Derby-Preakness winner got his revenge in the 1989 Breeder’s Cup Classic, beating Easy Goer by a neck, despite the son of Alydar’s onslaught of speed in the last furlong.
Nearly thirty years after Sunday Silence v. Easy Goer, both colts reside together in the Hall of Fame along with their trainers. Sunday Silence retired at age four after an injury ended his racing career; he stood stud in Japan until his death in 2002, siring a number of top horses in Asia. Easy Goer retired at age four as well, bone chips ending his time on the track. He stood at Claiborne Farm until his untimely death in 1994, a result of a fatal reaction to an unknown allergen.
These two might be gone, but the memory of their rivalry and that stretch battle in the 1989 Preakness Stakes lives on, chronicled this year in the documentary “Dark Horses,” which aired on NBC in June. For me, only the excitement of the Triple Crown campaigns of American Pharoah and Justify rival the 1989 classic rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Those are memories that will last for the whole of my lifetime.