Sunday Silence-Easy Goer Preakness duel still epic after 30 years

May 14, 2019 Kellie Reilly/

“And here’s the race we’ve been waiting for!”

Race caller Trevor Denman expressed the thoughts of racing fans as Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, two future Hall of Famers each on a mission in the 1989 Preakness (G1), came to grips turning for home at Pimlico.

Each had unfinished business from the Kentucky Derby (G1), their budding rivalry fueled by contrasting backgrounds that made them archetypes worthy of literature. Sunday Silence – the nearly black colt from the West Coast, with the unfashionable pedigree and an early life characterized by adversity – had upstaged 4-5 favorite Easy Goer, the Eastern establishment personified, at a muddy Churchill Downs.

The track condition on Derby Day gave Easy Goer partisans a ready excuse. After all, hadn’t the Ogden Phipps blueblood suffered an upset in similar circumstances in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), contested over a muddy Churchill strip the previous November? The beneficiary that day, Is It True, had been summarily dismissed by Easy Goer in their three prior meetings. The fluky result did not cost Easy Goer his rightful title of champion two-year-old male, and if that were an aberration, might not the Derby result have been an aberration as well?

Hence Easy Goer was dispatched as the 3-5 favorite in the Preakness rematch. Just as the chestnut son of Alydar and champion racemare Relaxing (who hated the mud herself) had rebounded from his Breeders’ Cup reverse to dominate his three preps going into the Derby, surely he would restore order back on a fast track. Surely Easy Goer would live up to his huge reputation, earned but also burnished like his coppery coat by the New York media that embraced him as their own.

The Easy Goer narrative still didn’t take into account, however, the greatness of Sunday Silence. Brought along patiently by Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, Sunday Silence didn’t begin his career until the fall, and didn’t make his stakes debut until capturing the San Felipe (G2) in March. By the time he crushed the Santa Anita Derby (G1) by 11 lengths in a blistering 1:47 3/5, he appeared to East Coast eyes as an afterthought, or at best a whippersnapper, compared to the long-term class of Easy Goer.

Such competing visions of the relative merits of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer could be settled only on the racetrack. As a complicating factor, Sunday Silence sustained a foot bruise the week before the Preakness, and it took all of Whittingham’s craft – plus expert veterinary care – to present him fit and ready for the fight.

With the drama raised to a fever pitch, the climactic battle was joined.

After the determination of Sunday Silence prevailed at the wire, Easy Goer’s regular rider, Pat Day, claimed foul against jockey Pat Valenzuela aboard the winner.

Both jockeys were quoted in Neil Milbert’s Chicago Tribune report.

Day explained why Easy Goer’s head was cocked to the side in deep stretch.

“I turned my horse’s head out because he’s competitive, and I wanted him to keep looking at that other horse,” Day said. “It was just an attempt to keep him trying. He tried, but it didn’t work.”

“I thought I had put Easy Goer away,” Valenzuela told Milbert, “but Easy Goer came back and gave it all he had, and had me by a neck. Then my horse came back and gave it all he had. My horse had the momentum. The last five strides I put the whip away. I knew we would win.

“I think Pat (Day) was grasping for straws, but I could sense he was going to claim foul.”

The Pimlico stewards conducted a seven-minute review before unanimously ruling to uphold the result as it stood.

“There was no grounds for disqualification,” Pimlico steward Clinton Pitts said, according to Bill Christine’s recap in the Los Angeles Times. “They rode close, but it was good, clean race riding.”

Hall of Famer Day critiqued his own ride, wondering if maybe he’d let Easy Goer go too soon.

“You know what they say about hindsight, it's 20-20,” Day told Christine. “I let my horse make what might have been a premature move when we made the lead (at the end of the backstretch), and that might have taken something away from him that he would have needed in the last 40 yards. But any time you run second, you're going to get criticized. You're the guy who's going to get all the heat.”

Valenzuela welcomed the hard-fought vindication for Sunday Silence, in comments in Steve Crist’s recap for the New York Times.

“I think this puts to rest the talk that Easy Goer is the better horse,” Valenzuela told Crist. “I think his horse was overrated and mine was underrated.”

Easy Goer was apparently reprising the role of his own sire, Alydar, who was runner-up to fellow Hall of Famer Affirmed in all three jewels of the 1978 Triple Crown. But unlike Alydar, Easy Goer got the better of his archrival in the Belmont (G1), and regained the luster that his Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey, always knew he had.

On his home court at Belmont Park, and at the 1 1/2-mile trip that played to his strengths, Easy Goer galloped by eight lengths, over a geared-down Sunday Silence, in 2:26. His time ranks as the second-fastest in Belmont history, deferring only to Secretariat’s other-worldly 2:24. Just one subsequent Belmont winner has equaled Easy Goer’s time – A.P. Indy (1992) who would join him in the Hall of Fame.

While the Kentucky Derby and Belmont results were outliers, depending upon circumstances that tilted the playing field in favor of one or the other, the Preakness underscored that there was precious little between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer at their best. Their fourth and final clash in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Gulfstream Park reiterated the point, with Sunday Silence getting the jump, and Easy Goer’s frenetic finish falling short. Sunday Silence clinched the divisional championship and Horse of the Year by a neck.

Both remained in training at four, for campaigns that proved as truncated as they were anticlimactic, and both retired by midsummer.

Sunday Silence was still not embraced by the breeding industry establishment that looked askance, especially on the bottom half of his pedigree. Co-owner Arthur B. Hancock III, who’d raised the Halo colt at his Stone Farm, sold him to Japan, where Sunday Silence proved a genetic gold mine. A breed-shaping patriarch, he established a dynasty that endures. Easy Goer returned to his roots at historic Claiborne Farm, but died prematurely at age eight. For two horses so closely matched on the racetrack, their stud careers could hardly have been more divergent.

Of the four meetings between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, the Preakness best distilled the essence of their rivalry, and that’s why it remains epic 30 years on. 

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