Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 30 Days to Go!!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 30 Days to Go!!

Sunday Silence’s story is a mix between the ugly duckling and rags to riches tales. The nearly black colt was a fighter who overcame much, even before he stepped onto a racetrack. He showed what heart and grit mean in the truest sense to the mighty breed of thoroughbred, becoming a horse that many could only dream of owning.  

Bred by Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds Ltd., the colt that was out of multiple stakes winning Understanding mare, Wishing Well, was foaled at the Hancock’s Stone Farm. Oak Cliff boarded its bloodstock at the farm, choosing to breed their mare to Stone Farm’s Halo, a stallion who won the Lawrence Realization and United Nations Handicaps. The mating produced a sickly dark bay who had awful leg conformation. He was cow-hocked behind with offset knees, in addition to having long front pasterns. However, what he lacked in conformation, he made up for in his toughness and willingness to survive. The feisty colt that was named Sunday Silence, refused to die when he suffered a virus that resulted in a severe bout of diarrhea that most believed would take his life. While it was touch and go for awhile, he pulled through.  

Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds consigned the yearling with Arthur Hancock to the Keeneland July Sale. Hancock bought the colt as a buyback at $17,000, thinking that the owner’s wouldn’t want the colt to go at such a low price. He was wrong, however, and was told that the colt belonged to him. Now intent to sell the youngster at the March California TBA 2YO-in-training sale, Hancock sold half of the bay to Paul Sullivan. At the sale, the unwanted colt failed to meet the $50,000 reserve in bidding, being a $32,000 buyback. After the sale even Sullivan decided that he wasn’t interested in the colt anymore, bowing out of the ownership. Hancock ended up selling a half-interest in the black colt to trainer Charlie Whittingham, with the arrangement that his $50,000 would come out of the training fees of his new recruit. Whittingham then sold half of his share to Dr. Ernest Gaillard for $25,000, with the colt now being a member of the H-G-W Partners.  

As the colt was being returned to Kentucky, the driver of the van suffered from a fatal heart attack, resulting in the van being flipped over. Though he was cut and bruised, the fighter was still mentally strong, seeming to be unbothered by the event. Instead of heading to Kentucky, the colt was returned to California and Whittingham’s barn after a few days in a clinic.  

Finally making his first start on October 30, Sunday Silence contested a Santa Anita maiden race, coming in 2nd by a neck. On November 13, he showed a flash of his coming brilliance when he commanded a 6-furlong maiden event, winning by 10 lengths in 1:09 2/5. Taking on allowance company for his final 2YO race, he wrapped up the season with a second, only losing by a head.  

Given time off to deal with sore shins, he started his 3YO campaign in March, when the son of Halo would again find the winner’s circle in defeating an allowance field by 4½ lengths, making his final appearance in a non-stakes race. Moving up to stakes company and two-turns, Sunday Silence would take the mile and 1/16 San Felipe in a time of 1:42 3/5. Making noise as the West Coast horse to beat when crushing the 9-furlong Santa Anita Derby field by a record 11 lengths, the black horse carrying the Stone Farm silks was shipped to Kentucky for his date with destiny.  

While Sunday Silence was the West Coast hope for the Derby, the East Coast challenger was a blue-blood chestnut by the name of Easy Goer. Trained by Shug McGaughey for Ogden Phipps, the son of Alydar out of the Buckpasser mare, Relaxing, was the 2YO Champion. In winning the 1 mile Gotham in a time that was only 1/5 of a second off of Dr. Fager’s World Record, Easy Goer stamped himself as the horse to beat. 

The two rivals finally faced off in the 115th Kentucky Derby. Leading up to the race, Whittingham was pleased with his colt’s works and the way that he was coming into the race. McGaughey was also hopeful in his charge; however he wasn’t too happy with the horse’s morning antics. In works that were to be relaxed, the chestnut would spot another horse on the track and turn competitive, trying to outrace them in his routine. Both horses though would be very relaxed in the final days leading up to the race at Churchill, with their trainer’s also being confident in their charges.   The field of 15 horses made their way to the starting gate through the muddy going. Derby Day had started out with a cold rain, and while the rain would stop, the weather didn’t get much warmer, with the temperature staying in the low 40’s throughout the afternoon.  Sunday Silence went off as second choice in the field behind Easy Goer, in front of the 122,653 that attended the race, down about 15,000 due to the unpleasant weather. After breaking, the dauntless son of Halo would have a rough start, though he would settle in quickly enough behind the early leaders who were following the pace set by the D. Wayne Lukas trained, Houston. Tracking in fourth through the first ¾ of a mile, Patrick Valenzuela, Sunday Silence’s jockey, started to move his mount up towards the front, passing the mile pole in third. Hitting a strong 20+mph headwind at the top of the stretch, Sunday Silence powered to the lead, drawing away from the field. Though he would win by an easy 2 ½ lengths, battling the strong wind along with the muddy track caused him to tire and weave throughout the stretch. Passing under the wire in a time of 2:05, it was the slowest running since the 1958 winner, Tim Tam, who was ridden by P-Val’s uncle, Milo Valenzuela, took the roses.  

Two weeks later in the Preakness, the crowd was treated to an exciting duel throughout the stretch between the two foes, with the Sunday Silence and Easy Goer running head-to-head. At the finish, Sunday Silence once again bested the chestnut, though it was only by a nose. The Belmont would be Easy Goer’s revenge as the son of Alydar played the spoiler, turning the tables to win by 8 lengths, costing Sunday Silence a Triple Crown Championship. After a disappointing loss to Prized in the Swaps, the black colt’s connections then had the colt use the Super Derby as a prep to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Facing his old nemesis in the Classic, Sunday Silence had his retribution. As they turned for home, Sunday Silence started to draw away from the Phipps’s color-bearer, who wouldn’t give up so easily. Holding off the late resurgence by Easy Goer, Sunday Silence valiantly won the Classic by a neck, becoming the only horse to win two of the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, until American Pharoah won the Triple Crown and Classic in 2015. Coming out of the race with knee-chips, the colt’s season ended with surgery and his earning the 3YO Championship along with Horse of the Year.  

Returning to racing at 4, Sunday Silence won the Californian Stakes, prior to being edged by Criminal Type, who was carrying 5 pounds less than the Champion, in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Coming out of the race with a career-ending injury, a torn sesamoidean ligament, Sunday Silence was returned to Kentucky where Hancock hoped to get enough interest to stand the stallion at the farm. Unfortunately for American breeders, they weren’t overly interested in breeding to the new stallion, leading to his sale to Japan. Zenya Yoshida had purchased a quarter interest in the black stallion for 2.5 million after his 3YO season. Once it proved that the horse was once again an unwanted commodity, Yoshida bought the remaining shares for 7.5 million, shipping Sunday Silence to his Shadai Farm, where the beloved stallion stood his entire career, becoming a Japanese superstar whose crooked blaze became his trademark. At Shadai Farm, the stallion led all sires for 13 consecutive years, from 1995-2007, as well as being the leading broodmare sire from 2007-2015. In America, his reach was felt as he led the American Broodmare sire list in 2016, as well as being second in 2017 and 2018. The prized icon passed away in 2002 due to complications from a leg infection. The once unwanted Kentucky Derby Champion was buried at his Japan home.  

(Photo courtesy KDM archives)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum