Easy Goer romps home to a victory in the 1989 Belmont Stakes. Photo courtesy of Horsephotos.
If you look through racing history closely enough, you’ll find horses that had the misfortune of racing at the wrong time.
It’s the hand that fate dealt talented horses like Sham and Alydar, who became supporting characters to Triple Crown champions Secretariat and Affirmed.
Then there’s Easy Goer.
Easy Goer was one of the best horses to race in the 1980s. A champion at two, he won 14 of 20 starts in a career that spanned from 1988-90. Included in those victories were the 1989 Belmont (G1) and Travers Stakes (G1) as well as triumphs later that year over older opponents in the Whitney Handicap (G1), Woodward Handicap (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). He retired with earnings of $4,873,770, which at the time was the fourth-best figure in the sport’s history, and was enshrined in Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1997.
Pedigree: Alydar—Relaxing, by Buckpasser.
Breeders: Ogden Phipps (Ky.)
Owner: Ogden Phipps
Trainer: Claude R. McGaughey II
Only five horses ever finished ahead him in his Hall of Fame career, yet among them was a rival who kept Easy Goer from ranking among that small handful of the sport’s greatest stars. For all that Easy Goer accomplished on a racetrack, he could not outrun the shadow of Sunday Silence, who defeated him in three of their four meetings in 1989’s most important races.
“It's just too bad that he never showed his best at the right time," trainer Shug McGaughey said in newspaper reports of Easy Goer’s retirement. “Yet, you can't take away what he accomplished. He's done a lot more than some horses in the Hall of Fame.''
A homebred, Easy Goer was destined for great things at birth. He was a son, ironically enough, of Alydar, the runner-up to Affirmed in all three legs of the 1978 Triple Crown. His dam, Relaxing, was the champion older female of 1981.
He was owned and bred by Ogden Phipps, whose family had a long-and-storied association with racing, and trained by McGaughey, a future Hall of Famer.
His career started promisingly enough, with a nose loss in an Aug. 1, 1988 maiden race at Belmont Park. He was an 8-5 favorite that day, a role he would fill in 19 of his 20 starts.
The New York-based runner then erased the sting of that defeat by reeling off four straight wins, capped by victories in the Grade 1 Cowdin and Champagne Stakes.
His 2-year-old season ended on a sour note as he finished second in the richest and most important race of the year. Unable to overcome a muddy track at Churchill Downs, he finished second to a horse he had already beaten three times, Is It True, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), a loss that would be a harbinger of disappointment to come in the following year.
In spite of that setback, he was nevertheless named the year’s champion 2-year-old male and was a consensus choice to win the Kentucky Derby.
Little happened in the early stages of 1989 to alter that perception. Easy Goer took the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park by 8 ¾ lengths in his 3-year-old debut. After returning home to New York, he won the Gotham Stakes (G2) by 13 lengths and the Wood Memorial Invitational Stakes (G1) by three lengths to cement his role as a prohibitive favorite to not only win the Kentucky Derby but to sweep all three legs of the Triple Crown.
Easy Goer entered the starting gate with jockey Pat Day on the first Saturday in May of 1989 as a 4-5 favorite in an entry with stablemate Awe Inspiring. But the victory in the Run for the Roses that seemed a mere afterthought was not to be. Faced once again with a muddy track at Churchill Downs, Easy Goer found his best stride too late and finished 2 ½ lengths behind Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Sunday Silence.
The rematch came in the Preakness Stakes (G1), where a dry track and an enhanced respect for Sunday Silence’s abilities fueled a wide-spread belief that Day and Easy Goer would not underestimate their foe and would avenge the Derby defeat.
The betting public bought in and sent Easy Goer off as a bigger favorite than he was in the Derby in the 1989 Preakness (3-5) while the Kentucky Derby winner was dismissed at 2-1.
As it turned out, the Preakness was the most heavily debated and dissected – not to mention exciting - of the horses’ four meetings.
After moving too late in the Derby, Day seized the initiative early in the Preakness. After racing fifth behind the stalking Sunday Silence, Day put Easy Goer into gear on the first turn and the Phipps runner moved up aggressively on the backstretch. He surged past Sunday Silence before the final turn and took aim at the front-running Houston. Midway on the turn Easy Goer held a short lead. But it didn’t last for long. Jockey Pat Valenzuela guided Sunday Silence outside of the two horses ahead him and by the quarter pole the Derby winner had a slim lead.
From there to the finish line, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer engaged in one of the most stirring stretch duels in Triple Crown history. Showing his class and determination, Easy Goer forged to a short lead at the eighth pole. But in the final sixteenth of a mile, it was Sunday Silence who proved best as he crossed the finish line a nose ahead.
In a 180-degree switch from the Derby, Day was widely criticized after the Preakness for moving Easy Goer too soon. Yet all the second-guessing in the world could not change the indisputable fact that in a year in which a Triple Crown sweep seemed a distinct possibility, it was Sunday Silence – not Easy Goer - who was on the doorstep of racing immortality.
For once – and only once – Easy Goer was an underdog in the Belmont Stakes (G1), but in a race that should have warmed the heart of his sire, he ran the race of his life and denied Sunday Silence racing’s greatest achievement. Back home in New York for the Belmont Stakes, Easy Goer ran to his regal breeding and recorded the most one-sided victory in his rivalry with Sunday Silence. Flying past the Triple Crown hopeful midway on the final turn, he posted a lopsided 8-length win as the 8-5 second choice in the wagering and earned praise as “New York’s Easy Goer” in track announcer Marshall Cassidy’s call of the final yards of the race.
EASY GOER'S 1989 BELMONT STAKES VICTORY
The Belmont restored much of the glory Easy Goer had lost in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and his next few races only reinforced a notion that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness were merely glitches and that Easy Goer would be the dominant 3-year-old by year’s end.
He reeled off wins in the Whitney, Travers, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
That set the stage for what would be the horses’ final meeting, when Easy Goer and Sunday Silence met in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Gulfstream Park. Much like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Easy Goer was sent off as a favorite; his 1-2 odds lower than they were for the opening legs of the Triple Crown.
Horse of the Year was at stake and once again Easy Goer was star-crossed. Sunday Silence used his superior quickness to kick clear of Easy Goer while both were moving toward the leaders on the final turn. Then, after taking the lead in the final furlong, Sunday Silence held off a furious late charge by a fast-closing Easy Goer to win by a neck in a race described by track announcer Tom Durkin as “a racing epic.”
After the Breeders’ Cup, Easy Goer returned to the races at four and won an overnight stakes at Belmont Park in his 1990 debut. He followed with a third-place finish in the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) while giving away seven pounds to Criminal Type, the 1990 Horse of the Year, and 14 pounds to Housebuster, the champion sprinter of 1990 and 1991. On July 4, Easy Goer rebounded to win the Suburban Handicap (G1) by 3 ¾ lengths.
Arlington Park tried to arrange a fifth clash between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer by offering a $1 million purse in the Arlington Challenge Cup if both horses ran in it.
But it never happened.
A bone chip was discovered in Easy Goer’s right front ankle and he was retired in mid-July 1990.
"I'm awfully disappointed," McGaughey told The New York Times in announcing the retirement. "I would have liked another chance at Sunday Silence. I think the only time Easy Goer ran his best race against him was in the Belmont, and I think he had come back better than ever this year.''
Much like his sire, Easy Goer seemed destined to outshine his racetrack rival in the breeding shed, but in 1994, when his first crop of offspring was just two, Easy Goer died of a heart attack at the all-too-young age of eight.
In time, as a final legacy, one of the horses he sired (Will’s Way) would win the Whitney and Travers. It was a final reminder that for all of Easy Goer’s greatness, there was so much more he could have accomplished – both on and off the racetrack.