Racing’s Unforgettable Rivalries: Sunday Silence and Easy Goer

Legends
Easy Goer, outside, and Sunday Silence, middle, approach the stretch in the 1989 Belmont Stakes. (Blood-Horse/Skip Dickstein)

Advancements in airline travel had an amazingly profound impact on everyday life in this country.

It brought the eastern and western shores closer together, and created business opportunities that would have seemed ridiculous a century ago.

Trans-continental flights allowed professional franchises to expand into the Golden State of California in the late 1950s and it wasn’t too long before East-West rivalries sprang up, involving teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.

Horse racing had its share of regional rivalries, including the battles between the East’s Nashua and the West’s Swaps in 1955. Yet after that, even though West Coast and East Coast hopefuls would clash on an annual basis in the Kentucky Derby, there was never a matchup that created an intense divide between the two regions.

Even in 1978, though Affirmed raced in California during the early stages of his 3-year-old season, the Affirmed-Alydar battles were not viewed as East vs. West since Affirmed spent his entire 2-year-old campaign east of the Mississippi River.

It wasn’t until 1989 that a truly frenzied, passionate and utterly partisan East vs. West clash dominated the sport, courtesy of California’s Sunday Silence and New York’s Easy Goer.

Much like the aforementioned Affirmed and Alydar, the rivalry between the two has withstood the test of time as even now, 27 years later, it’s impossible to mention one of them without bringing up the other.

They only faced each other four times, but the matchups came in the year’s biggest races: the Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes and the richest of them all, the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Sunday Silence won three of them, with Easy Goer second each time in races that fans from that era will never forget. In particular, the 1989 Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic, when Sunday Silence prevailed by a nose and neck, respectively, rank among the most famous editions of those historic races.

Sunday Silence winning the 1989 Kentucky Derby. (Blood-Horse/Skip Dickstein)

“It is amazing how many times people have brought up the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer races over the years,” said Arthur B. Hancock III, the majority owner of Sunday Silence. “I was at this year’s Preakness and at least a half-dozen people told me the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer Preakness was the best Preakness they ever saw. Races like the ones between those two horses are what makes horse racing the great sport it is.”

Even from the Easy Goer camp, there’s nothing but smiles when questions about the great rivalry are posed.

“It was a lot of fun because it was East Coast vs. West Coast, a young trainer vs. an old trainer. West Coast jockey, East Coast jockey,” said Shug McGaughey, who trained Easy Goer for owner Ogden Phipps. “For me, it was a lot of fun, because [Sunday Silence’s trainer] Charlie Whittingham was such a nice guy to go through it with and he was great to me. I was just 38 years old [in 1989] and I found it all very interesting because of the publicity it was gathering. People were talking about me writing a book once Easy Goer won the Triple Crown. A book? I was just trying to get through each race.

“Even now, you wouldn’t believe how many people keep coming up to me and say Easy Goer was their favorite horse. Well, I tell them I hope I can get another favorite horse because it’s been a while since he raced.”

Even outsiders were amazed at the partisan emotions stirred by the two horses from opposite sides of the country.

“It brought out the best in racing fans and the worst in racing fans. There was clearly a huge divide between the East and West Coast fans,” said Richard Migliore, one of New York’s top jockeys at that time and now an analyst for the New York Racing Association. “My fear in situations like that is that how good each horse was gets lost in that animosity.”

Though two of the races were decided in dramatic fashion, the final results tilted decidedly in Sunday Silence’s favor. He won 75 percent of the time against Easy Goer, shading Affirmed’s 70 percent (7 of 10) mark over Alydar. Yet more than a quarter of a century later, many of Easy Goer’s fans in the grandstand, industry and especially the media still hold on to the belief he was the better horse, including Pat Day, the jockey who was aboard Easy Goer for all 20 of his starts – 14 of them wins.

"I believe, and not to take anything away from Sunday Silence, that pound for pound Easy Goer was the better horse.”—Jockey Pat Day

“It was a tremendous rivalry and I was honored to be a part of it, but despite the record being 3-1, I believe, and not to take anything away from Sunday Silence, that pound for pound Easy Goer was the better horse,” said Day, who won 8,803 races in his career and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991. “But that’s just an opinion and everyone has one. I guess it makes a good conversation, but I’ll go to my grave believing that. We lost two photos to him and the one in the Preakness was due to a rider error on my part.”

Day and his counterpart on Sunday Silence, Pat Valenzuela, were as different as night and day and they played a central part in the contrasting personalities of the key people involved in the rivalry. Valenzuela, an aggressive rider, was immensely talented and troubled. In 1988, he entered a drug rehabilitation program after a series of absences at Santa Anita, and he lost the mount on Sunday Silence in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic when he was suspended in late October for testing positive for cocaine.

Day, well known for his patience aboard his mounts, became deeply religious in the early 1980s and was most one of the most accomplished and respected riders of his generation, winning nine Triple Crown races and 12 Breeders’ Cup races.

Among the trainers, foremost there was Whittingham, the then (at the time of the 1989 Kentucky Derby) 76-year-old “Bald Eagle” and a revered Hall of Famer since 1974. Name a major race on the West Coast, and Whittingham no doubt won it. To this day, 17 years since his death, he remains California’s most celebrated trainer.

McGaughey was a 30-something rising star back then, born and bred in Kentucky. Some 15 years away from his own election to the Hall of Fame, he guided Phipps’ filly Personal Ensign to an undefeated career that was capped by a dramatic nose victory in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

 The Hancock and Phipps families had a long and friendly relationship.

The 81-year-old Phipps was a grandson of Henry Phipps, who built the family fortune in the 1800s through Carnegie Steel, and the current patriarch of one the sport’s most famous families. His mother, Gladys Livingston Mills Phipps, raced under the banner of Wheatley Stable and won the 1957 Preakness with Bold Ruler, the sire of Meadow Stable’s 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

Phipps’ champions, aside from Personal Ensign, included Buckpasser, Numbered Account, Relaxing and Queen of the Stage, but it was Easy Goer who was being viewed as the horse destined to produce his first victory in a Triple Crown race.

Hancock was a son of legendary breeder Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr., who oversaw industry titan Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., beginning in 1949. Young Arthur left Claiborne to start Stone Farm in the years after his father’s death in 1972, and won the 1982 Kentucky Derby with his homebred Gato Del Sol. Phipps was a good friend of “Bull,” and one of his best clients, giving Hancock no great joy over beating one of the best horse to carry Phipps’ black and cherry colors.

“I had a lot of respect for Mr. Phipps and I didn’t take any pleasure out of beating his horse,” Hancock said.

While the financial aspect of the Triple Crown meant little to Phipps, Hancock was saved from financial ruin by Sunday Silence.

“I owed a lot of money back then,” Hancock said.

The two horses were as different as could be.

Easy Goer was an equine version of an all-state high school quarterback and King of the Prom rolled into one. Phipps’ homebred was a son of Alydar, the country’s hottest sire. His dam was Relaxing, Phipps’ champion older female of 1981. The reddish chestnut colt was a strapping individual, who reminded some of Secretariat, especially at times such as the 1989 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, when his winning time of 1:32 2/5 was hailed as the fastest time ever for a mile on the dirt by a 3-year-old, or the Belmont Stakes, when his time of 2:26 was second only to Big Red of Meadow Stable.

Had he been sold at a public auction at two, he would have brought millions in bids.

Meanwhile, Sunday Silence was the skinny high school geek. Awkward and thin in his formative years, he was entered in the California 2-year-olds in training sale, but was bought back by Hancock for $32,000 when the bidding stalled well short of the $50,000 he wanted for the black (officially dark bay or brown) colt by Halo he had originally purchased for a mere $17,000 as a yearling.

In his early years, Sunday Silence seemed star-crossed. A serious virus as a weanling nearly killed him. Then, after Hancock bought the colt back at the California sale, he had Sunday Silence vanned to Kentucky.  En route the driver of the truck suffered a fatal heart attack and the van overturned. Somehow, Sunday Silence escaped with only minor injuries and was returned to California.

Attempts to sell the colt might have continued if not for the events of a year earlier. In 1987, Hancock was eager to sell a 2-year-old he had bred in partnership and bought back as a yearling for $210,000 at the Keeneland July sale. Hancock wanted $300,000 for the son of Secretariat. Hancock asked Whittingham to buy a 50 percent share of the colt for $150,000 but the trainer balked because the buy-back price was just $210,000.

That colt ultimately was bought by Louie Roussel III as a 2-year-old at the Fasig-Tipton February sale for the $300,000. He was later named Risen Star, and he went on to win the 1988 Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

With that turn of events fresh in his mind, Whittingham didn’t flinch when Hancock asked for $25,000 for a 50 percent share of Sunday Silence and the trainer then handed part of his share over to a friend, Dr. Ernest Gaillard.

“I wanted a price matching what I felt the colt was worth and I guess Charlie didn’t want to go through another Risen Star scenario,” Hancock said about the expanded ownership group.

Besides the regal and humble beginnings, there were two other differences between the horses that separated them on the racetrack.

Sunday Silence was more tractable and could handle turns better than Easy Goer, which played a key role in deciding the Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“Sunday Silence more adept at negotiating the turns on a mile track than Easy Goer,” said Chris McCarron, who rode Sunday Silence in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “In the Preakness, when Easy Goer went up on Sunday Silence going into the far turn at Pimlico, Pat Day put the squeeze on Pat Valenzuela a bit and Sunday Silence dropped back about two lengths but in less than an eighth of a mile he was head and head with him again.

“Going into the final turn at the Classic, I was only a half-length in front of Easy Goer. When we came out of it I had a four-length lead and that was indicative of Sunday Silence’s ability to negotiate the turns better. Easy Goer obviously had no problem at a bigger track with sweeping turns like Belmont.”

Sunday Silence (outside) and Easy Goer battle in 1989 Preakness. (Blood-Horse/Skip Dickstein)

Of the two, Sunday Silence was simply the better battler in a heated fight. Five times in his career Easy Goer was involved in a race won by less than two lengths. He lost all of them.

“Sunday Silence was a tough SOB. There was a picture from the final yards in the Preakness where he had his ears flat on his head and Easy Goer is looking at him as if he’s saying, ‘What are you doing to me?’ It was telling, if you know animals and horses,” Hancock said. “There was that little bit of toughness in Sunday Silence and that made the difference.”

The paths of the two horses actually crossed before either one made its first start. One July morning in 1988, Hancock received a surprising call at 7 a.m. from Whittingham about a “geek” that was transforming into a talented athlete.

“He never called me that early and I asked what was going on and his first words were, ‘This big black SOB you got out here can run a little.’ Charlie was the master of the understatement, so I knew he really liked what he was seeing in Sunday Silence.

“That night I was having dinner at a restaurant in Paris named Louie’s and I saw my brother Seth [the head of Claiborne Farm] and told him what Charlie said. He says, ‘Well, that’s too bad. Mr. Phipps has the best horse he’s ever had.’ That horse was Easy Goer.”

Both horses lost their first start.

Easy Goer was beaten by a nose in his Aug. 1, 1988 debut at Belmont Park by a horse named Lorenzoni, who would win just 3 of his 23 career starts. But after that Easy Goer lived up to his connections’ expectations and reeled off four straight wins, capped by a four-length win over Is It True in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes.

He was sent off as a 3-10 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, but, in an omen of things to come the following spring, he finished second to Is It True on a muddy track.

Nonetheless voted the champion 2-year-old of 1988, Easy Goer developed into an even more imposing runner at three. He opened 1989 with an 8 ¾-length score in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, then registered his breath-taking 13-length romp in the Grade 2 Gotham and followed it up with an easy three-length victory as a 1-10 choice in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes to become the odds-on favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

“I went into the Derby with a lot of confidence,” McGaughey said. “Nothing could shake that.”

Sunday Silence’s debut did not come until Oct. 30, 1988, when he finished second by a neck. He won his next start by 10 lengths but did not make his stakes debut until the Grade 3 San Felipe Handicap in March when he posted a 1 ¾-length victory over Flying Continental.

A star was born in Sunday Silence’s next start when he powered to an 11-length romp over Flying Continental in the West Coast’s premier Derby prep, the Santa Anita Derby.

Yet even after that impressive victory, at Churchill Downs Sunday Silence was viewed as little more than the best hope to complete the exacta underneath Easy Goer by most observers – except the Bald Eagle.

“I was walking back from one of Sunday Silence’s works the week before the Derby and I asked Charlie what he thought,” Hancock said. “He said, ‘My boy, we will get the money.’ I said, ‘Charlie, you think we can beat Easy Goer?’ He said, ‘My boy, we will get the money.’ ”

ROUND ONE

The Kentucky Derby, May 6, 1989, Churchill Downs

The sun was not shining on anyone’s Kentucky home, be it old or new, on the day of the 115th Kentucky Derby. It was a freakishly cold, rainy day with temperatures in the high 30’s and a muddy track for the run for the roses.

Despite what happened six months earlier in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Easy Goer was sent off as a 4-5 favorite in an entry with stablemate Awe Inspiring, winner of the Flamingo Stakes.

Throughout the miserable day, Day had no fears of déjà vu.

“I kept thinking the track was getting better as the day went on and I was optimistic that Easy Goer had grown and matured since the Breeders’ Cup and he’d be fine on the track,” the four-time Eclipse Award winner said.

But once Easy Goer stepped onto the wet track, Day’s outlook changed.

“My confidence waned in the post parade. He wasn’t the same enthusiastic fellow,” Day said of Easy Goer. “He wasn’t there for me. Shortly into the race, I knew we were in trouble. He wasn’t responsive. He wasn’t in the bridle. At no time was he taking me into race, and that wasn’t Easy Goer.”

While Easy Goer stayed within a few lengths of Sunday Silence for much of the race, he had no answer when the 3.10-1 second choice kicked clear of him on the final turn and forged to the front at the top of the stretch. Despite wandering in and then out while being hit by Valenzuela, Sunday Silence managed to draw clear in the stretch and crossed the finish line 2 ½ lengths ahead of Easy Goer, who launched a rally between horses to grab the runner-up spot.

“When Pat hit him and he veered left and right, I was scared to death,” Hancock said. “But we won it and there’s no feeling like it. It’s an out of body experience, especially for a Kentuckian.”

Score: Sunday Silence 1, Easy Goer 0

Though bitterly disappointed with the outcome in the Derby, Team Easy Goer placed the blame on the wet track and believed their colt would return to top form in the Preakness.

“It was testimony to his talent that Easy Goer could just gallop around there and still finish second in the Kentucky Derby,” Day said. “It was comparable to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. At least we had a valid excuse. He didn’t show up. In the Preakness, we knew he would show up.”

Spearheaded by the Eastern press, the consensus of popular opinion heading into the Preakness was that Easy Goer would indeed rebound in the Preakness, which miffed Hancock.

“Right before the Preakness, I saw a television report that only three top sports writers out of 100 gave Sunday Silence a chance to beat Easy Goer,” Hancock said. “They were all discounting the Derby because it was on a wet track. The Eastern press was very powerful and they didn’t give Sunday Silence much respect. That scared the hell out of me. So I called Charlie. It was about 11 a.m. the morning of the race and he said, ‘Oh, Arthur, those SOB’s don’t know what color he is.’ That made me feel better. Then I switched channels and someone on that station said, ‘Few people give the chestnut son of Halo much of a chance to beat the awesome Easy Goer.’ Sunday Silence was of course a black colt and it came right after Charlie said that. I told myself that was an omen if I ever saw one.”

ROUND TWO

The Preakness, May 20, 1989, Pimlico Race Course

The 114th Preakness proved to be the most exciting and controversial of the four races in the heated rivalry.

Easy Goer was once again a heavy (3-5) favorite – this time without Awe Inspiring in the field – and right from the start Day knew the Derby was in the rearview mirror.

“He was sharp as a tack in the Preakness,” Day said.

Easy Goer might have been on top of his game, but Day wasn’t.

“As I re-run that race in my mind, I chastise myself pretty good because I feel I didn’t ride the best race of my career and I could have done things different,” Day said. “I made some tactical mistakes in the body of the race that cost us a victory. I have re-run that race numerous times and did it right after the race. I certainly could have done things differently and it could, would have, should have been a different outcome. Still, it was a great, great race. People still rave to me about the Preakness. They say it was the race of the century. I agree, except for the official order of finish.”

The source of Day’s angst stems from what happened on the backstretch, when he pushed Easy Goer to the lead instead of cruising alongside Sunday Silence and waiting to pounce on the front-running Houston.

“Around the first turn, we’re right on Sunday Silence’s heels,” Day said. “On the backside, I wanted him to settle so I eased out behind Sunday Silence to give him a light rein, hoping he would stretch his legs, get comfortable and relax. So then he’s alongside Sunday Silence, at which point Patrick looked over and saw me coming and thought he’d do some race riding, and that’s where I made my tactical mistake. He started to float me toward the outside and I’m like, ‘You’re not going to do that, Patrick. You’re not going to take me to the outside fence.’

“Easy Goer wanted to run, I let him run on and was going to get the advantage on Sunday Silence by floating Easy Goer down to the two or three path. I didn’t want to get taken into the 12 path or wherever he was going to take me.

“Looking back, who was the horse to beat? Sunday Silence, and that’s where I made my mistake. If he took me 12 wide, then he was going 11 wide. I should have maintained my composure. Sunday Silence would have jumped away from me on the turn but Easy Goer would have come out of the turn running and would have had three and a half furlongs to catch him. He would been out in the clear, he would changed leads on cue and I believe it would have been a different outcome.”

Once Easy Goer surged past Sunday Silence approaching the final turn and darted to the inside, it put Sunday Silence and Valenzuela in a tight spot and they dropped back a few lengths to third.

“I thought we were done at that point,” Hancock recalled. “I had my binoculars on, strapped around my neck, and I dropped them. I saw Easy Goer pass us and I thought we were cooked. That was that. But then my wife, Staci, said, ‘No, he’s coming back!’ I put my glasses back on and he was right at Easy Goer’s throat.”

Capitalizing on his prowess on turns, Sunday Silence drew alongside Easy Goer at the top of the stretch, setting the stage for one of the Triple Crown’s greatest stretch duels.

“I had let Easy Goer settle when he got to the lead and he didn’t have that quick burst of speed, so when Sunday Silence came up on the outside of me, he had the advantage. Patrick came over, bumped me, pushed me down on the fence. Sunday Silence was laying all over me,” Day said. “We came into the stretch and Sunday Silence had the advantage. It was incredibly tight on the inside and Easy Goer had never been in a position like that before. He wasn’t comfortable down there and was real slow about changing over to his right lead. Finally at the eighth pole, he switched leads and got back in front of Sunday Silence. I thought he’d run on from there.

“But then, inside the sixteenth pole, he just ran out of gas. His legs just went limber. The gas gauge was bouncing on empty and I knew the wire wasn’t coming fast enough for us to maintain our advantage.”

With only inches separating the two rivals, Day tried one last, desperate measure to pull out a victory.

“I figured that Pat had been all over me, so I wanted to see if I could initiate something and I tried to turn Easy Goer out. I thought maybe I could bump Sunday Silence and maintain my advantage and I’ll take it up with the stewards after the fact,” Day said. “But Easy Goer was so tired that when I pulled on the right rein, his head turned but his body stayed the same. Consequently that move was a moot point and Sunday Silence got his nose down on the wire.”

In the final strides, the bitter duel went to the tenacious Sunday Silence, who beat Easy Goer by a nose in the closest Preakness since 1962.

Score: Sunday Silence 2, Easy Goer 0

With the Preakness in hand, Sunday Silence was poised to become the first Triple Crown winner in 11 years and complete a $5 million bonus that included purse money for the three races. All he had to do was defeat Easy Goer in the mile-and-a-half “Test of the Champion” at the Phipps colt’s home track.

That’s all.

“I was disappointed when we got beat in the Preakness,” McGaughey said. “I was very pleased with the effort. I knew once we got back up here to Belmont, if everything goes right, we would be at least the equal to him. He shipped back up here great. He trained great and he was glad to be back home at Belmont. He loved this big track. I was more comfortable here, training him here. Everything went perfect for us.”

For the Sunday Silence crew, there was a bad omen in the days leading up to the Belmont when the Triple Crown hopeful kicked Whittingham in the head. But the mood brightened when a torrential rain storm struck Belmont Park the night before the race, raising the possibility of a messy track akin to the Derby.

In response, the New York Racing Association sealed the racetrack and closed it for training on the morning of the race so maintenance crews could work on it. With the help of a sunny and windy afternoon, the track was labeled fast for the 121st Belmont Stakes.

ROUND THREE

Belmont Stakes, June 10, 1989, Belmont Park

For the first and last time in their four meetings, Sunday Silence was favored over Easy Goer, breaking from the starting gate as the 9-10 favorite.

Once again, the betting public got it wrong.

While Sunday Silence stalked pacesetting Le Voyageur, Easy Goer, the 8-5 second-choice with stablemate Awe Inspiring, moved into third down the long backstretch. On the final turn, he swept past the two leaders and opened a clear lead passing the quarter-pole.

In the stretch, it became a runaway that smashed Sunday Silence’s Triple Crown hopes.

“I went into the race fully confident,” Day said. “Easy Goer gave me every indication he was on top of his game. He put me in a good spot early. I had them in my sights at all times. I eased out on them with a head of steam and kept Easy Goer to his task the whole way and he drew off. I think I rode a smarter race and we handed it to Sunday Silence.”

As Easy Goer approached the finish line to complete his masterful eight-length victory and give Phipps his coveted first Triple Crown win, the mood at Belmont Park was reflected first in the call by NYRA track announcer Marshall Cassidy, who proclaimed, “It’s New York’s Eeeeee-asy Goer!”

Then after the race, there were loud cheers throughout the track from the loyal fans of the hometown hero, in a stark departure from the quiet that typically greets the end of a Triple Crown bid.

“Those fans identified with Easy Goer like he was their son,” Hancock said. 

For McGaughey there was redemption.

“A lot of people told me you cost a horse the Triple Crown,” McGaughey said, “but that wasn’t why I was in there. That was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to win the Belmont for the horse and Mr. Phipps.  He was a New Yorker and I knew it was something he really wanted.

“It was very reassuring race, a very satisfying one, and a lot of fun. I remember the reaction from the crowd and that really meant a lot to me. It was like this was my turn.”

For Hancock there was the painful remorse over falling short in a bid for racing’s ultimate prize.

“Losing the Triple Crown was tough because you’ll never get another chance at it,” Hancock said. “It was the most disappointed I’ve been about anything in my life. I was devastated. If it had been closer, it might have been easier to take. He beat us badly.”

Score: Sunday Silence 2, Easy Goer 1

After the Belmont, Sunday Silence returned west and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park became the target for the matchup that would settle Horse of the Year honors.

Sunday Silence squandered a four-length lead at the eighth pole while finishing second to Prized in the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park in his return to the races, but then responded with a six-length blowout in the Grade 1 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs in his final prep for the Breeders’ Cup.

Easy Goer, for his part, was dominant. He reeled off easy Grade 1 victories in the Whitney Handicap, Travers Stakes, Woodward Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup, making him the only horse to win those four, plus the Belmont.

It was a tough campaign and McGaughey said he heard Whittingham’s spirits were lifted when the 1 ½-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup was added to Easy Goer’s busy pre-Breeders’ Cup itinerary.

That might have been true, but fans still flocked to Easy Goer, making him a heavy 1-2 favorite in a showdown that Hancock likened to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

ROUND FOUR

Breeders’ Cup Classic, Nov. 4, 1989, Gulfstream Park

With Valenzuela sidelined, Whittingham handed the reins of Sunday Silence to McCarron, who excelled in pressure situations and entered the Hall of Fame earlier in the year.

Chris McCarron aboard Sunday Silence before the 1989 Breeders' Cup Classic. (Anne Eberhardt/Blood-Horse)

“Everything was on the line,” McCarron said. “There was a lot of pressure, but pressure was something I learned how to deal with. The most exciting part of my career was to run in races when so much was on the line. I lived for those races.”

While Sunday Silence was in peak condition, Day was concerned when Easy Goer took the track.

“He was not his usual enthusiastic self for the Classic,” Day said about Easy Goer. “His head was not in the game.”

In the early stages of the 1 ¼-mile race, Sunday Silence, the 2-1 second choice, was racing comfortably in third, about five lengths off the lead.

At the same point, Easy Goer was struggling in sixth, 11 lengths off the lead.

But on the backstretch, Easy Goer kicked into gear.

“He jumped into his right lead and I thought, ‘wonderful,’ ” Day said. “He moved up and ran just outside Sunday Silence at the half-mile pole. I knew Sunday Silence would run the turn better and get away from us a little, but he was running so kindly I thought it wouldn’t be an insurmountable lead.”

The pulsating moment when Easy Goer chewed up the ground and caught up with Sunday Silence was painted brilliantly by announcer Tom Durkin, who told a national viewing audience, “Sunday Silence, bracing for the oncoming power of Easy Goer, who is right at his neck. And the stage is set with three furlongs left.”

Yet no sooner were Day’s hopes raised, than they were deflated on that fateful final turn.

“Sunday Silence started to run away from us and then when Easy Goer changed leads, he spit the bit out,” Day said. “I was back on the horse I was on going into the first turn. I had nothing. He lost interest. I shortened up my hold on him, tried to get the bit back in his mouth and whipped on him to get back in the game, but there was no response.”

As Easy Goer languished, Sunday Silence moved into second and then collared the new leader, Blushing John, at the eighth pole and edged clear.

But the race was far from over.

Third, trailing by four lengths at the eighth pole, Easy Goer changed leads one more time and took one last belated charge at his rival.

“I got down my knees,” Hancock said about the final furlong. “Everyone around us is jumping up and down and I’m on my knees, half praying, ‘Please don’t let this big red SOB catch us.’ ”

Sunday Silence (inside) held off Easy Goer in the 1989 Breeders' Cup Classic (Blood-Horse/Jim Raftery)

Fortunately, Hancock had a cool customer in the saddle in McCarron, who followed Whittingham’s instructions to the letter. Sunday Silence did not like getting hit and the Hall of Famer merely showed the whip to his horse, even as Easy Goer quickly cut into the margin.

“I was screaming, ‘C’mon wire, come on wire’ that last sixteenth of a mile, but he was a special horse for sure,” McCarron said. “On that day the trips were inconsequential. The better horse won. I looked over my shoulder at the sixteenth pole and knew Easy Goer was coming but Sunday Silence was still running strongly.”

Again, it was Durkin who best expressed what happened in the final yards, shouting “Easy Goer, with one final acceleration, and Sunday Silence holds on and wins by a desperate neck. Easy Goer was too late, not enough to win it and it was Sunday Silence in a racing epic.”

An epic, indeed. One that ultimately saved Stone Farm.

“I told Chris, ‘You made my life by winning that race.’ I owed a lot of money. There was a big market crash in 1988 and what was worth $1 became worth 30 cents. I had six children. We were in rough shape. I owed the bank a heckuva lot of money. If we got beat in the Breeders’ Cup, I would have went broke.”

Day was crushed by the loss, but took solace in knowing Easy Goer turned in a sub-par effort and still nearly won.

“He ran maybe three furlongs in a mile-and-a-quarter race and loses by a neck,” Day said. “He was coming so hard, if it was a mile and a quarter and three jumps, he would have won. But it was a mile and a quarter and we got beat by a very game, a very well-prepared and very well-ridden individual.”

Final score: Sunday Silence 3, Easy Goer 1

The Breeders’ Cup Classic proved to be a worthy finale for the intense rivalry as both horses returned for a 4-year-old campaign, but their careers came to end by July 4.

Sunday Silence, voted the Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male in 1989, retired with nine wins and five seconds in 14 starts and earnings of $4,968,554.

Easy Goer netted $4,873,770 from his 14 wins in 20 starts.

By 1997, both horses were enshrined in the Hall of Fame and both were fondly remembered for giving the sport such a huge boost from a rivalry that stirred up so much emotion from an overwhelming number of fans – in both victory and defeat.

“In team sports you do forget about who finished second, but that’s not always the case in horse racing,” McGaughey said. “Especially when you see them give the efforts that Sunday Silence and Easy Goer did.”

And in terms of effort, few could match Sunday Silence or Easy Goer.

“I wish Easy Goer had come around in another year. If American Pharoah had to run against an Easy Goer, he might not have won all three races. That’s how good Easy Goer was,” Hancock said. “As great of a rivalry as it was and how great it was for the sport, it would have been nice to see Mr. Phipps win a Triple Crown and us, too.”

And in the end, that might be something even East Coast and West Coast fans can finally agree on.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!