Twenty five years after his greatest moments on the racetrack, Sunday Silence remains a cautionary tale about bias and a story of triumphant victory. The near black runner claimed some of America’s greatest races, but he never did manage to win the hearts or respect of many in his homeland.
But in Japan he became a legend!
What the United States didn’t want, Japan was willing to take a chance on, and it dramatically changed the course of that country’s racing industry. Twelve years after his death, Sunday Silence’s name remains one that cannot be silenced on a global scale.
A Rough Start
Even Sunday Silence’s early life was one of difficulty.
The future champion was foaled March 25, 1986, at Arthur B. Hancock III’s Stone Farm near Paris, Kentucky. His sire, Halo, was the farm’s top stallion, and his dam was a graded stakes winner named Wishing Well.
Sunday Silence was bred in the name of Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds. The operation’s managing partner, Tom Tatham, had selected Halo as a foundation stallion and was the one who moved Halo from Windfields Farm in Maryland to Stone Farm. Halo was known for being a tough horse, and Sunday Silence followed in that mold.
As a weanling, Sunday Silence almost died. He contracted a freak virus in late November, and on Thanksgiving, a day when most Americans are sitting down to a turkey dinner, Dr. Carl Morrison was at the barns giving Wishing Well’s offspring 18 liters of fluid just to keep him alive.
The strong-willed colt pulled through, in what turned out to be just the first of many times his fierce determination to succeed against the odds would be necessary.
The next summer, the colt was entered in a yearling sale at Keeneland. When bidding was at $10,000, Hancock joined in to help get the number higher, but when the hammer fell at $17,000, he was the one left holding the ticket. Tatham did not want the colt he had bred, and so that is how Hancock ended up owning the horse who was born on his farm the spring before.
As a 2-year-old, Sunday Silence was again entered in a sale, this time in California, and again was rejected by the industry. This time the bidding stalled out at $32,000.
On his way back home to Kentucky and Stone Farm, Sunday Silence once again looked death in the eye and refused to blink. Somewhere in Texas, the van driver had a heart attack and died. In a nightmare situation, the van overturned, killing some of the horses and injuring the rest.
“On his way back home to Kentucky and Stone Farm, Sunday Silence once again looked death in the eye and refused to blink”
The black colt was one of the survivors
That trip to California did end up proving valuable though. Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham was intrigued by Sunday Silence, and ended up making a deal with Hancock. He would train the colt in return for 50 percent ownership. He then ended up selling half of his stake in the horse to Dr. Ernest Gaillard, which is why Sunday Silence ran in the name of H-G-W Partners.
When he made it to the racetrack as a juvenile in October 1988, Sunday Silence ran well, finishing second by a neck in a maiden special weight contest at Santa Anita Park. By his second start, the colt had the game figured out, and began to show what was in his future as he demolished the field by 10 lengths in a rather snappy time 1:09 2/5 for six furlongs.
The world didn’t know it yet, but a future Hall of Fame runner had just tasted victory for the first time.
In the spring of 1989, Sunday Silence won his stakes debut by taking the Grade 2 San Felipe Handicap. Then, in his next start, he waltzed away from his rivals, winning the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby by 11 lengths.
The colt no one had wanted was Kentucky Derby bound. However, he was still just an after thought.
History now links the names of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer together, but even before their fateful meetings on the track, the two colts were tied together in a way that goes beyond a simple horse race.
Easy Goer entered the Kentucky Derby as the favorite, and he deserved to be. He had already won three Grade 1 races and was named the champion 2-year-old colt the year before. He also happened to be born down the road from Sunday Silence and was everything his future rival was not.
Far from being unwanted, Easy Goer did everything right and hailed from one of the most powerful racing stables in the world. A beautiful chestnut colt, he spent the beginning of his life at historic Claiborne Farm and raced as a homebred for the powerful Phipps family, which has long been connected with Claiborne’s Hancock family.
Yes, the same Hancock family that Sunday Silence’s owner, Arthur Hancock, belongs to.
When Bull Hancock died, it was widely assumed his eldest son, Arthur, would take over the family business. That didn’t happen. A three-man committee that included Ogden Phipps advised the executors of the estate that the younger son, Seth, should be put in charge.
So, Arthur established Stone Farm just a few miles from his family’s legendary property, and he got a little of his own back when he became the first Hancock to win the Kentucky Derby. He did so in 1982 with Gato del Sol, two years before Claiborne claimed the roses with Swale.
The two farms still exist side-by-side to this day, and much of what happened in the past is simply water under the bridge now, but it certainly added a bit of drama to the Triple Crown in 1989.
On May 6 of that year, racing was blessed with the beginning of a rivalry powerful enough to divide families. Easy Goer was sent off as the favorite, but it was Sunday Silence who emerged the victor, easily winning the Kentucky Derby by 2 ½ lengths over his chestnut nemesis.
“I like a horse who defeats trouble,” said Whittingham after the race. “This is a good horse. He trains good, and I thought his record was just as good as Easy Goer’s.”
With Sunday Silence’s victory, his owner also bested the man who had a say in whether or not he inherited his family’s legacy. In fact, the Phipps family would have to wait until 2013 to finally win the Kentucky Derby. Like Easy Goer, Orb was born and raised at Claiborne and trained by Shug McGaughey.
The thing is, Sunday Silence’s victory came over a muddy track, and Easy Goer had already shown he didn’t care for an off surface when he ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs the year before under similar circumstances. If you think Easy Goer’s connections have gotten over that by now, they haven’t.
After Orb won over a muddy track, McGaughey stated: “A day like today might have cost me one Kentucky. I’ve come to the Derby two times when I thought I had great big chances, and it rained both times. The rain wasn’t quite as wet today as it was in 1989.”
Two weeks later it was on to the Preakness and most people, from racing fans to media, were willing to give Easy Goer a free pass for his Derby performance. In fact, one report said 97 out of 100 sportswriters expected the East Coast wonder to exact revenge over his West Coast rival.
They were wrong, but just barely.
In a race that remains one of the greatest ever run, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were glued together during the entire stretch run of the Preakness. It was more than just stride-for-stride. It was eyeball-to-eyeball, breath-to-breath, nose-to-nose, black legs churning against copper red ones.
The race was too close to call to everyone but Sunday Silence’s jockey, Patrick Valenzuela, who waved his whip in victory after the wire. He was right. Sunday Silence had won by the most desperate of nostrils.
“I thought I had put Easy Goer away, but Easy Goer came back and gave it all he had, and had me by a neck,” said Valenzuela in the aftermath. “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.”
Jockey Pat Day, who had the mount on Easy Goer, gave his horse every chance, but Sunday Silence would not be denied.
“I turned my horse’s head out because he’s competitive, and I wanted him to keep looking at that other horse,” said Day. “It was just an attempt to keep him trying. He tried, but it didn’t work.”
By now, even the most casual race fan had picked their favorite runner. Liking them both simply wasn’t an option. It was one or the other. Even this writer remembers her father and brother arguing over which colt was superior.
After the thrilling display of determination in the Preakness, the Belmont ended up being a bit of a let down.
“It was more than just stride-for-stride. It was eyeball-to-eyeball, breath-to-breath, nose-to-nose, black legs churning against copper red ones”
Easy Goer finally got the better of Sunday Silence, and he did it with ease. He won the Belmont by eight lengths, while Sunday Silence checked-in second.
The racing world would have to wait for five months before the two would meet again. In the meantime, Easy Goer reeled off four straight Grade 1 victories while racing at home in the East. Sunday Silence, meanwhile, only made two starts. He was upset in the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes then won the Grade 1 Super Derby.
When the two lined up against each other once more, it was in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic. The contest was billed “The Race of the Decade” and Easy Goer was once again made the favorite. The public, once again, was wrong.
If you listen to the race call though, the silent belief Easy Goer was the better horse is there: “Sunday Silence is bracing for the oncoming power of Easy Goer, who is right at his neck… The stage is set with three furlongs to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic… Coming to the final furlong, Sunday Silence surges to the front… Easy Goer with one final acceleration… Sunday Silence holds on, and he wins by a desperate neck… Easy Goer was too late.”
No matter what anyone thinks about who was the better horse, the record shows that they faced each other four times, and Sunday Silence only lost once. The unwanted horse finally got the accolades that had been withheld from him, as he was named Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old colt, but even those were given begrudgingly.
“That 19 people voted against Sunday Silence, though, reflects something more about the past season. Had the question on the ballot been, ‘Who is the better horse, Sunday Silence or Easy Goer?’ a lot more than 19 would have voted against the champ,” wrote Steven Crist in the New York Times after the Eclipse Awards.
Additionally, Sunday Silence had established a record for the most money earned in a single season with his 1989 earnings of $4,578,454.
That, as it turns out, was a bigger deal than many realized.
Although it was hoped the two rivals would meet again, it was not be. Sunday Silence had to undergo surgery in late 1989 to remove a bone chip and didn’t return to the races until July 3, 1990. As it turns out, that was the day before Easy Goer made his last career start. An injury led to his retirement, and he returned to Claiborne Farm.
Sunday Silence would add the Grade 1 Californian Stakes to his resume and finished second by a head in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. However, a tear in a ligament in his left front leg was discovered in early August, leading to his retirement.
The reigning Horse of the Year once more shipped home to Stone Farm, and originally he was supposed to stand his first season for $50,000 in 1991. It never happened. Syndication of the champion did not go well, and American breeders were not very interested.
Easy Goer, a son of the mighty Alydar, was welcomed into the stallion ranks by breeders. Sunday Silence was not. Easy Goer would live out his days where he was born. Sunday Silence would not. Easy Goer took up residence in a stall that once homed the likes of Bold Ruler and Secretariat. Sunday Silence was dismissed from the country.
An announcement was made in September 1990 that Zenya Yoshida had purchased the near-black colt for approximately $10 million, and he would instead begin his stud career at Yoshida’s Shadai Farm in Japan.
To this day, Hancock freely admits Sunday Silence saved his farm. He had been expanding Stone Farm, but in the late 1980s the bottom fell out of the market for both racehorses and real estate. Sunday Silence’s earnings on the track helped, but his sale saved it all.
“Syndication of the champion did not go well, and American breeders were not very interested”
Hancock even recorded a Bluegrass album entitled Sunday Silence, giving credit to his unruly but immensely talented horse. The title track begins: “When all the dreams I dream do not come true, and the friends I have turn out to be so few, when it seems the world is closing in on me, Sunday Silence soothes my soul and sets me free.”
The first foals by Sunday Silence started racing in Japan in 1994. His first starter was his first winner, and he was represented by his first stakes winner just about one month later. It was a good start, for sure, but it was just a drop in the ocean compared to what he would go on to do as a sire.
Although he had been rejected as a stallion in the United States, Sunday Silence was Japan’s leading juvenile sire his first year at stud. When his first crop was 3-years-old, in 1995, he shot to the top of the leading sire list.
Sunday Silence ended up siring five grade 1 winners from his first crop: Fuji Kiseki, Genuine, Tayasu Tsuyoshi, Dance Partner, and Marvelous Sunday. By 2000, he had changed the landscape of Japanese breeding forever. His progeny earned $53,672,791 that year alone, meaning collectively they earned more than $1 million a week.
Only death was powerful enough to remove Sunday Silence from the top, and even then, it needed five years to do it. Although he died in 2002, Sunday Silence was the leading sire in Japan from 1995 until 2007.
In August 2002, word spread throughout the world that Sunday Silence had died. Much like his life, it wasn’t an easy death. Three months before, he had contracted a leg infection. Three surgeries and world-class care were not enough to hold off laminitis, and although Sunday Silence battled on, he succumbed to heart failure caused by his other ailments.
“With illness, in any living creature, there are just things that one must accept, but at 16 years of age, normally one would expect to look forward to many more years of active service,” said Teruya Yoshida. “It’s terribly unfortunate. I think it is not only a great loss to the Japanese breeding industry but to the entire world of racing. From here on, I will endeavor to see that the great number of offspring that Sunday Silence has left behind will carry his blood forth for many generations to come.”
It was not just the Yoshida family who mourned the loss of Sunday Silence. His death was a major blow to anyone with an interest in racing in Japan.
“It is with deep regret that we witness the passing of Sunday Silence, who has given us so many outstanding racehorses, and whose name is known not only in our country but throughout the world,” said Japan Racing Association president Masayuki Takahashi at the time. “I pray for the success of those he has left behind, for the success of his sons and daughters in racing and in breeding.”
Both Yoshida and Takahashi got their wish. Sunday Silence’s progeny have won almost every single major race in Japan, including 20 out of 22 JRA Group 1 contests as well as top international races like the Hong Kong Vase, Hong Kong Mile and Dubai Sheema Classic.
Even so, when Sunday Silence died, many in the United States rationalized the loss to the American gene pool by saying he was a big fish in a small pond. That if he had stayed at home, he would have failed. That Easy Goer was still the better horse.
Perhaps part of that belief was the result of Easy Goer dying tragically young. In 1994, at only 8-years-old, he died of an anaphylactic reaction to an undetermined allergen and also had cancerous tumors in multiple organs.
But as the years pass, and racing becomes even more global, the belief Sunday Silence was one of the best stallions the world has ever known is becoming accepted. He wasn’t a great sire in Japan. He was a great sire—period.
It would be impossible to list the accomplishments of his offspring, but numbers help. On the track, his runners have earned more than $785 million. More than 20 of his sons have sired Group/Grade 1 winners the world over, while more than 20 of his daughters have produced Group/Grade 1 winners.
At this year’s Dubai World Cup, the dominance of Sunday Silence’s genes was on display through his grandson Just a Way, who smashed the track record while taking the Dubai Duty Free, and his granddaughter Gentildonna, who added the Dubai Sheema Classic to her long list of accomplishments.
With his victory, Just a Way vaulted to the top of the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings when given a rating of 130. That number equals the highest ranking given out in all of 2013, when Black Caviar and Treve both reached that mark.
Just a Way is by Heart’s Cry, while Gentildonna is by Deep Impact. Both stallions are two of Sunday Silence’s greatest sons. Deep Impact won seven Group 1 races, including the Japanese Triple Crown, and is now the leading sire in Japan. Heart’s Cry is best known for winning the Dubai Sheema Classic and finishing third in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in Britain.
All of this is to say that Sunday Silence’s influence is far from over. The champion runner and champion sire is a horse who should have died before the world ever knew his name, and instead, his name continues to live on long after he left this world.
“It’s terribly unfortunate. I think it is not only a great loss to the Japanese breeding industry but to the entire world of racing. From here on, I will endeavor to see that the great number of offspring that Sunday Silence has left behind will carry his blood forth for many generations to come.”
Perhaps the story of Sunday Silence was summed up best in one of the many eulogies that were written for him 12 years ago:
“They say he fought to the end, which is really no surprise,” wrote Jay Hovdey in the Daily Racing Form. “He deserved a better fate, filled with green pastures and pampered retirement. But that was not in his nature, and that is why his name will last.”
The thing is, both Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were champions. The runners, so different and yet so similar, have both been inducted in to racing’s Hall of Fame, and their races against each other changed the game for the better. Even if no one liked them both at the time, 25 years later, everyone is grateful for them both now.
Sire: Halo Dam: Wishing Well
Record: 14: 9-5-0
• 1989 Horse of the Year
• 1989 Champion 3-year-old colt
• Hall of Fame member
• Leading sire in Japan 1995-2007
Best Progeny (a sampling):
Deep Impact (JPN) 2002, bay
Wind in Her Hair(IRE) – Alzao(USA)
2005 Japanese Triple Crown winner
Neo Universe (JPN) 2000, bay
Pointed Path(GB) – Kris(GB)
2003 TOKYO YUSHUN (Japanese Derby)
Agnes Flight (JPN) 1997, chestnut
Agnes Flora(JPN) – Royal Ski(USA)
2000 TOKYO YUSHUN(Japanese Derby)
Dance In the dark (JPN) 1993 brown Dancing Key (USA) – Nijinsky II (CAN)
Japanese Champion 4-Yr-Old Colt (1996)
Admire Vega (JPN) 1996, bay
Vega(JPN) – Tony Bin(IRE)
1999 TOKYO YUSHUN(Japanese Derby)
Special Week (JPN) 1995, dark brown Campaign Girl(JPN) – Maruzensky(JPN)
1998 TOKYO YUSHUN(Japanese Derby)
Tayasu Tsuyoshi (JPN) 1992, dark brown Magaro (USA) – Caro (IRE)
1995 TOKYO YUSHUN(Japanese Derby)
Zenno Rob Roy (JPN) 2000, dark brown Roamin Rachel(USA) – Mining (USA)
2004 JAPAN CUP
Matsurida Gogh (JPN) 2003, bay Paper Rain(USA) – Bel Bolide(USA)
2007 ARIMA KINEN (The Grand Prix)
Heart’s Cry(JPN) 2001, bay
Irish Dance(JPN) – Tony Bin(IRE)
2005 ARIMA KINEN (The Grand Prix)
Manhattan Cafe (JPN) 1998, brown Subtle Change(IRE) – Law Society(USA)
2001 ARIMA KINEN (The Grand Prix)
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