In the infield at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif., a white picket fence and drifts of pansies partly enclose a small plot of ill-tended grass to the left of the tote board. There lies Silky Sullivan, the most spectacular horse in the history of West Coast racing. Silky was buried at Golden Gate in November 1977, two months short of his 23rd birthday. He had been a remarkable come-from-be-hind runner: one with flair, beauty and style, though he was often beset by severe breathing problems. Silky was so popular that even though he lost 15 of his 27 races, that didn't seem to bother his fans. To them, 1958 was memorable because their horse came from 28 lengths back to win the Santa Anita Derby by 3½ lengths; they tend to forget Silky's dismal 12th-place finish behind Tim Tarn in the Kentucky Derby a few weeks later. While most of the horses that beat him are long forgotten, across the track from Silky's shrine is a bronze plaque bearing a seven-verse poem, which begins: "Out of the gate like a bullet of red/Dropping behind as the rest speed ahead/Loping along as the clubhouse fans cheer/Leisurely stalking the field in first gear."
While he attained celebrity at Santa Anita and at Hollywood Park in Southern California, Silky was an especial favorite in the northern part of the state. He won his first stake at Golden Gate, he drew a weekday attendance record of 18,532, which still stands at that track, and after he was retired from racing, he was paraded there every St. Patrick's Day with green ribbons in his mane and tail.
Ever since Silky's final race in 1959, fans on the Coast, particularly those in northern California, have been hoping for another horse with Silky's penchant for the dramatic. Now one has, a 4-year-old filly. Quite obviously, life can still imitate Grade B movies, because the filly is Silky's granddaughter, Silky's Nurse.
From December through March 21, Silky's Nurse ran in five stakes at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate. Just like her grandpa, she seems to stop on the back-stretch for a drink and a smoke before getting interested in the doings up ahead. But she swept those five stakes, at times barely getting up in the final jump, at other times pulling away in the closing yards. In that brief span she earned almost as much money ($152,000) as Silky did in his entire career ($157,700).
It would be nice to say that Silky's Nurse is a flashy chestnut like her grandfather. Nice, but wrong. To some observers, she looks more like a lizard than a horse. And as her trainer, Ike Orr, says, "Her head is as long as a dining-room table." But her ability to win from somewhere out in the next county has captivated racegoers in the Bay Area. Once her long, smooth strides begin to waste the ground beneath her, all track announcer John Gibson has to say is "And there she goes!" and the crowd roars.
"When she goes to the starting gate," says her regular rider, 22-year-old Russell Baze, currently the fourth-leading jockey in the nation in winners ridden, "she hangs her head so low that you think you're on a plow horse. By the time you get to the eighth pole you say to yourself, 'We ain't gonna make it this time.' Then she gets to really motoring and wins. The people really love her. When I go into the winner's circle with her, everybody screams, 'Silky! Silky!' It's just as if she's their pet."
Silky's Nurse has now reached that stage where people rarely use her full name, one of the highest forms of flattery on the backstretch. She's called Silky, The Nurse, Sweet Momma or El Stupendo, the latter despite her gender. Ask racetrackers in northern California what they think about her and they inevitably answer, "When she puts her head down and starts running it's all over."
Silky's Nurse was at the top of her dilatory form on March 21 in the $82,050 Golden Poppy Handicap at Golden Gate, a race in which' she carried 120 pounds and conceded four to 11 pounds to her six opponents. As usual, Silky came out of the gate virtually in line with the other starters and then began slowly receding. She eventually got herself just where she wanted to be—last place—and it seemed that young Baze would have to raise a white flag of surrender. But once Silky's Nurse had spotted the field some 14 lengths, she started to move along the track like a stone skipping over water. She won by two lengths.
Just a week earlier, Silky's Nurse ran on a fast track in the $61,300 Daddy's Datsun Invitational. With 4½ furlongs remaining in the 1[1/16]-mile race, she was once again caboosing the train, 13 lengths behind. The horse on the lead was Watch Wendy, generally regarded as the best in northern California for sheer speed. Silky's Nurse put her head down and very soon it was all over. She won by four lengths.
But, like her granddad, the filly can also lose in spectacular fashion. Two weeks ago at Golden Gate, running on grass in the $61,700 Star Ball Invitational, she parked herself in last place in the 11-horse field—and stayed there all the way to the wire. Orr claimed to be undisturbed. "Her race didn't discourage me all that much," he says. "She was carrying top weight of 127 pounds and hadn't raced in 40 days. Her next start will be in the $125,000 Yerba Buena on Memorial Day and I expect her to run a heck of a lot better in that." Besides, if history repeats itself, El Stupendo's fans will be as forgetful of that poor showing as Silky Sullivan's admirers were of his.
Silky's Nurse is by Doc Humphrey from the Silky Sullivan mare, Silky Cover. Between them, Doc Humphrey and Silky Cover ran 147 times and won only 14. Breeding experts maintain that The Nurse's style must come from Silky Sullivan, himself a poorly bred horse who sired only four minor stakes winners. Although Silky was famous, his stud fee never exceeded $500.
Recently, Orr went to a horse auction in Los Angeles, and while there was offered $500,000 for Silky's Nurse. "It was one heck of a price," he says, "but the lady said 'No.' "
"The lady" is Janet Lutz, now the sole owner of Silky's Nurse after buying out her former partners for some $35,000. "I won't sell this horse," says Lutz, the president of Lutz Realty in Sonoma, Calif. "In some ways I consider Silky's Nurse a gift from God and such things cannot be bought or sold." At present Silky's Nurse is the only horse, heaven-sent or otherwise, in Lutz' stable.
Lutz, who has been in racing for five years, bought Silky's Nurse after the last horse she had running was claimed. "I worked up the courage to ask Ike Orr to train a horse for me," she says. "He had Silky's Nurse, but tried to sell her to just about every one of his clients but me. Finally, I got Silky's Nurse in partnership with the Yolanda Stable. Then I bought Yolanda out. I don't want to send Silky's Nurse down to Southern California to run on those cement tracks. She's a northern California horse."
Orr is 50, a bit under 6 feet, and wears a comfortable cummerbund of fat beneath his flowered open-necked sports shirts. He hails from Oregon and worked as a logger, bartender and van driver before getting his start in racing by training quarter horses at a bush-league track in Grants Pass, Ore.
"Yes, I saw Silky Sullivan run," says Orr. "Didn't believe much of what I saw or heard. But it was true. The only way that Silky's Nurse runs like she does has to be traced back to him."
Jockey Baze is one of the "Blazing Bazes" of the Pacific Northwest, a remarkable family that has produced seven jockeys and five trainers. They are most closely associated with the Longacres and Yakima tracks in Washington and Portland Meadows in Oregon. "My entire family has been around horses virtually all their lives," Russell says. "My grandfather Bert trained horses at the fairs in Idaho and my grandmother Bunt rode for him. My brother Dale is the leading rider at Portland Meadows. Even the girls in the family went on the racetrack for a spell. But my brother Cory didn't. I guess it just wasn't exciting enough for him. He drives in the demolition derby. At Thanksgiving we all try to get together for a family reunion at the Grange Hall in Outlook near Yakima. There are about 100 guests and 100 Bazes. We talk a lot about horses."
Topic A is likely to be Silky's Nurse for some reunions to come, and it would be nice if she could do some winning on grass before being turned out on it. The four big stakes races left for fillies three years old and up at Golden Gate in the current meeting are all on the weeds. Her record on the turf shows no wins in five starts. But Orr still thinks she can handle it. And he prefers not to race her against males in the summertime, probably a sound decision.
As famous as he was, Silky Sullivan never won more than two races in a row and had but two stakes victories to his credit. His strange-looking granddaughter has had one streak of five straight wins and has won seven stakes. It makes one wonder if anybody really knows anything about bloodlines.
Although Silky's Nurse is no beauty, to owner Lutz the filly is "a gift from God."
Here at Golden Gate lies Silky Sullivan, last for much of many a race, but forever first to his fans.