When trainer Charlie Whittingham last week shipped Sunday Silence 1,400 miles from Arcadia, Calif., to Bossier City, La., for Sunday's $1 million Super Derby, it wasn't for the money. Winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, had helped increase his bank balance to $2.6 million. Trouble was, Sunday Silence hadn't won a race since May 20. So what the 3-year-old son of Halo needed now was a little respect. Hard to believe, but Sunday Silence had become the Rodney Dangerfield of horse racing.
The decline began with the Belmont Stakes in June, when Easy Goer, runner-up in both the Derby and Preakness, whipped Sunday Silence by eight lengths. Perhaps worse, he also lost his next race, the 1¼-mile Swaps at Hollywood Park in July, to a good but not great 3-year-old named Prized. Meanwhile, Easy Goer was ripping off three straight stakes wins—the Whitney, the Travers and the Woodward—and emerging as the heavy favorite for Horse of the Year. So, whatever happened to what's-his-name, the Derby winner?
The 76-year-old Whittingham was understandably peeved that his star had all but been dismissed even before the balloting began, and he blamed it not on Sunday Silence but on the Eastern media. "Hell, those New Yorkers still don't think Easy Goer got beat in the Derby and Preakness," he said before the Super Derby. "They aren't sure. They probably keep running them tapes over and over again."
Whittingham did allow that, to be Horse of the Year, Sunday Silence would have to win the 1¼-mile Super Derby at Louisiana Downs and go on to beat Easy Goer in the 1¼-mile Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Gulfstream Park in Florida. The first part was a snap. Sunday Silence was sent off the heavy 2-5 favorite in the field of eight in the Super Derby, and he finished six lengths ahead of Big Earl, a local horse. Awe Inspiring, Easy Goer's stablemate and the winner of the Jersey and American derbies, was just behind in third.
The race was everything Whittingham had hoped for. Jockey Pat Valenzuela settled Sunday Silence on the rail in fifth place going into the first turn and then moved him up to fourth at the half-mile mark. There he appeared to be boxed in, but Valenzuela found daylight, split two horses, surged to the lead before the three-quarter mark and never looked back. "I had no use for the whip today," said Valenzuela. "He was running so well I never even had to uncock it. I hand-rode him all the way to the wire."
As Whittingham headed for the winner's circle, a fan yelled, "Bring on Easy Goer!" The elated Whittingham nodded and replied, "We're ready." Of course, he had felt ready all along. He never lost confidence in Sunday Silence. He blamed the poor performance in the Swaps—Sunday Silence was about five lengths in front turning for home—on his colt's keen vision. "He jumped when he noticed the marks left on the track by the starting gate," said Whittingham, "and when Valenzuela gave him a whack to get him back on course, he ducked again. He sees everything." But by that time, Prized had taken the lead. Sunday Silence got back in gear but could finish only second, by three-quarters of a length.
After that race Whittingham put a shadow roll on Sunday Silence for the first time. The effects of visual stimulus on the colt were evident two days before the Super Derby, as he stood in his stall checking out the action on nearby Interstate 20, his head swinging back and forth. "He's been like this all week," said Whittingham. "He's counting the cars." Earlier, Sunday Silence had become so excited by the sight of visitors standing outside his barn that he banged his head against the top of the stall, nicking his forehead in two places. "He was his old wild self again," said Pam Mabes, his exercise rider. "He was rearing and bucking and feeling good when I galloped him this morning."
This was the 10th running of the Super Derby, a race designed to attract national attention to little Louisiana Downs. The event was originally billed as "the fourth leg of the Triple Crown," a chance for late-blooming 3-year-olds to show their stuff and win big money. It has, in fact, been elevated to Grade I status and has attracted some outstanding talent: Temperence Hill, Alysheba, Sunny's Halo and Gate Dancer are all former winners of the event.
Sunday Silence's cruise-control victory was so impressive that Shug McGaughey, Easy Goer's trainer, who attended the race, said afterward, "Looks like I'd better have Easy Goer right on Breeders' Cup Day. If both horses get there the right way, it's going to be quite a race."
"I think Sunday Silence can beat any horse running if things go his way," said Whittingham. "He's as good as Easy Goer. As good a horse as I've got, maybe the best I've ever had. And I've had a lot of good ones." Whittingham then announced that the colt would not race again before the Breeders' Cup.
"It's almost sweeter to come back," said Sunday Silence's part-owner Arthur Boyd Hancock. "To be beaten twice and then come back to win—it vindicates a horse." Then he paused for a moment. "I hope he got his respect back today. In my mind, he did."
Valenzuela never used the whip as Sunday Silence ran as if he were on cruise control.