Silky Sullivan was a California-bred superstar as the 1958 Kentucky Derby approached, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated on April 28th and capturing the attention of people who were not fans of horse racing. He was a muscular 16 hands-plus picture-perfect specimen known as the “California Comet” whose chestnut coat gleamed in the Golden State sun.
Silky Sullivan’s appeal was his running style, which was lagging far, far behind the field in the early part of races and then closing with a tremendous rush. His trainer, Reggie Cornell, and his regular jockey, Bill Shoemaker, said that the colt would not respond to efforts to keep him closer to the pace.
In a 6 ½ furlong prep race for the Kentucky Derby, Silky Sullivan was 41 lengths behind after a quarter of a mile, and rallied to win. Has a horse ever overcome such a gap in a sprint and won? Doubtful.
In the Kentucky Derby, CBS televised the race using a split screen, with one screen focused on the field and the other screen showing the dawdling Silky Sullivan.
Prior to the Kentucky Derby, Silky Sullivan had won half his 14 starts. In the Santa Anita Derby on March 8, 1958, his last race before the Kentucky Derby, the colt made up a 26-length deficit to win by three lengths at 1 1/8 miles.
Silky Sullivan went off in the Kentucky Derby as the co-favorite with Calumet Farm’s Tim Tam…and dashed his followers hopes by losing to Tim Tam by 20 lengths and finishing twelfth. Tim Tam repeated the drubbing in the Preakness, beating Silky Sullivan by 15 lengths.
While Silky Sullivan had lost much of his mystique after the Derby and Preakness, he delighted his loyal fans by returning to California and winning two sprints with his come-from-behind style.
Silky Sullivan lived out his life as a breeding stallion of some note and was paraded for several years in front of adoring fans at California racetracks on St. Patrick’s Day. He continued to receive fan mail for years after his 1958 campaign. Silky Sullivan died in 1977 and was buried near the tote board at Golden Gates Field racetrack in San Francisco.
It is difficult today to imagine what it was like in 1958 when a charismatic racehorse was a household name.
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The series on Kentucky Derby history began on February 20 and ends on May 1.