THE PREAKNESS STAKES, 1989 and 2009

On January 20, 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush was inaugurated as the 41st President of the United States.  Later that year, the first World Wide Web server and browser were developed and the human gene transfer was pioneered by three scientists.  Rain Man won the Academy Award for best movie and the record of the year was Don’t Worry Be Happy.  On the first Saturday in May, Sunday Silence defied the conventional wisdom in the horse-racing world by upsetting the prohibitive favorite Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby.

The muscular chestnut Easy Goer was impeccably bred for speed and distance and had been the 2-year-old American champion of 1988. He was by Alydar out of Relaxing by Buckpasser. Names like Tom Fool, War Admiral, and Man o’ War appeared in his lineage. He was owned by Ogden Phipps (not Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, but rather his father), trained by Claude “Shug” McGaughey III, and ridden by Pat Day. Easy Goer had won three Grade 1 races prior to the Kentucky Derby.

The nearly black Sunday Silence was well-bred also, being by Halo, whose ancestors included Hail to Reason, Royal Charger, and Nearco. His dam was Wishing Well, and in her bloodline were such blueblood stallions as Hyperion and Palestinian.   Sunday Silence had a conformation fault known as sickle-hocked. He was owned by the partnership of Arthur Hancock III, Dr. Ernest Gaillard, and the colt’s Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham. The jockey was Patrick Valenzuela.

Sunday Silence came close to dying from a virus when he was a weanling and, as a 2-year-old, barely escaped death in a van accident. He went unsold twice at auction–once as a yearling and again as a 2-year-old. He came into the Kentucky Derby with an 11-length win in the Santa Anita Derby.

In the Kentucky Derby, Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer–on a cold and bitter day with occasional snowflakes and a muddy track–in a time of two minutes and five seconds. The official chart of the race had the following summary:

SUNDAY SILENCE broke into FAULTLESS ENSIGN, was steadied when NORTHERN WOLF angled over soon after the start and got a good position between horses racing to the first turn, moved out in front of EASY GOER approaching the backstretch, made a run from the outside when asked nearing the stretch and proved clearly best while swerving under pressure during the drive. EASY GOER, bothered when NORTHERN WOLF angled over shortly after the start, remained in hand while well out in the track into the backstretch, rallied while between horses leaving the far turn and continued on gamely to gain the place…

Many racing experts and fans wrote off Easy Goer’s loss in the Kentucky Derby to the colt’s dislike for the Churchill Downs’ surface and/or to mud. Easy Goer had lost the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over the same racetrack in 1988 in the mud. But Charlie Whittingham was confident in Sunday Silence’s superiority and did not consider the Kentucky Derby win a fluke or attributable to Easy Goer’s disdain for off tracks.

Two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, Preakness day in Baltimore was a beautiful Spring day in Maryland. There could be no weather-related excuses because conditions were near perfect and the track was fast.

The Preakness proved to be one of the most scintillating stretch duels of all time. The nine-horse field came out of the gate with Northern Wolf and Houston vying for the early lead. With 7/8th of a mile left to run, Sunday Silence was third only three lengths off the lead and Easy Goer was shadowing him in fourth. At the ½ mile poll Easy Goer surged to the lead and Sunday Silence momentarily lost his stride as Valenzuela took back in tight quarters behind Houston and Easy Goer. Arthur Hancock thought that the race was effectively over and his colt had lost. To the contrary, Sunday Silence rallied and passed Easy Goer for the lead at the top of the stretch. Then a rousing ding-dong battle took place to the finish line and at one point Easy Goer regained the lead. When Sunday Silence gained a nose advantage in deep stretch, Pat Day on Easy Goer turned his colt’s head toward his adversary and, to the spectators, it looked as though Easy Goer was trying to savage his rival. When the gallant colts passed the finish line, Sunday Silence won by a nose in the fast time of 1:53 4/5.

Easy Goer extracted a measure of revenge in the Belmont Stakes, denying the 4-5 favorite Sunday Silence the Triple Crown in an eight-length rout. Charlie Whittingham would say that a distance of 1 ½ miles was beyond Sunday Silence’s pedigree and range.

In total, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer met four times with the former taking three of the four. Sunday Silence’s narrow defeat of the rapidly closing Easy Goer in the 1 ¼-mile 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic was indeed a classic. In the approaching darkness of a late Fall day at Gulfstream Park, Sunday Silence barely hung on to victory.

Sunday Silence earned nearly $5 million on the racetrack. He was sold to a Japanese breeder and exported. Sunday Silence proved to be an outstanding sire. He lived to be 17-years-old.

Easy Goer also earned almost $5 million racing and was retired to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. He sired three Grade 1 winners but died at age eight.

The Blood-Horse lists Sunday Silence as the 31st best American racehorse of the 20th century and has Easy Goer at number 34. Both horses were elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Their battles in the 1989 Preakness and the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic are races for the ages.

My picks for the 2009 Preakness are based partly on the assumption that Mine That Bird’s Kentucky Derby win was the result of a perfect storm favorable to him.  I don’t see it as likely that  he will run back to his Derby performance and he has a new jockey as well.  Rachel Alexandra could be vulnerable owing to her new barn and new trainer.  We simply don’t know how much the change will affect her.  Has she acclimated?

The Preakness pace should be brisk, as several entrants could contest the lead.  Calvin Borel on Rachel Alexandra will have to go quickly out of post position 13 if he is to get the filly near the front runners.   Pioneer of the Nile will also be close to the lead and–at a distance 1/16th of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby–he might hold on to win.  If Rachel Alexandra and Pioneer of the Nile hook each other early and battle into deep stretch, the finish could be set up for an off-the-pace colt like Musket Man.   To me, Friesan Fire is a mystery.  The Kentucky Derby could have been the race he needed (after a 49-day absence) to tighten him for The Preakness.  Dismissing an AP Indy colt like Friesan Fire is risky business.

As I write this, the weather forecast for Baltimore is for scattered thundershowers.  If the track is off, that brings Mine That Bird back into consideration, as, in my opinion, it greatly improves his chances.  He won in the mud in Louisville.

A Rachel Alexandra/Pioneer of the Nile exacta box is not very daring.  Even though this may be the highest probability bet, I want to be more venturesome, especially since Rachel Alexandra, Pioneer of the Nile, or both, may be cooked by a fast pace and Rachel may not be herself after changing stables and trainers.

I will box Friesan Fire and Musket Man in an exacta, and, if the track is off, throw in Mine That Bird.  Picking a Trifecta in this race is  iffy, but I will box Friesan Fire, Musket Man, Pioneer of the Nile, and Rachel Alexandra. 

Folks, I don’t claim to be an expert handicapper and many of your views may be better than mine.  In fact, the gurus are having trouble handicapping this race to return value.  Use your intuition and judgment, don’t bet over your head, and have some fun.

Best of luck in your Preakness betting.  May the race be safe to the colts, geldings, and the filly…and their jockeys.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business

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