This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
“I think my biggest, most crushing defeat was in the beginning of my racing and gambling life when Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer again in the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” says racing writer and handicapper John Scheinman, recalling the Classic of 1989 at Gulfstream Park, in which Sunday Silence beat rival Easy Goer in the fourth, and final, match-up of an epic rivalry that kept racing fans transfixed throughout the 1989 season.
“I was such a big Easy Goer fan,” says Scheinman. “And that race, I still return to it to hear (race caller) Tom Durkin call it from time to time on YouTube. I loved Easy Goer, but his two big challenges to Sunday Silence in that race were repelled each time. I was still a neophyte at the time, and I think when you’re younger you take pro sports loses and victories much more to heart than when you get older.”
Several handicappers interviewed for this story mentioned the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer match-up. A kind of landmark among landmarks.
“Every time a horse wins a Breeders’ Cup race, history is being made,” says Daily Racing Form handicapper Mike Watchmaker. “When you look at racing history, so much of it is looking through the sporting lens of handicapping.” And he has examples, starting with Zenyatta’s stirring victory last year in the Classic, at Santa Anita Park, rallying from what seemed to be too far behind to win going away.
“I was against her,” Watchmaker admits. “I did not expect her to win, and she proved me wrong. I admit it. She’s one of the greatest racemares of all time, and it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck with the reception she got from the crowd. It was one of those rare moments.”
Similar, he says, to the 1988 Distaff at Churchill Downs, when Personal Ensign rallied desperately to beat Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors by a nose in the final stride — “looking like there was no way in the world she could win that race, but she did,” Watchmaker remembers.
The Philadelphia Daily News's Jerardi also was “riding” Easy Goer in that famous showdown. Sunday Silence had beaten Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby. Then nipped him in the Preakness, with both horses on the same stride and their noses not even an inch apart at the wire. But in the Belmont, Easy Goer had powered to a six-length triumph. For the Classic, four months later, Easy Goer was a strong favorite, at 1-2, with Sunday Silence less well regarded at 2-1.
“Sunday Silence came into the Classic not even close on figures,” remembers Jerardi. “But what you also knew was on the right day he could do it, and you knew his trainer was Charlie Whittingham. So on that basis, you had to figure he was going to run his best.”
Jerardi says he settled on Easy Goer. But whether that was a bet made with his head, or his heart, doesn’t matter. “What you’ve got to do is not get too emotional about your horse in relation to the odds your horse is in the race,” Jerardi says now. “But I always used to have my favorites and think they couldn’t possibly lose. Then you find out they can.”
A personal historical note: I lived on the other side of the East-West rivalry, betting Sunday Silence almost every time he ever ran. Lost the Belmont, but took down the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and, yes, that Breeders’ Cup Classic. And Sunday Silence’s Classic victory served not only as a personal handicapping triumph, but provided just enough cash to settle the Florida motel tab and get me back to Kentucky in time to pay the electric bill before Louisville Gas & Electric turned off the lights.
A similar clash of giants came in 1987 at Hollywood Park, when 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand beat fast-closing ’87 Derby winner Alysheba by a nose in a star-packed field. NBC got a camera into the stewards’ stand as the photo finish picture was being developed, showing not only who won but the hairsbreadth by which one Kentucky Derby winner had beaten another.
The lasting image for me, though, is a photograph taken by Louisville photographer Dan Dry that captures Bill Shoemaker and Ferdinand in those desperate closing strides. The Shoe, with his whip put away, reaches one of those small hands forward and just touches Ferdinand on the neck. You can see that in Dry’s photo. It was all the encouragement the horse needed. The touch. The fingertips. The Shoe.
A year later, Alysheba would get his Classic at Churchill Downs, in near darkness at 5:35 p.m. in November ‘88. (This time there will be lights.)
Photo: John Nation