Preakness star `Silence' dies at 16 of heart failure

Winner in 1989 by nose over Easy Goer, he later became top sire in Japan

Horse Racing

August 20, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Sunday Silence, the lionhearted thoroughbred who defeated Easy Goer in the epic 1989 Preakness at Pimlico, died in Japan yesterday of heart failure after a typically valiant 14-week struggle against illness and laminitis, a debilitating hoof disease. He was 16.

Considered one of the greatest races of all time, the Preakness of 1989 featured the unforgettable stretch duel between Sunday Silence, the West Coast hero, and Easy Goer, the East Coast darling, that Sunday Silence won by a nose. The near-black colt also captured the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic that year, earning racing's top honor: Horse of the Year.

After his racing career in this country ended in 1990, Sunday Silence stood at stud in Japan. Shunned by breeders in the United States, the son of Halo became a legend in Japan, siring runners who have earned more than the equivalent of $300 million in fewer than 10 years.

"Sunday Silence was an international superstar," said Ray Paulick, author of Sunday Silence, part of the "Thoroughbred Legends" series of the greatest horses of the 20th century. "American racing fans remember his exciting duels with Easy Goer. Japanese fans never saw him race but recognize him as the most prolific sire in their history."

Sunday Silence died at Shadai Stallion Station on the island of Hokkaido in Japan after undergoing three operations for an infection in his right foreleg. His dogged battle for survival typified his life, whose chapters recount one of racing's extraordinary tales.

"He was dubbed the `ugly duckling' when he was little," said Arthur Hancock III, who campaigned Sunday Silence and revered him to the end. "But he grew into the beautiful swan. He was just an awesome animal."

Sunday Silence was raised on Hancock's Stone Farm in Kentucky, where he nearly died of severe diarrhea as a foal. Hancock tried to sell the colt as a yearling for his Kentucky breeder, but hardly anyone bid for him.

Hancock bought him for $17,000, thinking the breeder would want him back for that relatively paltry sum. But the breeder said no; he didn't want Sunday Silence. Hancock was stuck with him.

Hancock tried to sell him the next year as a 2-year-old, but again no one wanted to pay what Hancock thought he was worth. Hancock bought the colt back for $32,000 at the auction in California.

Then, on the drive home, Sunday Silence's van driver had a heart attack in Texas and crashed. The van carrying Sunday Silence flipped over and nearly killed him. He spent a week in a Texas clinic, and when he finally returned to Stone Farm, he could hardly walk.

After Sunday Silence recovered, Hancock persuaded Charlie Whittingham, the legendary trainer from California, to train Sunday Silence in return for partial ownership. Whittingham agreed. The Hall of Fame trainer turned the unwanted ugly duckling into a Hall of Fame horse.

Sunday Silence won six Grade I stakes: Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Super Derby, Breeders' Cup Classic and the Californian. He met Easy Goer four times, and beat him three times - by 2 1/2 lengths in the Kentucky Derby, by a nose in the Preakness and by a neck in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Easy Goer defeated him by eight lengths in the Belmont.

"If it wasn't for Easy Goer, Sunday Silence would have won the Triple Crown, and vice versa," Hancock said. "They were both great horses."

After Sunday Silence injured a tendon and was retired after only two races at 4, Hancock tried to sell shares in the horse as a potential stallion in Kentucky. But again, despite Sunday Silence's record (nine wins and five seconds in 14 starts for earnings of $4,968,554), the American racing world shook its head no. Only three people were interested in buying shares for $200,000. So Hancock, reluctantly, sold Sunday Silence to Japanese breeders for nearly $11 million.

"He'd have been a great sire here, but that's the way it went," Hancock said. "He was a wonderful creature. He was all heart. I don't think I've ever had more respect for anybody or anything than I have for him. He tried so hard."

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