On the evening of May 6, 1958, a baggage car with fancy thoroughbred cargo arrived at the old Mount Washington Pennsylvania Railroad station. Out came Silky Sullivan, who days before had been the toast of the Kentucky Derby and was a proven crowd-pleaser bound for the Preakness. He lost both races but captured hearts, and his presence at Old Hilltop drew a track betting-record figure.
"The strapping pride of California patiently posed for dozens of news and amateur photographers as more than 150 persons, including a chattering swarm of children, gathered about," The Sun said of Silky's Baltimore debut. "Many of them held up greeting cards reading, 'Hooray for Silky,' 'We still love you,' and 'Good luck in the Preakness.'"
It did not hurt that Silky had pals. Lots of them. A contingent from Baltimore's Friendly Sons of St. Patrick made the visit to Mount Washington station that evening. In a day or so, Baltimore Colts legend Art Donovan was posing with Silky for the photographers.
Silky was quartered with racing royalty off Winner Avenue in Northwest Baltimore on the grounds of Pimlico at Stable Y. His mates were his competitors: Tim Tam, Jewel's Reward, Lincoln Road and Gone Fishin', who was his mate in the train car that carried both of them from Kentucky to Maryland.
Silky Sullivan, a California-bred horse, made a name for himself by starting slow and coming from behind. Before long, his name became a synonym in both sports and politics for a contender who may appear to be lost in the competition yet often emerges on top. He won the Santa Anita Derby but was at one point 28 lengths behind.
By the time he arrived in Baltimore, Silky was a national celebrity with his own secretary to handle fan mail. For the Preakness that year, television set up two cameras, one to watch the front-runners, the other to watch for Silky, who ending up eighth in the 12-horse field.
"He is a horse the most casual fan can easily identify. He is … larger than Man o' War," said a 1958 Evening Sun article. "His coat is the color of a new copper penny. Yet he is gentle as a kitten with the hordes of strangers at his flank."
"You can't do a thing with him, you just have to allow him to run his own race, at his own speed, in his own style in the first quarter or maybe the first three-eighths," said jockey Willie Shoemaker. "And you just sit there and wait, hoping you won't have to wait too long, because when he really gets going you have to be alert or he might just leave you behind — and then you hold on for dear life."
Silky was known as a calm horse who loved people as much as they loved him. My father, Joe Kelly, was then covering racing for the old Washington Evening Star. He heard from Silk's groom that Silky was good with children — and my father had five at that time.
Then as now, my sister Ellen loved horses. One early morning, before the start of her second-grade classes at Notre Dame Preparatory School, she arrived at Silky's stable. She climbed atop a tack box and kissed Silky. Jerry Frutkoff, the track photographer, made a shot and distributed it to the news wire services.
Our phone started ringing and didn't stop during Preakness Week in 1958. Ellen's picture ran in hundreds of newspapers and made the back page of the New York Mirror. The headline: "A Sullivan meets a Kelly."