1958: Silky Sullivan's Greatest Rally

Every now and then, something rare, almost outer-worldly, is seen at a racetrack. It is a moment that defies logic, explanation. And it attains legendary status immediately after completion.

Those who see it in person will forever have the image imprinted in their minds. Newspaper articles document the proceedings, and those accounts, both on paper and in person, inevitably hand down the story to future generations. It is not uncommon for the protagonist of the tale to carry a larger-than-life persona, one that captures the imagination of everyone before permanently settling into their minds.

During the late 1950s, the term "larger-than-life" could easily and rightly be applied to one particular Thoroughbred based in California: Silky Sullivan.

During Santa Anita's 1957-1958 winter/spring meet, racegoers saw this son of Sullivan rally with gusto. What's more, he did so despite the decifits appearing to be insurmountable. In late January, he got up to win the one mile American Red Cross Purse after "spotting his field eighteen lengths," according to Paul Lowry of the Los Angeles Times. That was followed days later by another come-from-behind effort, this one in the one and one-sixteenth mile California Breeders' Champion Stakes.

As Lowry wrote in his February 6, 1958 piece for the Times, Silky Sullivan again showed no quit, fighting to the end. "Off to his customary slow start, Silky Sullivan was so far out of it at one time that he was more than one hundred yards behing the horse closest to him at the half-mile pole, and the others were far up in front. He was still ten lengths out of it at the top of the stretch, but Bill Harmatz had him in high gear then, and he ate up the yards with long space-devouring strides."

To give an idea of how far Silky Sullivan was at the half-mile pole, a furlong (one-eighth of a mile) equals 220 yards, or 660 feet. Three feet translates into one yard, so Silky Sullivan trailed by roughly a half-furlong, no small distance in a horse race of any length. He lost to Old Pueblo in that race, but delivered an electrfying runner-up finish while losing by just a neck.

But those two performances were dwarfed by what the colorful horse had in store for his next outing.

The date was February 26, 1958. Silky Sullivan was entered in the Three Rings purse, a six and one-half furlong allowance contest that was transferred to the main track from the turf due to rain. Going off as the fifth race on the program, the Reggie Cornell trainee was part of a favored coupled entry with Fire Alarm. Just as he had in previous starts, the California-bred found himself far behind the field going down the backstretch.

Just how far behind was he? Lowry reported that "Al Willig of the (Daily) Racing Form had a tough time spotting the lengths he was behind the leaders and the horse closest to him. It took a study of the movies to disclose the actual distances."

Silky Sullivan ended up as far back as forty-one lengths from the front, but with a streak of bravery and a flair for the dramatic, he shrugged it off and started running. As the field navigated the far turn, the lovable chestnut reduced the gap, catching his opponents with every stride. By the time everyone was in the final stretch, Silky Sullivan had made up an impressive amount of ground, but he was still last with much to do.

But the assignment did not faze him. If Silky could have talked, he might have said, "No problem."

With Bill Shoemaker aboard and longtime Santa Anita announcer Joe Hernandez calling the action, Silky Sullivan powered home on the outside. He unleashed a mesmerizing finish, blitzing past horses as the crowd watched and cheered. No one could outrun him no matter how fast they went. Performances like this were just not possible, but Silky epitomized defying the odds.

The crowd grew louder with every stride. Silky maintained his path on the outside, collaring Sully's Boy and Music Man Fox to snatch victory by under a length in one of the all-time greatest performances in Santa Anita's history.

As if that was not unbelievable enough, Silky was still not done in Arcadia that season. He went on to win the Santa Anita Derby (again coming from far behind) to put himself in the field for the Kentucky Derby. His popularity followed him to Louisville, where bettors made him among the principal choices to win under the Twin Spires. The first Saturday in May was not Silky's day, though, for he finished in twelfth place.

Though the Kentucky Derby eluded him, Silky Sullivan remained a popular horse for the rest of his career and in retirement. People loved him for his skill, his grit, and the excitement he generated when on track. It is probably fair to say that whether he was in front of the field or well behind it, thousands of people trained their eyes to watch his every move, waiting for the moment he got in gear.

Silky was a stakes winner, but he is remembered for his rallies, particularly the one he engineered in the Three Rings purse. It is even more sublime given that it came in a sprint, and those who saw the grand horse pull off the victory saw an instant classic that winter afternoon. Well over a half-century later, it stands as one of the true virtuoso performances in the history of California racing.

A truly remarkable horse does not always have to show up on the big stage to show give the fans something memorable. Sometimes, making that journey into the pantheon of legends comes on a weekday afternoon in a lower-tier race.

No one has ever demonstrated that better than Silky Sullivan.


Lowry, Paul. "Silky Sullivan Wins Feature; 'Shoe' Blanked." Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1958, Part 4, page 1

Lowry, Paul. "Old Pueblo Edges Out Silky Sullivan." Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1958, Part 4, page 1.

Lowry, Paul. "Silky Sullivan Wins Thriller." Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1958, Part 4, page 1.

Entry added July 26, 2020. AF