In between the days when Swaps and Native Diver held court at the Southern California racetracks, this California-bred with a flair for the dramatic captivated local fans with his uncanny ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Followers of Thoroughbred racing today will remember Zenyatta's patented comebacks, but this chestnut colt made her look like a midpack runner. He kept fans on the edge of their seats as they wondered if he would complete another amazing rally from dozens of lengths behind. And for the jockeys that teamed with him, they were in for a wild ride each time they left the starting gate.
Overall, he won only a handful of stakes during his three seasons of racing. But despite that, he was a horse of the people. His gift for closing made him a true fan favorite in his heyday, and he possessed quite possibly the most colorful name and personality in the history of the turf. And all of that made him a fan favorite throughout his career and retirement.
Simply put, there has never been a racehorse quite like Silky Sullivan.
Bred by Riley and Nell Roberts, Silky Sullivan was trained by Reggie Cornell, uncle of legendary conditioner Ron McAnally. Dividing his time between Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita as a juvenile in 1957, Silky Sullivan put up his share of both wins and finishes outside the top three. After winning on debut at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers, Silky Sullivan went into the allowance ranks before getting into stakes company. He placed third in the Berkeley Handicap before winning the Golden Gate Futurity at Golden Gate Fields, and ended the year with a fourth in the California Breeders' Trial Stakes at Santa Anita (which came on the same day Round Table won the Malibu Sequet Stakes en route to becoming the first horse to sweep the Strub Series).
In a season that saw him win four races, all of Silky Sullivan's appearances carried a common narrative: he was well off the pace early but commenced a rally to the front. Obviously, the method worked at times, for Silky found the winner's circle early in his career. What was even more remarkable was the fact most of his wins came in sprints, the exception being the one-mile Golden Gate Futurity (which was also his only start in a route that year). Expanding on that, most of his starts as a juvenile came at five and six furlongs, not exactly marathon distances.
And the rallies. Those who watched Silky Sullivan live saw him spot many lengths to the leader. But the son of Sullivan was fearless. He seemed to live for the chase, and it was almost as if he wanted to see how far back he could be and still get the win. Though it did not always work out, Silky Sullivan showed crowds his penchant for fighting back, coming from double digits more than once to get the winner's check.
Silky Sullivan remained at Santa Anita for the winter, teaming with Manuel Ycaza (who rode him five times in 1957 after George Taniguchi was in the irons for the first two), Eddie Arcaro, William Harmatz and Bill Shoemaker. First came some allowances. Silky got one of them after being over twenty-five lengths behind at one point while going six furlongs. He then finished second in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes at a mile and one-sixteenth after giving the eventual winner, Old Pueblo, more than a thirty length advantage. But Silky would find the winner's circle again.
In fact, the next two races were his biggest victories. One of them was due to the event's prestige. The other was because it firmly cemented his legend in California.
That latter effort came first. It was on a February afternoon at Santa Anita. With Shoemaker aboard for the first time, Silky was entered in a six and one-half furlong allowance. As usual, the colt was far back early on. But the gap was wide, even by his standards. There has been no official count on how far back he was, but the consensus is that it was at least forty lengths.
Silky Sullivan looked completely out of contention as the field went down the backstretch. But Silky had other ideas. In one of the most amazing stretch runs in Santa Anita history (and probably in all of Thoroughbred racing), Silky and Shoemaker roared past their rivals with a wide trip in the stretch to win in a riveting performance. The margin was small, less than a length. But the victory came from a horse with a big heart and amazing tenacity. And that race, which was not even part of the stakes schedule, gained the status of instant classic thanks to Silky's bravado.
Next came the Santa Anita Derby, California's biggest Kentucky Derby prep race. Now asked to go a mile and one-eighth, Silky Sullivan and Shoemaker were not as far back as they were in their previous outing, but the margin was still pretty wide at around thirty lengths. But as usual, Silky was unfazed. He made up the ground to win the Santa Anita Derby, which set him on course for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
But first came a pair of races before traveling to Louisville. He took third in a one-mile allowance at Golden Gate Fields, and followed that up with a fourth in another allowance, this one at seven furlongs, at Churchill Downs. The Churchill debut actually saw him make up a deficit similar to what he had in the Santa Anita Derby, and he seemed to handle the track fine. That meant if he could get the mile and one-quarter distance that made up the Kentucky Derby, and if he had a solid pace to work with, Silky Sullivan had the look of a possible Derby contender.
Many bettors believed that to be the case, making the colt one of the contenders in the wagering. But no rally was in store under the Twin Spires. Dealing with a muddy track, Silky Sullivan might not have cared for a surface of that nature. Never a factor in the race, he finished twelfth. The Preakness did not go much better. Again way, way back in the field, Silky came to the wire in eighth, though he made up more than half the lengths he was down by at one point in the race. Another off the board finish awaited him in a Hollywood Park allowance in June, but Silky Sullivan got back to his winning ways in another allowance at Hollywood in July before doing so in those ranks again near the end of the year in Tanforan.
There were no trips out of Southern California for Silky Sullivan in his four-year-old season. He made stops at Santa Anita and Del Mar, but he was largely seen at Hollywood Park in 1959. And that is where the master of the rally picked up his final victories with Don Pierce and Shoemaker. Staying in the allowance ranks for most of the year, Silky raced eight times as an older horse. Six of them came at Hollywood, and he won three times, all of them allowances. He also managed to place in the Golden State Breeders' Handicap at the same track, and later took third in the Bing Crosby at Del Mar in what became his only start by the beach. And it turned out to be his last race overall.
After three years in the sport, Silky Sullivan retired with twelve wins in twenty-seven starts while adding several minor awards to his record. On top of that, he gained countless fans with his late-race heroics, and the fact he was born in California only added to his popularity. Silky was one of their own, and he did not have to win a lot of stakes to be remembered. He was just himself, an equine version of the common man. And the fans loved him for it.
He never lost his penchant for coming on from far back, and even when he lost he managed to not lose by a whole lot (which was common throughout his career). Even in defeat, Silky Sullivan was impressive. He just refused to quit before the wire, and that gained him widespread admiration.
Still popular well after retirement, Silky Sullivan made visits to Santa Anita over the years. He lived to the age of twenty-two, passing in 1977. He was buried in the infield at Golden Gate Fields, where he still is to this day. And in his honor, the Silky Sullivan Handicap has been run for many years at the same track (though there have been times the race has not been contested, too). There is even a restaurant called Silky Sullivan's in Southern California, letting people who dine within its walls learn of the horse who had a plethora of eyes watching him as they waited for him to make his move on race days.
Even well into the twenty-first century, the name of Silky Sullivan has not been forgotten in Thoroughbred racing. How could it? Someone who can achieve the impossible becomes part of generations. Those who saw Silky in action recounted those moments to others as time went on, and those who can find video footage of him in the present day will see just how special the horse with a beautiful chestnut coat was.
He was a rocket and a rock star on the track. He is a legend among California-breds. And Silky Sullivan is the best and most exciting closer to ever grace the sport.