The 1989 Santa Anita Derby
When it came to the 1980s, California racing had its share of horses triumph in Triple Crown events. It began with Codex, who got the trend started with a victory in the 1980 Preakness Stakes. Gato Del Sol was the 1982 Kentucky Derby champion, while Ferdinand and Snow Chief captured the 1986 Derby and Preakness, respectively.
The next year went to Alysheba, and while he raced all over the country, he made some starts in the Golden State leading up to the 1987 Triple Crown season, highlighted by a runner up finish in the Grade I San Felipe Handicap before taking the Derby and Preakness. Then came Winning Colors, who wowed the sport with her 1988 Kentucky Derby triumph after becoming only the third filly to win the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.
In a way, California racing came full circle in 1989, at least when it came to producing classic winners throughout the decade.
It began with Codex, and it would conclude with Sunday Silence.
A dark bay son of Halo, this Charlie Whittingham trainee seemed to be destined for the stakes ranks. His sire won or placed in multiple stakes during the early 1970s, and his dam, Wishing Well, did the same several years later. He showed early promise, not finishing worse than second in his first four starts before winning his stakes debut in the Grade II San Felipe Handicap in 1989. That also happened to serve as a prep race for the Kentucky Derby, and one more tune up was to follow soon after.
That came in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 8th.
Between 1980 and 1988, three horses won both the Santa Anita Derby and a Triple Crown race: Codex, Snow Chief, and Winning Colors. For Sunday Silence to emulate them, he would have to overcome five rivals: Flying Continental, Hawkster, Houston, Mr. Bolg, and Music Merci. This would be the first time Sunday Silence attempted the 1 1/8 mile distance, but he was given a good chance to win. He was roughly 5-2 at post time, with the chief threat being the undefeated Houston, who was sent off as the favorite. The start was delayed after Hawkster broke through the starting gate, but only briefly. Now, all six would vie for the title of Santa Anita Derby champion for 1989.
Houston did not have the greatest of exits from the starting gate, but shook that off to take the lead from Music Merci going into the clubhouse turn. Sunday Silence and Patrick Valenzuela (who rode the colt in all but one career start), were alongside Houston early, but stayed in third place in the early goings.
The small field was already somewhat strung out when they all reached the Santa Anita backstretch. Houston, Music Merci, and Sunday Silence were all closely grouped together, and the pace was quick. The half-mile went by in 45 3/5, with Houston still leading. Sunday Silence was not bothered. He seemed tranquil, just letting the race move along. No reason to engage in battle just yet. There was no doubt of the confidence surrounding him. Charlie Whittingham, who won the Kentucky Derby three years earlier with Ferdinand, was a rare presence when it came to the Kentucky Derby. The fact Sunday Silence was in the Santa Anita Derby indicated Whittingham liked this colt. For all of the trainer's plethora of victories, he had just one Santa Anita Derby to his name, and that came two years earlier with Temperate Sil.
With the second half of the event underway, Music Merci, who had been along the inside in second, was being urged. He drew even with the leader while Hawkster and Mr. Bolg were contesting fourth place. As for Sunday Silence, he just coasted right along on the outside. Houston was out of it well before the top of the stretch, Music Merci having won the battle for the lead. But he was being asked to pick it up by Gary Stevens. Right after the top two reached the quarter pole, Sunday Silence opened up his lead, prompting Santa Anita track announcer Trevor Denman to exclaim that he thought the Santa Anita Derby was over. At that moment, Sunday Silence turned his head in the direction of the grandstand. In all likelihood, it was probably just youth and inexperience that caused him to do so, but perhaps he was taking in the large, raucous crowd that was focused on his performance, enjoying the moment.
With more than 40,000 on hand at Santa Anita, the sophomore made his case for being a Kentucky Derby contender.
None of the other five competitors offered any kind of serious challenge. Sunday Silence just kept moving forward, adding a wider gap between himself and Music Merci. The race was done well before the wire. Running along the inside, Sunday Silence moved with the toughness of a boxer and the grace of a figure skater. He was going to win in style and did just that, finishing ahead of Music Merci by an astounding 11 lengths. The nine furlongs were completed in 1:47 3/5, and that meant Sunday Silence shared one of the faster times in Santa Anita Derby history with horses like Avatar (who later won the 1975 Belmont Stakes) and Codex, among others.
The coming weeks would see Sunday Silence capture the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes while defeating his great rival, Easy Goer. But, the Santa Anita Derby gave him a shining moment before his triumphs back East. His margin of victory broke the longstanding record held by Majestic Prince, who captured the 1969 renewal by eight lengths.
In the thirty years that have followed, no horse has approached that standard.
There have been many winners of the Santa Anita Derby, but Sunday Silence is without question one of the most well known champions in the race's history. He delivered one of the most amazing and truly iconic performances ever seen in the event, and that performance is fondly remembered and talked about to this day.
When one thinks of the Santa Anita Derby, the name of Sunday Silence quickly and inevitably follows. Both are closely linked, and that will never change.
In retrospect, Trevor Denman was right when he conveyed his belief that the 52nd running of the West Coast's biggest Kentucky Derby prep race was finished.
However, the legend of Sunday Silence was just beginning on that Saturday afternoon in 1989.
Source: 2019 Santa Anita Derby Media Guide, pgs. 10, 15, 18. https://www.santaanita.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/SA-Derby-MG-web-2019-FINAL.pdf