Paul Sullivan, senior partner in my old law firm, and a legend in corporate and equine law to this day, burst into my office one day in 1988 and exclaimed, “We don’t know about the horse, but the van driver is dead! I am ruined!” Paul often proclaimed himself ruined, but it rarely took. This colt was bad enough healthy: he was fractious, had bad conformation, and it was feared that he might never train well. He was being vanned through Texas, on his way back to Kentucky, because he hadn’t sold in a two-year-old in training sale in California. The van driver had a heart attack at the wheel, and the colt was banged up enough to spend two weeks in a veterinary hospital recovering. And Paul owned a half interest in him, bought from his childhood friend, the legendary breeder Arthur B. Hancock, III.
Times were tough in the Thoroughbred business in the late 1980s, which saw the industry virtually killed by the so-called tax reforms of 1986, which removed most of the incentives that had caused investors to flock to the business in the early ‘80s. This created a market in which even the best bred and best conformed Thoroughbreds were difficult to sell. And this fractious two-year-old, named Sunday Silence, of all things, was hardly the best conformed colt Arthur had ever bred.
They don’t officially describe horses as black anymore, but the colt, by the great stallion Halo, was a true black, though he was officially described as a dark bay or brown. Arthur would later describe him as a late bloomer, a runner who didn’t mature as fast as the commercial market would have desired. I always thought that the van accident in Texas, or maybe some of the treatment he received because of it, may have helped turn him around. I know he trained a lot better after the accident than he did before.
Paul’s involvement with Arthur goes back to their childhoods in Bourbon County, when they were friends. Arthur’s father, the legendary Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock, Jr., made his Claiborne Farm a thoroughbred dynasty, one that he wanted to turn over to his sons, Arthur, III, and Seth. After Bull Hancock’s death, his estate was administered by a group of advisors, primarily insiders in the Thoroughbred business, including Ogden Phipps, scion of a New York racing dynasty and long-time client of Claiborne Farm.
Bull Hancock had desired that his sons work together at Claiborne Farm. Arthur developed the reputation as a partier rather than a breeder. Legend has it that the final straw was Arthur’s decision to go bird hunting in Scotland rather than attend a meeting of the trustees. The trustees made their own decision: Seth, not Arthur, would run Claiborne Farm. Paul loves to tell the story that he and Arthur went down to Louie’s in Paris, whose jukebox was the only known public repository of the country music that Arthur loved to play and record. As Paul recounts it, Arthur told him his vision: “I’ll buy my own farm. I’ll start my own breeding operation. I’ll win the Derby!”
Paul turned to the waitress: “Bring this fool another Budweiser . . .”
Arthur set up shop at Stone Farm, down the road from Claiborne. By 1982, he, along with his longtime client, New York real estate mogul Leone J. Peters, had bred his Derby horse: Gato del Sol, which won the 1982 Derby, after having been given little chance by the betting public: He went off at 21-1, the longest of the field, and paid $44.40 to win, the tenth highest payoff in Derby history. His racing career was spotty after that, and he had so little success at stud, ending up in Germany, that – to avoid having him sent to a slaughterhouse – Arthur ultimately bought him back and retired him at Stone Farm, where he died at the age of 28 in 2007.
Arthur is a genius at breeding, and as is often the case with geniuses, there is a bit of eccentricity to go with it. Arthur tends to give his friends nicknames early on, and use them faithfully after that. After my first meeting with him, I was Pathfinder, and still was when I ran into him last fall at the Windy Corner.
In 1984, Arthur managed to have the great sire Halo moved from Maryland to stand at stud at Stone Farm. Halo had caused some consternation when he was first sold as a stud, after racing through his five-year-old year; he was rejected by Hollywood Producer Irving Allen as a cribber, about which Kent Hollingsworth, writing in The Blood-Horse, turned out to be right: “Mark Twain advised against being too particular: It is better to have old second-hand diamonds, his Puddin’head Wilson observed, than none at all.”
Halo’s 1986 foal crop produced two foals that Arthur thought would bring good prices in the sales ring, a colt, which would ultimately be named Sunday Silence, and a much better looking filly, which was thought to be the better of the two. Paul Sullivan loves to tell about the time the two went through the sale ring, and Arthur didn’t think they were bringing sufficient bids, in that post-1986 world, and bought them both back, persuading Paul to buy a half interest in both.
When that unlucky van driver had his heart attack, after Sunday Silence had also failed to sell in a California two-year -old in training sale, Paul had had enough. “I begged Arthur to take me out,” he told me at the time. Arthur obliged, selling Paul’s interest to the great trainer Charlie Whittingham, known as the Bald Eagle, because his hair had fallen out from a tropical disease he’d picked up as a Marine during World War II. Sunday Silence remained fractious: I remember seeing a video of him rearing up and clopping Whittingham on that bald head, though no damage was done. They also brought in physician Dr. Ernest Gaillard, another of Arthur’s regular clients, to form H-G-W Partners, under whose colors Sunday Silence raced.
Whittingham perhaps saw something in the awkward and fractious colt that lesser observers missed and placed him in training in California. Sunday Silence had three starts, in low level allowance races as a two-year-old, winning one and placing second once. He took off in his three-year-old year, though, winning the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby, which qualified him for entry in the Kentucky Derby.
Another colt was also getting ready for Derby Day. Everyone knew he was better bred than Sunday Silence; he was sired by the great Alydar, out of a Buckpasser mare. He was a big chestnut colt that reminded some of Secretariat, and his jockey, the beloved Pat Day, nicknamed him Big Red, too. In the run-up to the Derby, it looked like he was a better runner than Sunday Silence ever would be. While Sunday Silence was floundering as a two year old, Easy Goer was winning the Grade I Cowdin Stakes by four lengths, and the Grade I Champagne Stakes at a time of 1:34 4/5 for the mile, which tied him for the fourth fastest in Champagne Stakes history.
As a three-year-old, Easy Goer didn’t stop, taking the Swale Stakes in the fastest time for seven furlongs at Gulfstream’s spring meet. Moving north, he took the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in a record time for a mile that still stands for that track. He then won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, though at a slower pace.
Coming into the Derby, the drama was intense: America saw a rivalry not just between two horses, or even between two brothers, but between two worlds. Arthur, despite his own Thoroughbred breeding, came to represent the outsiders of the sport, while Easy Goer, bred by the great Claiborne Farm — now operated by Arthur’s brother Seth — and by 80-year-old Ogden Phipps, a pillar of New York racing, was thought to represent the racing establishment. As an advisor to Bull Hancock’s estate, Phipps also had been influential in having Arthur removed from Claiborne Farm, and placing Seth in charge.
And the media milked it to the hilt. Articles appeared in the racing press, and national publications from Sports Illustrated to The New York Times wrote about the duel. What nobody counted on was that the duel was as much against the weather as against each other. Derby Day dawned a cold and wet 43 degrees, amid rain and a bit of hail. The track was sloppy, and so was the running. In the slop, Sunday Silence appeared spooked by the crowd at one point, but recovered to beat Easy Goer by two and a half lengths. My favorite memory of the race (which I watched on tv) was of Arthur and Paul hugging each other in Arthur’s box as the winner was announced. I also remember Arthur’s public statement, which hit exactly the right tone: “Everyone knows that Claiborne Farm is the greatest Thoroughbred horse farm in the world, and this doesn’t change that. But, I think Daddy would be proud of what we’ve done, too.”
Charlie Whittingham’s colt still got no respect: turf writers put Sunday Silence’s win down to the sloppy track conditions, rather than any talent on his part. They couldn’t say that after the Preakness, when on a bright Saturday two weeks later on a fast track, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer might as well have been the only two runners on the track. Sunday Silence had the lead early, but Easy Goer drove on, challenging Sunday Silence to the end, with Sunday Silence winning the second leg of the Triple Crown by a nose, in a race described by more than one observer as the greatest Preakness ever run.
This made the Belmont Stakes the grudge match between the two great runners. And there was no shortage of controversy there, either. It rained on the eve of the great race, and some thought that the management of Belmont – thought to favor Phipps over Hancock and Whittingham – had gone to extraordinary lengths to dry out the track before the race, including having a helicopter hover over the track and blow air onto it, rather like a giant hair dryer. They were not going to repeat the Derby. This time Easy Goer’s performance silenced the critics: he genuinely outran Sunday Silence at a mile and a half, beating him by eight lengths, for a near-record time of 2:26, second only to Secretariat.
The two met for one final time at the Breeder’s Cup Classic that year, in November, at Gulfstream Park. I remember being back at Harvard for an antitrust law seminar – I used to attend the annual meetings of the New England Antitrust Association – and rushing back to my hotel room, no doubt dragging several New Englanders with me, to watch the race. I remember the dramatic stretch run: Sunday Silence had a four length lead over Easy Goer going into the stretch, when Easy Goer made his move, charging toward the finish line with that brilliant speed that he had shown all his career. Sunday Silence was up to the task, though, holding off Easy Goer’s rally, to win the mile and a quarter race in a blistering 2:00.20, making it that year’s most exciting two minutes in sports. Sunday Silence’s time in the Classic set the record for that event (which admittedly only dates back to 1984), a record bested or tied only five times in the 28-year series, the last time in 2008.
In one final snub from the horse industry, while Easy Goer was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm, occupying its famous number one stall in its number one barn, which has housed, among others, Bold Ruler and Secretariat, Arthur could find few who wanted to invest in Sunday Silence, ultimately selling him to Zenya Yoshida’s Shaddai Stallion Station in Japan. Sunday Silence quickly became the number one sire in Japan, where his progeny have earned over $800 million, making him, that nation’s top producing stallion in history, not bad for a horse that in Paul Sullivan’s early assessment, “could barely walk.”
Ogden Phipps, despite being 80-years-old when Easy Goer captured the Belmont, outlived his champion. In what must have seemed a particularly tragic ending to a racehorse that, from Phipps’ standpoint had been unfairly overshadowed by Sunday Silence, Easy Goer suddenly died of a form of anaphylactic shock induced by an allergy to penicillin, in 1994 at the age of only eight. Phipps himself lived another eight years, dying at 93 in 2002. Sunday Silence, by that point one of the best known horses in Japan, outlived Ogden Phipps by a few months, dying at the age of 16 from complications from laminitis in August of 2002.
Arthur is still at Stone Farm, Paul is still in his law firm, and the two were eating together at the Windy Corner the last time I saw them. By the time Sunday Silence was a Derby prospect, Paul no longer owned an interest in him. The Sunday after the Derby, I went to the office to look up something, and saw Paul sitting in his office with the light off. He looked up as I walked in. “Bob,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I lost five million dollars on Saturday,” referring to what he thought an interest in the horse might be worth; a number far too low. He thought a minute and looked back up. “I am ruined,” he told me, not for the last time.
Next time, we will talk about the greatest modern Thoroughbred you’ve never heard of, Sham, who was lucky enough to be born a great runner, but unlucky enough to be born the same year as Secretariat, as we continue looking at the history of horse racing in Kentucky!