Pat Valenzuela said he had stomach flu on Saturday, and was so sick that he stayed home and passed up Santa Anita mounts on Lively One, a big winner in his 4-year-old debut, and Claire Marine, who ran third in a $150,000 race.
“I was throwing up all day and all night,” Valenzuela said Sunday. “And if it hadn’t been for this horse, I wouldn’t have been here today, either.”
The horse that brought Valenzuela out of his sick bed was Sunday Silence, and he’s also the colt who might take the jockey and trainer Charlie Whittingham to the Kentucky Derby. Sunday Silence is one race away--the Santa Anita Derby on April 8--from Churchill Downs after his 1 3/4-length win in Sunday’s $159,300 San Felipe Handicap before a crowd of 38,428.
Before the San Felipe, Sunday Silence had never run in a stake, had never had to make up six lengths on a horse in front of him and had never gone farther than 6 1/2 furlongs.
The son of Halo and Wishing Well took the winner’s share of $91,800 in the San Felipe by effortlessly zipping past Yes I’m Blue on the turn for home and running 1 1/16 miles in an unspectacular time of 1:42 3/5.
While Sunday Silence became a new presence on the national 3-year-old scene, Music Merci took a backward step and cast additional doubts about his ability to handle a distance of ground. All four of Music Merci’s stakes wins have come at a mile or less, and the 1-2 favorite finished third in the five- horse San Felipe, 5 1/4 lengths behind Sunday Silence and 3 1/2 lengths behind Flying Continental, who staged a mild stretch run to take second.
Sunday Silence, who has won both of his starts this year after winning two out of three as a 2-year-old, was the second betting choice and paid $7.80, $3.80 and $2.20. Flying Continental paid $4 and $2.20 and Music Merci paid $2.10.
Sunday Silence, who carried 119 pounds, five less than Music Merci, almost went to his knees leaving the gate, but was running right alongside the favorite down the backstretch as Yes I’m Blue set fast fractions on a track that seemed dull. The first half-mile mile was clocked in 45 1/5 seconds and six furlongs went by in 1:09 1/5.
Sunday Silence left Music Merci on the turn for home, easily disposed of Yes I’m Blue with a quarter-mile to run and was in no danger through the stretch.
With Easy Goer, the star from the East, everybody’s favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Whittingham was asked after the San Felipe where this victory put Sunday Silence.
“I have to say we’re among the top five or six horses now,” said the trainer, who won the Kentucky Derby with Ferdinand in 1986. “We’ll probably go to Kentucky with him after this, but the Santa Anita Derby will give us an even better idea.”
Valenzuela has ridden Sunday Silence in all but one of his races.
“This is some kind of horse,” he said. “The ground broke out from under him at the start, and we were four lengths behind going into the first turn. I tried to get him into the race without rushing him, hoping that he wouldn’t run three-quarters (of a mile) and quit.
“When I asked him at the quarter pole, he really picked it up. This is the best 3-year-old I’ve ever been on.”
Valenzuela hasn’t been close with two Kentucky Derby mounts, and in 1980, when as a 17-year-old he won the Santa Anita Derby with Codex, the horse was inadvertently omitted as a nominee for Churchill Downs.
Sunday Silence has been no sleeper, because in the third race of his career, at Hollywood Park on Dec. 3, he almost beat Houston, another lightly raced colt who’s considered one of the Kentucky Derby contenders.
After starting horses in the Kentucky Derby in 1958 and 1960, Whittingham has been back to Churchill Downs with horses three times in the 1980s, winning with Ferdinand, finishing 12th with Lively One last year and scratching Temperate Sil, the winner of the 1987 Santa Anita Derby, when he took ill a week before the race.
“The Kentucky Derby can take a lot out of a horse, and I don’t rush them unless they show me they might be able to handle it,” Whittingham said. “I’ve still got six 3-year-olds that I haven’t even run yet. I’d have to say, though, that Sunday Silence is better at the same point in his career than Lively One and Temperate Sil were.”
Music Merci, who lugged in on jockey Gary Stevens midway through the stretch, came to the San Felipe off a nine-length victory in the San Rafael three weeks ago.
“I think this race was a combination of three things,” Stevens said. “The weight, his last race and the problems he had down the backstretch, when he was getting all the dirt from the horse on the lead.
“When they run a race like the last one coming off a (two-month) layoff, it’s got to do something to them. I got within a length and a half of Sunday Silence and thought it was going to be a horse race, then when we straightened out into the stretch, I had no horse left.
“I still have confidence in him. If he threw in a clinker, I’m glad it was today, and not the Derby.”
Jay Robbins, who trains Flying Continental, was happy with his horse’s race and said he would run him in the Santa Anita Derby.
“I didn’t think they’d run as fast early as they did today,” Robbins said. “But Charlie’s horse was great, especially when you consider that it his first time around two turns.”
When Whittingham won his first Santa Anita Derby, with Temperate Sil, he had to beat only five horses. There may not even be that many in the gate with Sunday Silence three weeks from now.
Horse Racing Notes
Trainer Craig Lewis, who finished third with Music Merci and last with Mountain Ghost in the San Felipe Handicap, scratched Runaway Dunaway, his third entry in the race. Runaway Dunaway will run next Sunday at Santa Anita and is a candidate for the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields on April 22. As for Music Merci, Lewis said: “We’ll just have to appraise the situation and think about it. I wasn’t surprised that Yes I’m Blue set the pace he did, because I figured he was a horse who was going to get to the lead at any cost.”
Sunday Silence’s ownership is 50% for Arthur Hancock of Paris, Ky., and 25% apiece for trainer Charlie Whittingham and Ernest Gaillard, a surgeon from La Jolla. Hancock bought the horse privately, broke him at his Kentucky farm and then sold half to Whittingham, who sold half of his interest to Gaillard. . . . Houston, undefeated in two starts as a 2-year-old, worked five furlongs Sunday morning at Santa Anita in a superb 58 4/5 seconds and will be flown to New York Wednesday for his 3-year-old debut Saturday in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct.