THE KENTUCKY DERBY : Sunday Silence Is Golden Despite the Mud : California Colt Defeats Easy Goer

Times Staff Writer

There was a jockey at Churchill Downs Saturday who appeared to have the day down pat. But that was until another Pat stole his curtain call in the 115th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Pat Day won the five races on the card leading up to the Derby--the first five races in the Pick Six--and then his mount was Easy Goer, the heavy favorite and considered the best colt with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown in a decade.

On his way out of the jockeys' room to the paddock before the Derby, another jockey said to Pat Valenzuela: "Hey, Pat, you could end Pat's streak right here."

Valenzuela piped back: "I'm not going to end his, I'm just going to start mine."

Valenzuela, winning a race that his uncle, Milo Valenzuela, won twice before, did both, stopping Day and Easy Goer and riding Sunday Silence to a 2 1/2-length victory before 122,653 fans on a raw, rain-splattered day that was the coldest in Derby history.

In the bargain, Charlie Whittingham, a trainer who used to avoid the Derby, won the race for the second time in the last four years. Whittingham became the oldest trainer to win the Derby when Ferdinand triumphed here in 1986, and now at 76, he's the oldest once again.

Ferdinand ran second in the Preakness and was third in the Belmont Stakes, the other two Triple Crown races. "This colt (Sunday Silence) will be another Triple Crown winner," Whittingham said a few minutes after the Derby. "Write that down, he'll be another Triple Crown winner. He'll give me the best chance I've ever had to win the Triple Crown. There's no question he'll handle a mile and a half (the Belmont distance), and even if he runs into mud and slop, that shouldn't bother him."

In windy, 44-degree weather, Sunday Silence won on a track that was listed as muddy but was probably drying out enough to be called good. The time of 2:05 for the 1 1/4 miles was the slowest since Milo Valenzuela, on another muddy track, rode Tim Tam to victory in 1958--also in 2:05.

Easy Goer, sent off as a betting entry at 4-5 and becoming the 10th straight Derby favorite to fail, finished second, only a head in front of his stablemate, Awe Inspiring. It was another three-quarters of a length back to Dansil, who nosed out Hawkster for fourth.

Northern Wolf, who raced close to the pace for a mile, finished sixth, and after him, in order, were Irish Actor, Houston, Triple Buck, Shy Tom, Wind Splitter, Flying Continental, Clever Trevor, Faultless Ensign and Western Playboy. The field was reduced to 15 3-year-olds after Notation was scratched because of the muddy track.

The second betting choice, Sunday Silence paid $8.20, $3.00 and $3.60. The prices on the Shug McGaughey-trained entry were $2.60 and $3.40. Sunday Silence earned $574,200 of the $749,200 purse for his owners--Kentucky breeder Arthur Hancock, Whittingham and Ernest Gaillard, a retired surgeon from La Jolla.

Hancock, who owned 50% of Gato Del Sol, the Derby winner in 1982, twice tried to sell Sunday Silence and would have taken $50,000 for him as a 2-year-old. Unable to get that much, Hancock sold half to Whittingham for $25,000 and later Whittingham sold half of his half to Gaillard.

Sunday Silence won four races and finished second twice in six pre-Derby starts, but most of the attention was focused on the New York-based Easy Goer. That was despite the fact that Whittingham's Halo-Wishing Well colt was undefeated in three races as a 3-year-old and had won the Santa Anita Derby by a record 11 lengths in his last start.

The Kentucky Derby start was delayed nine minutes because Triple Buck, a 65-1 shot, lost a shoe four minutes before post time and had to be returned to the paddock for a new one.

"I was worried about the delay, that it might make him too nervous," said Valenzuela, 26, who won his first Derby in three tries. "I asked the pony boy to (keep Sunday Silence) away from the other horses while we waited, and that kept him calm."

Sunday Silence broke awkwardly from his No. 10 post and brushed with Faultless Ensign, who was on his left side. Northern Wolf, the outside horse and the only one breaking from the auxiliary starting gate, came over and forced Valenzuela to steady his mount slightly.

After that, Sunday Silence had a blueprint race. He was on the outside in fourth place going down the backstretch, while Houston set a slow pace slightly ahead of Clever Trevor in second and Northern Wolf in third. Easy Goer was in sixth place after three-quarters of a mile, 6 1/2 lengths behind Houston.

The leaders were tiring and Valenzuela hustled Sunday Silence into serious contention on the far turn. At the quarter pole, Sunday Silence made the lead and protected it through the long stretch, despite wandering all over the track.

"I hit him right-handed and he ducked over, then I hit him left-handed and he ducked again," Valenzuela said. "He might have lost something, but he was still running. I think he shied from the crowd. If we had gone farther, we would have won by more."

Sunday Silence already had won on an off track at Santa Anita before Saturday. Easy Goer, however, had suffered one of his two previous career defeats in mud, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Stakes at Churchill Downs last November.

Both McGaughey and Day felt that Easy Goer, last year's champion 2-year-old colt and the winner of all three of his starts this year, including the Wood Memorial, would redeem himself in Louisville.

Easy Goer simply didn't fire. He didn't seem to be in touch with the front-runners down the backstretch and at no time did he hint that he could catch Sunday Silence.

Day, now winless in seven Derbies, knew he was in trouble. "Sunday Silence was in danger of drawing away from us on the backside," the redhaired jockey said. "I was concerned, but he had gotten himself up into the bridle. I wanted to be within shouting distance of Sunday Silence, but we couldn't get there.

"I know I said that the (muddy) track would have no bearing on how he ran, but now I'm looking for the answers. This was not the kind of performance that Easy Goer is capable of."

Day didn't feel that the delay caused by Triple Buck affected Easy Goer in the post parade. Jose Santos, who has ridden in more than 7,500 races, said he's never been on a horse that needed to be reshod minutes before a race.

"It had to especially happen today, in the Derby," Santos said with a shrug. "Well, every day can't be Sunday."

That's right. Especially when this day was Sunday Silence.

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