Trainer Wayne Lukas doesn't expect to win today's $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic with Slew City Slew--the well-traveled 5-year-old is going to stud and running at Gulfstream Park just seemed like a good idea.
But Lukas does think that Sunday Silence will beat Easy Goer in this showdown for the horse-of-the-year title.
While not necessarily casting a vote for the West, where he lives and trains most of the horses in his national stable, Lukas says he has seen trainer Charlie Whittingham win too many big races to dismiss Sunday Silence's chances against Easy Goer, the favorite from New York.
"I think that if those two horses ran against one another a number of times, Easy Goer would probably win more than Sunday Silence," Lukas said. "But Charlie is so good at preparing a horse for a race like this that I have to lean to his chances."
Because the Classic may be the most anticipated race of this decade, and because Gulfstream is running six other Breeders' Cup races worth a total of $7 million, as many as 50,000 people may be at the suburban Miami track today. The weather is predicted to be hot and muggy, with an outside chance of thunderstorms.
Although some in the crowd will be casual fans who have been attracted to the biggest day in horse racing, other than the Kentucky Derby, most should still be familiar with the Easy Goer-Sunday Silence rivalry.
In this year's Kentucky Derby, Easy Goer was the 4-5 favorite but ran second, 2 1/2 lengths behind Sunday Silence. It was suggested that Easy Goer was victimized as much by the muddy Churchill Downs track as by a better horse, since trainer Shug McGaughey's handsome colt had also been upset there, on another off track, in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
After the Derby, Whittingham was predicting that Sunday Silence would be the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978, but the bettors at Pimlico didn't believe him, sending Easy Goer off at an even lower 3-5 in the Preakness. It was jockey against jockey as well as horse against horse in Baltimore, and Pat Valenzuela outmaneuvered Pat Day as Sunday Silence kept Whittingham's confidence intact with a heart-pumping victory by the bob of a nose at the wire.
In the Belmont Stakes three weeks later, in Easy Goer's own back yard, New Yorkers made Sunday Silence the 9-10 favorite. Sunday Silence missed the Triple Crown, and a $5-million payday, when Easy Goer won by eighth lengths in an extraordinary time.
Since then, the horses have not crossed paths. Easy Goer has cantered to victory in four major stakes in New York, and Sunday Silence has run just twice, faltering in the stretch against the unsung Prized at Hollywood Park and toying with token opposition in the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. Prized went on to other accomplishments, winning the Molson Million at Woodbine in Canada, but after he was clobbered by Easy Goer at Belmont, his owners decided to run him on the grass for the first time today rather than taking on McGaughey's colt again.
Whittingham makes no apologies for the Belmont, which at 1 1/2 miles was a quarter-mile farther than the Classic. Sunday Silence's best distance happens to be 1 1/4 miles.
"We ran fast, too, that day," Whittingham said. "We were on the other horse's home grounds, and our losing time was still probably the third-fastest ever run in the Belmont. We weren't embarrassed. But maybe the other horse got so far in front of us early that my colt didn't see him and didn't get excited about running."
Easy Goer has been made the 6-5 favorite by the Gulfstream Park linemaker, and Sunday Silence is 2-1. The other six starters are 6-1 or higher.
"I think we'll win," Whittingham said. "The horse business is not for pessimists. You've got to be an optimist. Since we got here (last weekend), I've been feeling better about our chances every day."
McGaughey was on a platform along the Gulfstream backstretch a couple of days ago, trying to watch Sunday Silence in a pre-dawn workout. Easy Goer's final tuneup Thursday was a slow half-mile in 50 seconds.
"The (two-furlong) splits on (Easy Goer's) work were 26 and 24 (seconds), and I can live with that," McGaughey said. "The loss in the Derby shook me, but I was proud of the way my horse ran in the Preakness. The way he ran in Baltimore gave me confidence again. The long run in the Preakness helped Easy Goer mature."
The one sure thing today is that Chris McCarron, Sunday Silence's new jockey, will get instructions from Whittingham not to use his whip. McCarron, replacing Valenzuela after the latter was suspended 60 days for a positive cocaine test at Santa Anita, won last year's Classic with Alysheba and unsuccessfully chased Whittingham's Ferdinand home with the same colt in the 1987 edition of the race at Hollywood Park.
Sunday Silence got about a dozen whacks from Valenzuela when he won the Santa Anita Derby by 11 lengths, and Whittingham thinks that the colt has resisted being hit ever since. In the Kentucky Derby, almost every time Valenzuela hit Sunday Silence in the late stretch, the horse veered erratically.
After the Santa Anita Derby, Whittingham asked Valenzuela why he went to his stick.
"I wanted to make sure the horse was fit," Valenzuela said.
"I'm the trainer, and I'll make sure the horse is fit," Whittingham said. "You just ride him."
McCarron is a big-race rider--he has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Alysheba, the Belmont with Danzig Connection, his first Breeders' Cup with Precisionist and the Arlington Million with John Henry--and he got the mount on Sunday Silence, even though Laffit Pincay, the winner of four Breeders' Cup races and nine races worth $1 million or more, was available. Whittingham might not say many kind things about jockeys, but his loyalty is exceeded only by his savvy, and McCarron was around in the mornings to work Sunday Silence on days when Valenzuela was a no-show. Pincay will ride Mi Selecto in the Classic.
McCarron said Sunday Silence reminds him of Glorious Song, an Eclipse Award winner as the champion filly or mare of 1980. Both horses are offspring of Halo.
"They carry their head the same way, and Glorious Song was funny about being hit with the stick, too," McCarron said. "They both had good speed, and you can place them where you want to."
Slew City Slew should be the pace-setter. The son of Seattle Slew was a wire-to-wire winner of the 1 1/4-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap last April. But no one is suggesting he'll duplicate that effort today, not even his No. 1 supporter, trainer Wayne Lukas.
Horse Racing Notes
Three stakes were run Friday at Gulfstream as the track's three-day Breeders' Cup "season" began, and in the $134,650 Chief's Crown for 2-year-old colts, Doyouseewhatisee, ridden by Laffit Pincay, scored a 6 1/2-length victory and paid $7.60 to win. Doyouseewhatisee, owned by Jan, Mace and Samantha Siegel and trained by Brian Mayberry, won his first two starts in California before running eighth in the Del Mar Futurity and third in the Sunny Slope at Santa Anita a month ago.
Chris McCarron rode Little Brianne, a 4-year-old filly from Chicago, to a victory by a neck in the $149,050 Very Subtle Stakes. Little Brianne paid $31.80.