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May 12, 1958
Mighty Calumet won another Derby, but the nation still wonders what happened to its beloved Silky Sullivan. Did humidity cause the horse—and the dream—to fade?
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May 12, 1958

Arms Upraised But Hopes Dashed

Mighty Calumet won another Derby, but the nation still wonders what happened to its beloved Silky Sullivan. Did humidity cause the horse—and the dream—to fade?

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Years from now, when Kentucky Derby visitors peer down at the fine print on their souvenir mint-julep glasses to note the 1958 winner, it may be that the name of Tim Tam will ring a quiet but very special bell. The true aficionado in the semimystical world in which the racetracker lives and works and talks will tell his children that Tim Tam's victory was the seventh for mighty Calumet Farm, but he may say it with the studied indifference of a man announcing that a baseball player named Stan Musial has just won another batting championship or that a prizefighter called Ray Robinson has regained the world middleweight title.

The expert asked to expound on Tim Tam's Derby could brush it off quickly: Calumet won the big seventh because Tim Tam is exactly the sort of colt that Calumet breeds for the specific purpose of winning Kentucky Derbies, because Calumet Trainer Jimmy Jones (SI, March 17) is one of the best—if not the best—trainer on any American race track today and finally, of course, because it takes much more than a run-of-the-mill 3-year-old to lick the best that Calumet and Jimmy Jones can put on the Churchill Downs course on the most important racing day of the whole year.

Nobody—not even the man who collected $6.20 on a Tim Tam win ticket—enjoyed the 84th Derby quite as much as the Calumet team, because even though the knowledgeable horsemen felt that Tim Tam had to be figured as the best horse in the 14-horse field, Jimmy Jones found his stable playing second fiddle throughout Derby week to a unique attraction in another barn. The attraction, of course, was California's Silky Sullivan, the wonder horse with the wonder finishing run and all the glamour and buildup worthy of a Hollywood première. No horse in history ever came to Louisville with Silky's popularity. Hundreds glued themselves to his every move. Cameras clicked at each step, and some even were put to grinding away inside his special stall after it had been outfitted with harsh floodlights. Through it all Silky reacted with the aplomb and dignity of an established star. He never appeared without fulldress uniform of bright red accouterments; and his enormous proportions and general good looks did nothing to erase the impression among his hero-worshipers that here indeed they had found the super-colt to whip Calumet and the other most feared rival in the race, Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Graham's Jewel's Reward.

To say that Silky did everything asked—or expected—of him would be an out-and-out falsehood. What was asked of him by his fans was to win. What was asked of him by his trainer, Reggie Cornell, and Co-owners Tom Ross and Phil Klipstein was please, not to disgrace himself. But poor Silky, like the actor building up for opening night and then fluffing his lines, did disgrace himself in the 84th Derby, for after a brief but electrifying burst of speed as he rounded the far turn Silky "died" in the stretch and finished an exhausted and dismal 12th—ahead of just two horses.

The observer may accept the excuse that suits his fancy. The I-told-you-so critics of Silky Sullivan's buildup and ability can always say that the big California hero simply tripped over his pedigree, and that despite his whirlwind finishes there was never any indication that he could last the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter against Derby-class competition and at Derby speed. Another school of thought has it that last Saturday's intense humidity in Louisville was the most damaging atmosphere imaginable for any horse with a wind condition. Wishfully, they will always be convinced that if Saturday, May 3, 1958 had been crisp and cool Silky would have written another tale. But Willie Shoemaker, who rode Silky, has yet one more pertinent explanation. Despite Silky's supposed fondness for any kind of going, this time, said Shoemaker, "I knew right away that he wasn't handling the track properly. He was slipping and sliding even going into the first turn, and I had a pretty good idea even then that we weren't going to be in the race."

The track (officially labeled "muddy") has a good bottom to it, and so rather than becoming holding after a rainfall it turned slick on top. There's no doubt that this affected a lot of horses in the race besides Silky Sullivan. For one, Eddie Arcaro said that his colt, Jewel's Reward, at no time ran to his full capabilities, and most of the other trainers and jockeys had—because of the track conditions—a ready-made excuse for poor showings.

None was offered by the owners of Silky Sullivan. In the paddock before the race, Co-owners Ross and Klipstein were hopeful rather than optimistic. Klipstein looked through the crowd standing 20-deep across from Silky's stall and said mournfully, "The awful thing about all this is that I'm the one guy who has never believed Silky is as good as most people think he is. I try to play him down when others play him up. Now just look at this mob out here. There are a lot of Californians out there. I know most of them. One fellow I can see from here came in a group of 16 people and between them they brought $25,000 to bet on Silky. I admire their loyalty, but I hate the thought of disappointing them."

When it was all over and Silky had been led quietly away from the cruel limelight on Tim Tam in the winner's circle, Klipstein walked slowly out of the stands. As a happy crowd barged by him, Klipstein paused for a moment. "He just didn't run worth a damn, did he?" he remarked to a friend. "And I don't have to have an excuse. Our horse just isn't good enough. I thought so before. I know so now."


If Silky Sullivan had run "his race,' he undoubtedly would have made last Saturday's Derby more exciting. But all week long Jones was loving the Silky buildup because he knew that he—and not Reggie Cornell—had the best horse. When he was asked if he didn't agree that Silky was a grand-looking colt, he'd chuckle a while and then fire back, "That may be so but, remember, they're not staging a horse show out here Saturday. This is a running race."

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