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Now the only horse capable of winning this year's Triple Crown is Sunday Silence, and in the Derby aftermath trainer Charlie Whittingham was leaning into the bit to get to Pimlico, and then to the 1�-mile Belmont Stakes three weeks later to complete the sweep. So was Valenzuela.
"If ever a horse can go all the way, this one can." said the jockey. "He'll be another Triple Crown winner. Write that down."
Given the odds that Sunday Silence has already beaten just to get where he is today, he would be the unlikeliest Triple Crown champion in history—a reject born with a defect who has twice narrowly escaped death. He was foaled three springs ago at Arthur Boyd Hancock's Stone Farm near Paris, Ky., a son of the good stallion Halo, the sire of 1983 Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo, and the broodmare Wishing Well, a multiple stakes winner in California. They almost lost the colt that fall. On Thanksgiving Day he became so sick with an intestinal infection that a vet had to feed the colt intravenously to save him. "The vet thought he was going to die," Hancock says. The horse eventually recovered but was a less than perfect specimen. He was a badly cow-hocked youngster—seen from directly behind, his rear legs were, in effect, knock-kneed and toed-out, like a cow's, rather than straight, as is normal in a horse. He looked like a colt who would never make it to the races.
His breeders Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds Ltd., had five trainers inspect him as a yearling, and all doubted that he had what it took to be competitive. "Not one thought he'd make a racehorse," says Tom Tatham, the managing partner of Oak Cliff. So it was decided to sell the colt for whatever price he would bring at the non-select Keeneland summer sale in 1987. Hancock raised the Oak Cliff yearlings at his farm; at the sale, when the bidding on the colt stalled at a paltry $16,000, he bid $17,000 for him, thinking that surely the breeders would want him back for that price.
"I went and told 'em I bought the colt back for them because he went so cheap," says Hancock. "I couldn't believe he went that low." But when Hancock offered to sell Sunday Silence back to the breeders for the $17,000 he had paid, Tatham turned thumbs down. "We don't want him," he said.
The unwanted colt now belonged to Hancock, which was rather fitting: The 46-year-old Hancock had learned something about being an outcast himself when he was young. As the eldest son of A.B. (Bull) Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm and one of America's preeminent thoroughbred breeders, Arthur was the first in line to take over the operation of Claiborne at his father's death. But that was not to be. A self-described "black sheep in the family," Arthur was the renegade of the clan, a hard-drinking, fast-living playboy who bridled at authority and thus compromised his chances for ever wielding it at Claiborne. When Bull died in 1972, the three-man committee he had set up to administer the farm (it included Ogden Phipps, the owner of Easy Goer) decided to turn over its operation to Arthur's younger brother, Seth.
Arthur broke with Claiborne, bought some land just down Winchester Road and over the years built it into a thoroughbred nursery that would have made the old man proud. With the late Leone Peters, Arthur bred and campaigned Gato Del Sol, the 1982 Kentucky Derby winner, thus becoming the first Hancock to breed and race a Derby champion. (Two years later, Seth bred and raced Derby-winner Swale for Claiborne.) Last year Arthur's homebred Risen Star won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes on his way to being named the nation's leading 3-year-old.
Three years ago Arthur and his wife Staci moved into a stately five-bedroom stone house, where they are raising their six children and where Arthur now lives the life of a hard-working family man and country gentleman. The days of wine and roses have given way to simply the days of roses. "I haven't had a drink in four years," he says.
Still, he can be blessedly perverse, as he was in the matter of Sunday Silence, a horse he had liked and stuck with since the colt was a youngster on the farm. He was a fighter, even as a yearling," Hancock says. After buying him that summer at Keeneland, he sold half the colt to Paul Sullivan, a Lexington attorney and longtime friend.
That winter Hancock entered him in a California sale for 2-year-olds in training and put a reserve of $50,000 on him: Hancock would take the colt back if he did not get that price. One of Tatham's trainers, John Gosden, who had seen and rejected the horse as a yearling, looked at him again. This time Gosden cut out the page in the sales book describing the colt and sent it to Oak Cliff. On it Gosden had written "even worse." When the gavel fell on the high bid of $32,000, Hancock took the horse back.