For Jockey Pat day, things had been going so perfectly all day. But now, rocking toward the far turn on Kentucky Derby favorite Easy Goer in the damp, chilling gloom of last Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs, Day learned through the nudging of his hands on the colt's neck that what he wanted most of all would not be his.
Day, who has made the Downs his domain in recent years, had just won five straight races in the mud. After Day's fifth, with the 1�-mile Derby coming up next, Easy Goer's trainer, Shug McGaughey, turned from the television set back at the barn and said, "Can you imagine that? Five in a row! Day's riding like he's possessed. He really wants to win the Kentucky Derby bad—and he's leading right up to it."
Day was 0 for 6 in his previous Derby rides, and this year he spoke almost wistfully about it: "Somewhere there's a Derby out there with my name on it." Indeed, this 115th running of the race appeared to have his name up there in lights. Easy Goer, last year's champion 2-year-old, was undefeated in 1989 and was already inspiring comparisons with Secretariat and other giants of the sport. This Derby was being offered less as a horse race than a coronation, the start of an odds-on favorite's five-week quest to become America's 12th Triple Crown winner. And then, just when Easy Goer's victory procession was about to begin—with five eighths of a mile to go—it began instead to end.
With the far turn looming ahead, Easy Goer was racing directly behind the 3-1 second choice, Sunday Silence, ridden by Pat Valenzuela. "Sunday Silence was up in front of me and I tried to stay in contact with him," Day said. "When he started drawing away from us on the backside under absolutely no encouragement from Pat, I nudged my horse a little bit and I got no response." Day's day was done. Moments later, when Valenzuela asked his horse for something extra, he got a better answer.
From the outset, the brilliantly fast Houston had led the 15-horse charge, making the early fractions; but as Houston swept around the far turn, his stride began to shorten. Sunday Silence, racing in fourth on the outside, began to close on the leaders as they made the bend. He pulled away from the sluggish Easy Goer, and when Valenzuela hit the gas on the turn for home, Sunday Silence suddenly rushed to the tiring Houston and the 48-1 shot, Northern Wolf, who was lying second. "He really accelerated," said Valenzuela.
And there began perhaps the weirdest, most unsightly stretch drive in the recent history of the Kentucky Derby. As they straightened for home, Valenzuela cracked Sunday Silence with a righthanded whip, and the colt, moving from its sting, ducked sharply left and brushed into Northern Wolf. Racing to the [3/16] pole, Sunday Silence drove to the lead. Now Valenzuela went to the left hand with the whip, and the colt reacted by swerving to the right. Trying to keep him straight as he drifted, Valenzuela switched the stick back to his right hand again, lashing Sunday Silence hard, and the youngster cut left once more.
Meanwhile, Easy Goer and a whole posse of horses struggled futilely after the leader, looking as if they were chasing the town drunk while he lurched down Main Street. They never caught him. Sunday Silence won by 2� lengths, looking tired and groggy through the lane, covering the final quarter mile in a numbingly slow 27[1/5] to finish in 2:05, the slowest Derby in 31 years. The punchless Easy Goer finished second, a head in front of his stablemate, Awe Inspiring. Houston backed up to eighth.
The spectacle, played out in 44� weather, which made this the coldest Derby in 72 years, certainly lacked aesthetic charm, and it left whole battalions of true believers stunned and smarting at Easy Goer's loss. To that extent, the race was eerily reminiscent of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall at Churchill Downs, in which Easy Goer turned in a similarly dull and inexplicable performance in the mud, finishing second to Is It True.
No sooner were the saddles off the Derby horses than McGaughey was suggesting that the mud at Churchill Downs was probably not to the colt's liking—Easy Goer's dam, the champion mare Relaxing, did not like mud—and that things might have gone differently on a faster racetrack. "I'm not making excuses." McGaughey said. "The best horse won today. But Day said the colt was struggling in the stuff."
Clearly, something was not to Easy Goer's liking on Saturday afternoon. One trainer suggested that he may be the type of horse who does not run his best when his races are spaced too close together. Easy Goer's last three outings—the Gotham, Wood and Derby—came within a four-week period. Whatever, following the Derby, speculation was rife as to what had happened to the colt, and within hours of the race Easy Goer's backers were publicly itching for a second confrontation in the 1[3/16]-mile Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20, presumably under conditions more favorable to their horse. Meanwhile, all talk of Easy Goer being Horse of the Decade came under an immediate and indefinite suspension.