Chris McCarron, the reins taut in his hands, sat like a statue on the back of Sunday Silence, rocking only slightly as he bent forward in the saddle and waited for Easy Goer. McCarron was not the only one waiting for Easy Goer at 5:37 p.m. last Saturday. At that moment the field of eight horses had straightened out along the backstretch at Gulfstream Park and had begun racing through the sixth furlong of the 10-furlong Breeders' Cup Classic, looking like a cavalry troop racing cross-country, stretched some 20 lengths along the track. This was precisely what everyone in racing had long been waiting for: It was a showdown between America's two best horses, with the title of Horse of the Year at stake, all wrapped in a race designed specifically to reveal the fastest, finest racehorse in the land.
Now, suddenly, the chestnut Easy Goer was gaining speed on the outside. As the odds-on favorite surged forward, the crowd of 51,342, strangely subdued through the first half mile of the race, began to quicken and sent up loud cries: "There he goes!" It was thus, in the dimming light of a late Florida afternoon, that arguably the most dramatic moments of the decade in racing began.
Sunday Silence was lying third, behind front-running Slew City Slew and Blushing John. McCarron, who knew that Easy Goer would be coming any time now, looked up as they raced toward the far turn. Slew was out there winging it under jockey Gary Stevens, on his way to racing six furlongs in a dashing 1:10[2/5], and had two lengths on Blushing John, with Angel Cordero Jr. hanging on. Easy Goer had been lying sixth around the first turn and had appeared to be struggling during the first three furlongs, striding as if climbing with his front legs, in the way of a horse who doesn't fancy the surface. But once the Goer straightened out on the back-stretch, he settled into his long, rhythmic stride.
Easy Goer's jockey, Pat Day, did nothing, letting the colt settle on his own. "When we turned into the back side, the colt really leveled off and dragged me into contention," Day said.
Picking up speed, Easy Goer swept into fifth position down the backstretch, and McCarron was now listening for him on his outside. "I heard him coming at the half-mile pole," McCarron said. "I was kind of expecting him. So I glanced over and saw a chestnut—I assumed it was Easy Goer."
It was. Day figured he was in a perfect spot, ready to pounce. Heading for the far turn he had an armful of horse under him, and there were still 900 yards to run. He figured he could follow right on the tail of Sunday Silence until the final 400 yards and then blow past him. He figured Easy Goer could dominate Sunday Silence as he had in the Belmont Stakes five months before, when the Goer had spoiled the black colt's chance to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown. In the Kentucky Derby on May 6, Silence had whipped Easy Goer by 2½ lengths; he outgunned him again in the Preakness two weeks later, winning by a flared nostril. Then Easy Goer crushed his rival in the Belmont, winning by eight lengths and, as things turned out, setting up this final showdown of '89 in the much anticipated Classic.
But as the horses approached the far turn at Gulfstream, McCarron had more horse than Day realized. Hearing Easy Goer moving up on his right, McCarron thrust his hands forward a notch, and Sunday Silence picked up the beat at once, edging away from his pursuer on the bend. "When Chris called on Sunday Silence then, he spurted away from us," said Day. "I was hoping we could go with him, but when he moved away, we didn't follow. I pushed and tapped my horse and chirped to him, but he was slow finding his stride."
Mistakenly, McCarron thought that he had finished off Easy Goer and sensed that this richest horse race in the world, with a winner's purse of $1.35 million, was his. Just as mistakenly, Cordero was thinking he was riding the winner as he sent Blushing John after Slew City Slew and swallowed the leader in a few quick gulps of ground past the three-eighths pole.
"I thought I was going to win it when I passed that horse," said Cordero. "I hadn't even asked him to run. It was so easy."
Stevens, aboard Slew, thought too that Cordero had won his first Breeders' Cup Classic. "When Blushing John hooked me, I looked over and saw him and thought, Here comes Angel! He's gonna win it. He had a real good hold of his horse."