In the infield at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif., a white picket fence and drifts of pansies partly enclose a small plot of ill-tended grass to the left of the tote board. There lies Silky Sullivan, the most spectacular horse in the history of West Coast racing. Silky was buried at Golden Gate in November 1977, two months short of his 23rd birthday. He had been a remarkable come-from-be-hind runner: one with flair, beauty and style, though he was often beset by severe breathing problems. Silky was so popular that even though he lost 15 of his 27 races, that didn't seem to bother his fans. To them, 1958 was memorable because their horse came from 28 lengths back to win the Santa Anita Derby by 3� lengths; they tend to forget Silky's dismal 12th-place finish behind Tim Tarn in the Kentucky Derby a few weeks later. While most of the horses that beat him are long forgotten, across the track from Silky's shrine is a bronze plaque bearing a seven-verse poem, which begins: "Out of the gate like a bullet of red/Dropping behind as the rest speed ahead/Loping along as the clubhouse fans cheer/Leisurely stalking the field in first gear."
While he attained celebrity at Santa Anita and at Hollywood Park in Southern California, Silky was an especial favorite in the northern part of the state. He won his first stake at Golden Gate, he drew a weekday attendance record of 18,532, which still stands at that track, and after he was retired from racing, he was paraded there every St. Patrick's Day with green ribbons in his mane and tail.
Ever since Silky's final race in 1959, fans on the Coast, particularly those in northern California, have been hoping for another horse with Silky's penchant for the dramatic. Now one has, a 4-year-old filly. Quite obviously, life can still imitate Grade B movies, because the filly is Silky's granddaughter, Silky's Nurse.
From December through March 21, Silky's Nurse ran in five stakes at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate. Just like her grandpa, she seems to stop on the back-stretch for a drink and a smoke before getting interested in the doings up ahead. But she swept those five stakes, at times barely getting up in the final jump, at other times pulling away in the closing yards. In that brief span she earned almost as much money ($152,000) as Silky did in his entire career ($157,700).
It would be nice to say that Silky's Nurse is a flashy chestnut like her grandfather. Nice, but wrong. To some observers, she looks more like a lizard than a horse. And as her trainer, Ike Orr, says, "Her head is as long as a dining-room table." But her ability to win from somewhere out in the next county has captivated racegoers in the Bay Area. Once her long, smooth strides begin to waste the ground beneath her, all track announcer John Gibson has to say is "And there she goes!" and the crowd roars.
"When she goes to the starting gate," says her regular rider, 22-year-old Russell Baze, currently the fourth-leading jockey in the nation in winners ridden, "she hangs her head so low that you think you're on a plow horse. By the time you get to the eighth pole you say to yourself, 'We ain't gonna make it this time.' Then she gets to really motoring and wins. The people really love her. When I go into the winner's circle with her, everybody screams, 'Silky! Silky!' It's just as if she's their pet."
Silky's Nurse has now reached that stage where people rarely use her full name, one of the highest forms of flattery on the backstretch. She's called Silky, The Nurse, Sweet Momma or El Stupendo, the latter despite her gender. Ask racetrackers in northern California what they think about her and they inevitably answer, "When she puts her head down and starts running it's all over."
Silky's Nurse was at the top of her dilatory form on March 21 in the $82,050 Golden Poppy Handicap at Golden Gate, a race in which' she carried 120 pounds and conceded four to 11 pounds to her six opponents. As usual, Silky came out of the gate virtually in line with the other starters and then began slowly receding. She eventually got herself just where she wanted to be—last place—and it seemed that young Baze would have to raise a white flag of surrender. But once Silky's Nurse had spotted the field some 14 lengths, she started to move along the track like a stone skipping over water. She won by two lengths.
Just a week earlier, Silky's Nurse ran on a fast track in the $61,300 Daddy's Datsun Invitational. With 4� furlongs remaining in the 1[1/16]-mile race, she was once again caboosing the train, 13 lengths behind. The horse on the lead was Watch Wendy, generally regarded as the best in northern California for sheer speed. Silky's Nurse put her head down and very soon it was all over. She won by four lengths.
But, like her granddad, the filly can also lose in spectacular fashion. Two weeks ago at Golden Gate, running on grass in the $61,700 Star Ball Invitational, she parked herself in last place in the 11-horse field—and stayed there all the way to the wire. Orr claimed to be undisturbed. "Her race didn't discourage me all that much," he says. "She was carrying top weight of 127 pounds and hadn't raced in 40 days. Her next start will be in the $125,000 Yerba Buena on Memorial Day and I expect her to run a heck of a lot better in that." Besides, if history repeats itself, El Stupendo's fans will be as forgetful of that poor showing as Silky Sullivan's admirers were of his.