Kentucky Derby memories: East versus West


This coming Saturday, I plan to shoo my children away from our living room television and nervously watch twenty 3-year-olds break from that starting gate for the 148th Kentucky Derby.

Since I watched my first one in 1988, I have grown from a young girl watching Wide World of Sports cover Winning Colors to an adult glued to NBC’s hours of coverage of this loaded undercard. In my thirty-four years of Kentucky Derby memories, several moments stick out: that first one as the filly outlasted Forty Niner in the final strides; my betting on Dortmund, not America Pharoah in 2015; and that thrilling closing kick that gave Strike the Gold his rosy victory.

At the top of my list sits one in particular: a year when a golden star from the East met a black streak from the West and sucked a generation into the sport.

A year after Winning Colors became the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby, I started the 1989 season with a full list of prep races to watch and the good fortune to be able to see most of them on television. At age twelve, I consumed as much of the sport as I could, given that I lived in Birmingham, AL, far from any of the action. If I didn’t catch a race’s broadcast, I watched the weekend highlight show with Chris Lincoln and The George Michael Sports Machine.

I made a list of the horses running that year, with Houston, Clevor Trevor, and Awe Inspiring among the names. But truly only two horses grabbed everyone’s attention.

Easy Goer came from the East, but at the time I did not know his historic connections, only that he was sired by Alydar, who had been Affirmed’s rival. I heard all of the praise heaped on his Gotham and Wood Memorial victories, the comparisons to Secretariat, and the general assumption that the Derby was his. The praise irked me some, especially after watching the California prep races as the big day drew closer.

From the West Coast came the coal black colt who had won the Santa Anita Derby, the same race that I watched Winning Colors win the year before. I was introduced to Charlie Whittingham, who was vying to break his own record as the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. Something about the combination of the lanky colt, his aged trainer, and the cocky jock that piloted him to victory drew me in.

At the top of my list, I wrote Sunday Silence’s name.

Against the backdrop of a cold gray day in Louisville, I watched Jim McKay and Charlsie Cantey tell the stories of the fifteen horses that comprised the 1989 edition of America’s most famous race. I dreamed of joining them one day, seeing the Twin Spires for myself on a much sunnier occasion. I watched the post parade out to the gate, sat on the edge of the sofa waiting for them to load, and crossed my fingers and toes in the hopes that I could help will the black colt to the winner’s circle. And then the gate opened.

My eyes followed the progress of the gray and yellow silks. I nervously tracked Sunday Silence’s position as he sat fourth, with Easy Goer right behind him. I worried that the chestnut colt, my favorite’s rival, could get the better of the black colt as they entered that final turn. Sunday Silence was fourth, with Easy Goer on his outside in fifth. And then Pat Valenzuela gave the black colt his cue to go.

At that age I did not have words for what I saw other than Sunday Silence sailed, making up ground with what seemed like silken ease. Three wide into the stretch, the black colt wandered greenly down the straightaway, as if he were being buffeted by unseen forces. I worried about the horses inside of him as he weaved, but they were not going to catch him. He had more than enough to wear roses that day. Despite the comparisons to Secretariat, Easy Goer did not have enough that day.

My boy had won. I was a happy girl.

The Derby has its traditions: mint juleps, “My Old Kentucky Home,” and that blanket of red roses. But it’s the stories that keep me coming back each year. I come away with something from each renewal, tucking memories away in my mind to replay in future years.

Still, standing out among the thirty-four I’ve seen, closer to my heart than even the 2007 edition I attended in person, is the sight of that black colt reacting to the roar of the crowd as the wire grew closer. Years later, with both colts gone and Charlie Whittingham too, they live still in the stories they gave us and the thrill of watching that Kentucky Derby one more time.


Sunday Silence
Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer by the narrowest possible margin in the 1989 Preakness. Photo by Maryland Jockey Club.