At the time, a young Sunday Silence going through the ring and back to owner Arthur B. Hancock III under his reserve at the California sale of 2-year-olds at Hollywood Park was anything but notable. In retrospect, it was history being written.
The son of Halo's ascension from an unwanted youngster into a Horse of the Year, Hall of Famer, and industry-shaping stallion in Japan is woven into the fabric of horse racing's narrative. However, the twice-bought-back Sunday Silence also holds a unique place in Thoroughbred auction history as the first 2-year-olds in training sale graduate to win the Kentucky Derby.
Bred by Tom Tatham's Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds and boarded at Hancock's Stone Farm in Paris, Ky., Sunday Silence was almost universally panned by trained eyes that came to the farm to inspect the crooked-legged colt. The open market was just as cold when they sent him out of the ring at the 1987 Keeneland July Yearling Sale as a $17,000 RNA.
“We raised him, and [Oak Cliff's] advisor didn't want him,” Hancock said. “I took the ticket back and said, 'I bought this colt back for you. He went too cheap.' Tom said, 'Well Arthur, we don't want him because Ted [Keefer, Oak Cliff's advisor] doesn't like him.' I stuck the ticket in my shirt pocket and thought, 'Well, I just blew another $17,000.'”
“As a yearling, nobody liked him, and then as a 2-year-old, Billy McDonald told my partner Paul Sullivan, who went in on half of him after the Keeneland sale, that he was a 'triple-zero,'” Hancock said. “Elaine Lawler said 'thumbs-down,' and Mary Bradley said, 'I wouldn't pay the bills on him if you gave me to him.'”
Sunday Silence was sent out to California and placed in the care of consignor Albert Yank with the aim of getting a fresh set of eyes on him on the West Coast. The pair had knocked it out of the park in the juvenile market the previous year, selling dual classic winner and champion Risen Star at the Fasig-Tipton Florida Sale of Selected 2-Year-Olds in Training.
The Hollywood Park sale was also a strategic decision on the part of Hancock and Yank for its proximity to trainer Charlie Whittingham, who handled Hancock's runners.
“The sales in California then were a big deal, and horses came in from all over the country, as well as Europe,” said bloodstock agent Rollin Baugh. “They always tried to schedule the sale so it wouldn't interfere with Cheltenham, because people were coming in from Europe for the sale.”
Sunday Silence's time as a juvenile sale prospect came before the high-pressure, high-analysis breeze shows of modern 2-year-old sales. Instead, prospective buyers watched as the horses turned in two-minute licks around the Hollywood Park oval, and stretched their legs down the final straightaway.
Hancock came out from Kentucky to watch the colt gallop under exercise rider Jose Cuevas, and the reviews were positive from the saddle.
“He was a sharp guy,” Hancock said of Cuevas. “He said, 'I like the way your horse travels.' He thought he had a nice, big stride.”
Sunday Silence didn't have much going for him in the looks department, but Hancock hoped the colt's performance on the track would draw the attention of buyers. It ultimately didn't, resulting in a $32,000 buyback, but it's all about finding the right person for the horse, and he'd achieved that goal.
“Charlie looked at him out there, but he didn't bid on him,” Hancock said. “He called me after the sale and asked, 'How much did you want for that colt?' The reserve was $50,000, and I said, 'If you take half for $25,000, that'd be great,' and he said 'I'm in.'”
Whittingham paid off his share in the horse with training fees, with no money actually being exchanged. However, Whittingham later sold half of his stake to Dr. Ernest Gaillard, forming the trio that would go on to campaign the horse on the track. Sunday Silence went on to show that looks don't always equate to talent, racking up a resume that included victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Breeders' Cup Classic en route to the 1989 Horse of the Year title.
When Needles became the first Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, there was a figurative gold rush of horsemen who quickly established farms in the state in an attempt to emulate the success. Sunday Silence was the first juvenile sale graduate to win the Derby, but the 2-year-old auction market was already well-established by the late 1980s, and graduates like Risen Star had proven that a classic winner could come out of that marketplace.
Paired with a bloodstock marketplace on the downturn in the early 1990s, Sunday Silence's landmark Derby score did not become the spark to the 2-year-old auction market that comparable trailblazing wins have been in the past.
“Anytime a horse wins a major race, it's flattering to the consignor, breeder, all the people associated to it,” Baugh said. “It was a compliment to the market, but I don't think it caused half a dozen new people to come in and spend more money because of that.”
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