Updated on 09/16/2011 8:05AM

Dark horse shunned at two career stages


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Sunday Silence, the champion son of Halo who died in Japan on Aug. 19 after complications from a bacterial infection of his foreleg, was a dark horse. At different stages of his career, he was the horse that few people wanted. Yet he succeeded at every task and left each owner richer than the last.

Arthur Hancock, the Kentucky breeder, was most closely associated to Sunday Silence from his birth to his sale to Zenya Yoshida's Shadai Stud in 1990. Hancock raised Sunday Silence at Stone Farm, purchased him at auction, and maintained an ownership interest when the horse went to racing and became a classic winner, champion, and Horse of the Year.

Hancock bought him at the third day of the Keeneland July yearling sale in 1987. The nearly black colt was Hip No. 454, and when the bidding went nowhere on the son of Stone Farm stallion Halo, Hancock bid the colt in for $17,000, expecting that the owners would be unwilling to sell him for so little.

"When I took the ticket to Tom Tatham," he said, 'Arthur, we don't want him.' Their adviser, Ted Keefer, didn't like his looks, and my first thought was 'I probably just blew another $17,000.' "

Hancock brought the colt back home. "Paul Sullivan went in with me on him and said maybe we could make a little money," Hancock said. "So we sent him to Albert Yank out in California for the 2-year-old sales" in the spring of 1988.

Hancock said he put in a reserve of $50,000 and had to buy him back with the hammer price at $32,000. Clearly, this colt was one that almost every bidder found a reason to pass over.

Hancock had the colt shipped back to Kentucky, but on the way, the driver had a heart attack and the van overturned, injuring the colt slightly.

"They kept Sunday Silence in a vet clinic for a week, then sent him on home," Hancock said. "He got here, and the vet said he was a wobbler." The term refers to a horse whose coordination is impaired, which would rule out a racing career.

"So I told them to turn him out," Hancock said. "In a week, he was better."

Hancock then came within a hair of selling the colt. "Some guy called and offered $50,000 after the sale in California, but he backed out. I guess Sunday Silence was something that was meant to be."

Hancock did not sell the colt outright, instead taking in a partner. He said, "Charlie Whittingham called and asked me what I thought of the colt, and I told him I thought he was a good colt. Charlie bought in for half at $25,000 and then put a quarter with his friend Dr. [Ernest] Gaillard."

Why didn't anyone but one of the most successful trainers in racing history and one of the most successful breeders in Kentucky want this colt? He had enough going physically that he qualified for the Keeneland sale, but Sunday Silence was a rather angular individual, more athletic and racy than pretty and heavy muscled.

Also, he came on the market as the tax changes of the mid-1980's began taking their toll on the racing business. These and other factors deflated the demand for Thoroughbreds in America, making the markets decline sharply and reach bottom in 1990 or 1991.

During this period, when breeders were suffering severe losses, Sunday Silence went to the racetrack. In contrast to the problems in the bloodstock sector, the racing side of the sport was flourishing. Purses had increased significantly. A good racehorse could earn a small fortune, and a top horse could earn a large one.

Sunday Silence won his first Grade 1 race about a year after nobody wanted to pay $50,000 for him as a 2-year-old in training. He went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing the Belmont and to Easy Goer. Near the year's end, Sunday Silence won the Breeders' Cup Classic over Easy Goer, which earned him the divisional championship and Horse of the Year title. In the spring of his fourth year, leading Japanese breeder Zenya Yoshida bought a quarter-interest in Sunday Silence, who made only two starts at 4, winning the Californian, his sixth Grade 1 success.

In all, Sunday Silence won nine of 14 starts and almost $5 million. A top-class racehorse with an exceptional turn of foot, Sunday Silence and his rival Easy Goer were the best classic winners since Spectacular Bid.

But when breeders began considering Sunday Silence as a stallion prospect, once again he was the colt that nobody wanted.

Hancock said, "The main problem in trying to stand him was that we weren't going to get any mares to him. Even before he came to Kentucky, breeders normally come by the barns and look at horses they have an interest in breeding to, but Charlie said, 'They just haven't been doing that.' We were going to stand him for $50,000, but only a couple of breeders had agreed to take seasons to him, and Tom Tatham, Dick Duchossois, and Josephine Abercrombie were the only people who said they would take a share in the horse."

Even allowing for the grievous state of the bloodstock market, the rejection of Sunday Silence was a blow, especially when Easy Goer's book was filling nicely.

Part of breeders' concerns lay in his pedigree. His female family is nothing special, which raises questions about how consistently a sire will breed on. The other element was commercial consideration. As one breeder told me, he wouldn't have bred to Sunday Silence even at $25,000, because he was afraid that the stallion would get yearlings who were light-fleshed, narrow, immature looking, and who would sell poorly. These were the types of yearlings that the marketplace was punishing breeders for presenting, and they had learned the lesson.

So when Yoshida's representative contacted Hancock about purchasing Sunday Silence, Hancock and his partners made the smart business decision. "The whole purchase price was almost $11 million, because they agreed to compensate Charlie for his breeding right and me for my four," Hancock said.

"If we had been able to sell 20 to 25 shares, I'd never have let him go, although he would never have gotten the opportunities here that the Yoshidas gave him," Hancock said. "The Yoshidas came over here, bought some of the best mares in the world in the November sales, and developed a great broodmare band. They bred some great mares to him and gave him a heckuva shot, and he certainly repaid them for it."