Updated on 09/16/2011 8:04AM

His big heart stops

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Sunday Silence (8) beat Easy Goer three times in 1989, including the Preakness.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Sunday Silence, the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year whose rivalry with Easy Goer produced some of the sport's most rousing contests, died of heart failure Monday at Shadai Stallion Station on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. He was 16.

Sunday Silence, Japan's most influential stallion and the nation's leading sire for eight years, had suffered from a bacterial infection in a right fore tendon since May and had undergone three surgeries. After the last of those surgeries on July 18, he developed the painful hoof disease laminitis in his left front leg, and his condition gradually deteriorated. Laminitis is a life-threatening condition that disrupts the blood flow to the hoof. It often occurs in seemingly healthy legs when a horse shifts the bulk of weight away from an injured limb, placing additional stress on the healthy leg. In Sunday Silence's case, the problem was compounded by his unwillingness to lie down.

"He was getting very weak since last week," a Shadai official said immediately after the stallion died. "He didn't lie down since Aug. 10 and just stood all the time. Finally, when he did lie down, he could not stand again, and then he passed away due to heart failure."

The farm official, who declined to be identified, said that farm veterinarians and Katsumi Yoshida, brother of Shadai principal Teruya Yoshida, were with Sunday Silence when he died. Teruya Yoshida was in Deauville, France, attending the race meeting and sale there.

The farm official said that the horse died on his own and was not euthanized.

This is the third major loss this year for Shadai Stallion Station. End Sweep, a former leading juvenile sire in North America, was euthanized on July 11 when he contracted an infection after breaking his withers in a fall. On July 16, Japan Cup winner and popular commercial sire El Condor Pasa died of an intestinal torsion.

Two early brushes with death

Sunday Silence did not appear destined for fame early on, even though his pedigree was a good one.

Sunday Silence, by Halo, was bred by Tom Tatham's Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds partnership and foaled at Arthur and Staci Hancock's Stone Farm near Paris, Ky. He was the only stakes-winner from Wishing Well, a Grade 2-winning Understanding mare.

But he was hampered by trouble almost from birth. As a weanling, he nearly died from a viral infection. As a sales yearling, he brought just $17,000. Though the hammer price was listed as a buyback, Arthur Hancock actually had bought the nearly black colt from Oak Cliff. Hancock consigned him to a 2-year-old auction in California the following year, but buyers were unimpressed, and Hancock took him back on a final bid of $32,000.

Traveling from the sale grounds, Sunday Silence had another scrape with calamity. The van driver had a heart attack, the van flipped over, and Sunday Silence appeared to have suffered some spinal damage that gave him a wobble. But he recovered from that and went on to join Hancock's stable for a partnership that ultimately included the Hancocks, trainer Charlie Whittingham, and Dr. Ernest Gaillard.

Sunday Silence was best known in North America for his Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Breeders' Cup Classic victories and his stirring rivalry with the Phipps stable's champion Easy Goer. Their stretch battles constituted the last great American Turf rivalry since Affirmed and Alydar in the late 1970's.

"If it hadn't been for Easy Goer, Sunday Silence would have won the Triple Crown," said Arthur Hancock, who was a co-owner of Sunday Silence during his racing career. "And if it hadn't been for Sunday Silence, Easy Goer would have won it. Easy Goer was a great horse, and he pushed Sunday Silence to his greatness. That rivalry really made it special."

Sunday Silence emerged victorious from three of his four clashes with Easy Goer.

Sunday Silence beat favored Easy Goer by 2 1/2 lengths in the 1989 Derby, his largest margin of victory over the Phipps colt. The Preakness looked briefly as if it would fall to Easy Goer - favored again - when he took the lead in the stretch, but Sunday Silence joined him stride for stride and the pair ground out a stretch duel that has since become legendary; at the wire, Sunday Silence had put his nose in front. Easy Goer turned the tables in dramatic style three weeks later, taking the Belmont by eight lengths; Sunday Silence, finally favored, trailed in second.

But Sunday Silence got the final word. In the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, Easy Goer and jockey Pat Day left their powerful stretch run too late, and Sunday Silence was still a neck in front of them at the wire.

"We were on the losing end of that battle two or three times, but it was great fun for all of us to go through even though we hated to lose," Easy Goer's trainer, Shug McGaughey, said.

Sunday Silence closed out the year with a single-season earnings record of $4,578,454, the 3-year-old divisional championship, and a Horse of the Year title.

Sunday Silence went on to race at 4, winning the Grade 1 Californian and finished second behind Criminal Type in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. He retired to Stone Farm near Paris, Ky., with a lifetime race record of 14-9-5-0 and total earnings of $4,968,554.

Sunday Silence was voted into racing's Hall of Fame in 1996. Easy Goer, retired to stud at the Caliborne Farm owned by Arthur's brother, Seth Hancock, died in 1994.

Japanese horseman Zenya Yoshida had purchased a 25 percent interest in Sunday Silence in early 1990. When Hancock had trouble syndicating the horse, Yoshida bought Sunday Silence for $10 million and brought him to Shadai.

The deal proved enormously profitable for Yoshida. Sunday Silence's progeny were immediately successful. His first crop included Japanese juvenile champion colt Fuji Kiseki as well as Dance Partner, 3-year-old filly and older mare champion, and Marvelous Sunday, who became a champion older horse there. At the time of his death, Sunday Silence had 10 Japanese champions to his credit as a sire. He also led Japan's sire list by progeny earnings for seven consecutive years, from 1995 to 2001, and was atop the standings again this year at the time of his death.