04/04/2012 2:46PM

Hovdey: One man's five favorite Santa Anita Derbies

Silver Charm (left) and Free House were separated by only a head at the end of the 1997 Santa Anita Derby.

Whether or not Saturday’s 76th running of the Santa Anita Derby produces a winner worth talking about years from now remains to be seen. For $750,000 it should at least be a good show, featuring such ambitious young runners as Creative Cause, Liaison, Midnight Transfer, and I’ll Have Another.

The bar, though, has been set pretty high as history goes. Here are five Santa Anita Derbies among the 75 run that still reverberate to this day:

1958 – Take the national acclaim heaped upon Zenyatta and multiply it by a factor of Kentucky Derby hype. The answer is Silky Sullivan, who may not have been the best 3-year-old of 1958, but he was by many lengths the public’s favorite.

Silky Sullivan had the name, the look and the style. It was Silky’s chestnut profile filling the cover of Sports Illustrated and just about every other publication as the 1958 Kentucky Derby neared. Blame most the attention on his giddy win in the 21st Santa Anita Derby that March, when a record Derby crowd of more than 61,000 got their money’s worth and then some. As advertised, Silky Sullivan dropped some 28 lengths off the early lead and then came running to win by an easy three. Cue the insanity.

In May 1958, in a St. Louis suburb, a family recently displaced from cozy California gathered to watch the Kentucky Derby telecast. The 7-year-old boy was dizzy for all things Silky Sullivan, but his sports-wise grandfather calmly insisted that Tim Tam was the better colt, and wishing didn’t make things so. The result was Tim Tam first and Silky nowhere, except for the undeniable fact that no one has forgotten his name.

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1963 – It is probably best to let Whitney Tower’s report in Sports Illustrated describe what happened in the 26th Santa Anita Derby, picking up the narrative as the field of 13 entered the first turn and Braulio Baeza found himself in a tight spot aboard Fred Hooper’s Sky Gem, who was lugging out:

“Then it happened,” wrote Tower. “Sky Gem bore out again, and as he did he tripped up his own stablemate (Win-Em-All). Milo Valenzuela flew off Win-Em-All as though the pair of them had been hit by a howitzer. He pitched forward onto the track and lay frighteningly still. Into this muddle of flesh tore Doolin Point, Denodado, and Royal Tower, and their riders went sailing, either from contact with a fallen horse or because they were alert enough to bail out in the last split second.

“Denodado broke both his left legs and was destroyed immediately at the request of his trainer, Charles Whittingham. For this purpose a pistol was borrowed from a security officer, the bullet was dispatched through the crippled horse’s brain and — in keeping with the eerie nature of the afternoon — bounced away to injure a bystander lightly. ”

Candy Spots somehow missed the carnage on the first turn and ended up beating Sky Gem by 1 1/2 lengths. This was the expected result, since Candy Spots was odds-on, undefeated, and already a marquee colt due to his exotic markings and a two-legged entourage that included Bill Shoemaker, Rex Ellsworth, and Mesh Tenney. Still. it was the scary legend of the ’63 Santa Anita Derby followed Candy Spots the rest of his stellar career, like a veteran of Anzio.

1978 – Affirmed was always going to win the 41st Santa Anita Derby. He had made a solid transition from his championship 2-year-old form that winter and had done nothing wrong for Laz Barrera and Steve Cauthen. The opposition was solid but unproven at the level required to breath Affirmed’s air. Then Steve Cauthen, as 17-year-olds tend to do, messed up and got himself suspended.

In those harsh days of frontier justice there were no “designated races” allowing riders to compete while suspended. The soap opera that commenced between representatives of Angel Cordero and Laffit Pincay – both claiming they had the call in Cauthen’s absence – was resolved with a coin toss and won by Pincay, who blithely guided Affirmed to an eight-length victory.

“I’m pretty sure I watched the race from the jocks’ room,” Cauthen recalled. “I wasn’t really worried about getting the mount back, although you never know. As far as talking to Laffit before the race, he’d already ridden Affirmed before. The only thing I needed to say was good luck.”

Two months later, Affirmed and Cauthen had won the Triple Crown.

1989 – Sunday Silence needed to win the 52nd Santa Anita Derby if he was going to be taken seriously by anyone who had watched Easy Goer in action, especially earlier that same afternoon when the New York colt won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct by 13 lengths, his time a mere tick off Dr. Fager’s world record for the one-turn mile.

Charlie Whittingham, three decades downstream from the tragedy that befell Denodado, swatted away the news from down east like a swarm of pesky flies.

“The last time I checked,” Charlie said, “the Derby was a mile and a quarter.”

In what was a statement as much as a horse race, Sunday Silence won the Santa Anita Derby by 11 lengths. In the process, the black colt from California went from being a local hero to a national figure worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as Easy Goer. And even though their rivalry ended at 3-1 in favor of Sunday Silence, the conversation lives on.

1997 – This brief and highly subjective list ends with the running of the 60th Santa Anita Derby because, if nothing else, it was the kind of race pitting the kind of horses that racing needs to reproduce as often as possible.

Free House and Silver Charm were exceptional from all angles. Of the registered 1994 North American foal crop of 35,340, they were the only graded stakes winners at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5. Their rivalry began that winter of 1997 when Silver Charm beat Free House in the San Vicente and Free House beat Silver Charm in the San Felipe. Sharp Cat, who had just won the Santa Anita Oaks, gave the Santa Anita Derby an added twist. But it was the two grays who were there at the end, Free House on top by a head, Silver Charm unconvinced.

They took their tango eastward, most notably to the Preakness, where Silver Charm got the nod on Free House in a fierce three-way with Captain Bodgit. As older horses their most exciting encounter was the 1999 Santa Anita Handicap, when Free House prevailed. But for all their accomplishments – a Kentucky Derby, a Dubai World Cup, and a Pacific Classic between them – the Santa Anita Derby is where the real fireworks began.