04/04/2012 3:46PM

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.

[MORE FROM HOVDEY: Winning team seeks payday with Longview Drive]

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.

Jordan More than 1 year ago
I became a fan of the sport as a teenager in California during the spring of 89'. That was a good year to become a fan, with Sunday Silence-Easy Goer. The 90s were a great era for the Santa Anita Derby. 90'- Mister Frisky winning his 16th straight race. 91'- Dinard vs. Best Pal (w/ Mane Minister who placed 3rd in all 3 Triple Crown races) 92'- AP Indy vs. Bertrando vs. Casual Lies 94'- Brocco vs. Tabasco Cat vs. Strodes Creek 95' was the first Santa Anita Derby I attended in person and it featured a 4 horse charge with Larry the Legend, Afternoon Deelites, Jumron, and Timber Country(Preakness winner). The next SA Derby I attended was 97', and it was an absolute classic. Both Silver Charm and Free House placed in all 3 of the Triple Crown races. I was also at the 98' running when the brilliant Indian Charlie won, but it was the runner-up, Real Quiet, who went on to win the Derby and Preakness and almost the Crown. 99' was the last SA Derby I attended until 2010. General Challenge, a legit top horse, romped in the SA Derby but bombed in Kentucky. However, the 4th place horse in the SA Derby, Charismatic, did the West Coast proud by reeling off the Lexington, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness. In the decade away from the SA derby, I missed seeing Point Given in 01' and Giacomo in 05'. However, that's about all I missed because after being the most important prep for the previous decade, the SA Derby had little effect on the Triple Crown. My first SA Derby in a decade, the 2010 running, thankfully featured Lookin at Lucky, the future Preakness winner and multiple champion. Last year's running, though, was largely forgettable. Here's hoping the race Saturday is anything close to the 97' running.
Pete Peterson More than 1 year ago
Enjoy your articles Jay. Honorable mention may go to Sir William for those who were around in 1957 , to see him defeat Round Table, putting Washington Horse Breeding on the map. Your article in April 2007 "An Upset Wqrth Recounting", if you remember told the story. Bill Peterso Boise, Idaho
Jack Frazier More than 1 year ago
Great article but 1988 and Winning Colors beating the boys on their own home court certainly would have to rank as one of those memorable derbies since three year old fillies almost never beat the boys, especially at that level and then to go on to the Kentucky Derby and defeat them again at a mile and quarter, was not historical was certainly memorable.
Morris More than 1 year ago
very good articule, hoovie. i always like your comparesome of horses. you do really good work ,with your writtings. you just dont do enough of it . good luck. morris
Max Power More than 1 year ago
Wonderful article sir, thanks much. How do we get video embedded here for each of those races mentioned? It's a lot more enjoyable for friends & family to see the races in addition to the great article.
Delrene Sims More than 1 year ago
Thank you so much for some history and background in the Santa Anita Derby. Loooking forward to it !
Guy More than 1 year ago
Guess when a horse beats BOTH Breeder's Cup's 2 Yr Old Champs in the same race is not that memorable? Buzzards Bay
seattle More than 1 year ago
Mr. Hovdey, In the 89',I've never seen a jockey(Pat Valenzuela) keep hitting a horse so many times while being so far in front as P.Val did to SS. Whittingham said that this was the race when SS started really resenting the whip.