08/18/2002 11:00PM

It's too quiet with Sunday Silence gone

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It was a strange sight to behold. The ultimate warrior, helpless as a rag doll. Sunday Silence, the uncrowned Horse of the Year, was lying flat on his back, three legs folded and one upraised, sedated and prepped for surgery.

An air tube was snaked between his clenched teeth. His feet were padded with hospital booties. The knee of his raised right foreleg was scrubbed and shaved, awaiting arthroscopic penetration by the delicate tools of Dr. Greg Ferraro.

On the other side of the viewing room window, trainer Charlie Whittingham leaned forward to watch Ferraro at work.

"Careful, doc," Whittingham mumbled. "Careful."

It was Nov. 16, 1989. Just 12 days earlier, Sunday Silence was standing atop the racing world, having defeated Easy Goer for the third time in four encounters - this time in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park.

Now he was flat on his back, with a knee that needed surgery to remove two small bone chips. Working with swift precision, Ferraro isolated the fragments, polished the healthy bone and flushed the debris from the joint. Whittingham rubbed his bald head, the spot where Sunday Silence struck him that spring. Accidents happen.

"He'll be back," Charlie promised.

No one dared raise a doubt. To that point, Sunday Silence had defied every attempt to spoil his fun. As a baby at Arthur Hancock's Stone Farm, he survived a scouring intestinal disease that should have killed him. During a trip back from California, where he failed to sell at age 2, his van crashed somewhere in the Texas panhandle. He emerged with cuts, scrapes, and a genuine suspicion of cross-country travel.

In training he was his own worst enemy. Charles Clay, a groom for all seasons, got Sunday's number the hard way, earned through mutual respect and stubborn pride. On the track, the colt required constant vigilance. He picked up the nickname "Sunday, stop it!" from his eternally patient exercise rider, Pam Mabes.

"Charlie, are you sure you don't want somebody else on this horse?" Mabes would wonder, half hoping, as Sunday Silence bucked his way back to their Santa Anita barn.

"Naw, girl, you're doing just fine," Whittingham replied, a gleam in his eye.

Whittingham saw the killer fire in his wild black colt, a life force that required special handling. Sunday Silence jumped from maiden to stakes to Triple Crown classics with such breathtaking speed that some thought Charlie had lost his mind. Instead, Whittingham promised on the eve of the Kentucky Derby, "We will get the money."

They did. On the bitterly cold and dreary afternoon of May 6, 1989, Sunday Silence won the 115th Kentucky Derby, beating Easy Goer by 2 1/2 lengths over a muddy, tiring surface. Two days later, brimming with unspent energy, Sunday went back to the track for a gallop, just to dull the edge.

Not a whole lot more needs to be known. Veteran horsemen still shake their heads in wondrous awe. Here was a beast who could win the most challenging race in North America, defeating a celebrated opponent under conditions of extreme discomfort, and still emerge from the ordeal looking for more.

There was nothing pretty about him, save for a coat dark as a gunfighter's heart. Hocks knocking and back at the knees, Sunday Silence made fools of the conformation gurus who said he would never last. Those same fools were afraid he would spread those flaws at stud, and so they let him go.

The joke was on them, exquisite in its execution, eternal in its consequences. Sunday Silence turned into an expatriate hero, shunned by the country of his birth, adopted by a racing culture on the rise. Thriving at stud in Japan, the Kentucky reject became the most valuable animal in the world, generating as much as $50 million in fees each year. His name was gold, his image revered. Even the glyph of his blaze - a writhing white mushroom cloud - could be found adorning souvenirs throughout the faraway land.

The question, therefore, hangs in the air. How could Sunday Silence be dead, at the age of only 16, and what did it take to kill him? Ebola virus? Seron gas? Did he finally run himself off a high cliff and into the Sea of Japan?

Laminitis is a horror show, the Stephen King of equine ailments, bringing nightmare and menace from all angles. Dispatches sent from Shadai Farm on the island of Hokkaido, where Sunday Silence was king, painted his final days as constant strife as the hoof walls of all four feet became increasingly inflamed.

But Sunday Silence stayed hungry. He stayed mad. They say he fought to the end, which is really no surprise. He deserved a better fate, filled with green pastures and pampered retirement. But that was not in his nature, and that is why his name will last.

He is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so. But he wormed his way deeper than that, and there always will be plenty of evidence - on a stall door, a groom's hand, a fan's heart. There are teeth marks to prove it.