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He Wasn't Smooth, but He Was Silky
The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Apr 2, 1998; JIM MURRAY;

(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1998 all Rights reserved)

All right, it's Santa Anita Derby week again, and in case you're ever on "Jeopardy," who would you have to say is the most famous horse ever to win this event? Not the best, the most famous.

Well, you start out, there was Swaps. Beautiful chestnut colt owned by cowboys, which glamorized him even more. Owner Rex Ellsworth looked more like Gary Cooper than Gary Cooper. Right out of Dodge City.

Swaps robbed Nashua of his Triple Crown that year (1955). Beat the great Belair stud at Kentucky and then came home to rest up while Nashua took the Preakness and Belmont.

But Swaps was special because of his background. Actually, no one thought he could get a mile-and-a-quarter at Kentucky, least of all Eddie Arcaro, who had the mount on Nashua. Swaps had a questionable hoof, and a year later he lost a match race to Nashua, a race that I may say immodestly I played a small part in setting up. I had to talk Swaps' trainer, Mesh Tenney, into accepting the match.

I wish I hadn't.

Some people will opt for Affirmed, the only Santa Anita Derby winner to win the Triple Crown.

Three Santa Anita Derby winners--Silver Charm, Sunday Silence and Majestic Prince--went on to win two legs of the Triple Crown but came up short at the Belmont.

But none of the above attracted the fan and media hype of the 1958 winner.

Silky Sullivan wasn't simply a racehorse, he was a folk hero. A modern Black Beauty. No horse in history ever captured the imagination of the public the way Ol' Silk did.

He didn't merely win races, first he overtook them. He was like a fighter who gets off the floor after several knockdowns to win. A four-legged Rocky. A guy who keeps coming while the crowd yells "Stop it!"

He didn't "come from behind," he came from the next race. It was a long-distance call from him to the field. The first time I saw him, we thought he had broken down.

He was once 40 lengths behind (40!) in a seven-furlong race. And he lost by a short neck. He came out of the gate walking. Silky in the gate was like a golfer who throws grass in the air, checks his lie, squints at the sky, blows imaginary bugs off his ball and, in general, looks as if he would rather not be doing this.

Even when the race started, Silky dawdled. A front-running jockey like Johnny Longden wouldn't ride him to go down to get the mail. Many a bettor tore up his ticket on Silky early in his races.

But then he would begin to run. How exciting was Silky? Well, one of his owners, Phil Klippstein, had a heart condition and his doctors forbade him to attend Silky's races.

Silky didn't even look like a racehorse. He didn't have that svelte, ribs-showing look of most 3-year-olds. Silky was conformed like a nose guard. He could have been mistaken for a Clydesdale and hooked onto a Budweiser truck.

He actually made up 49 lengths in a race one day to miss by a head at the wire. The stand-up comics had a field day. "It's two guys in a horse costume," Joe Frisco told his nightclub audience. "I was on the bill with them in Sheboygan."

Even the races he lost, he was on his way by at the finish. Eddie Arcaro felt his hot breath in a six-furlong dash once and told the press: "He's just a running fool. He runs that last eighth in 10 seconds flat--or less. You feel like you're standing still. Sometimes when he comes up alongside, you are."

But with all that, Silky was--alas!--a bit of an impostor. Even in his heyday, there were skeptics. I remember one railbird--it might have been the legendary Hy Schneider--was scornful. "He's just beating a lot of $10,000 horses is all," he snorted.

No one wanted to believe it, but he might have been right.

Even if he was beating burros, it was eye-popping stuff.

He won his Santa Anita Derby in 1958 by three lengths, coming from 29 lengths off the pace. But he was running down the likes of Harcall and Aliwar, whom nobody ever mixed up with Man O'War. He probably never could run faster than 1:49 and change in the mile-and-an-eighth, but it was the way he'd run it that had hearts beating.

He was a celebrity. They hired a special train to carry him and his adoring fans back to Kentucky, everything but Klieg lights. But at Churchill Downs, no Harcall or Aliwar--or even Old Pueblo--awaited. Instead, it was the last of the great Calumets, Tim Tam.

No one could spot Tim Tam 30 lengths and pass him. Silky went off at 2-1, but he beat only two horses, a 4-1 shot named Flamingo, and a 122-1 shot named Warren G. Silky finished 12th.

Still unconvinced, his trainer, Reggie Cornell railroaded him to the Preakness. He improved to eighth but ended up just nosing out a 204-1 shot for that spot.

Silky was like a small-town hustler who couldn't fade the big city boys.

The moral of the story? You can't spot a field of great runners 40 lengths forever.

There have been 60 runnings of the Santa Anita Derby, more than 400 horses. Twelve of them have won the Kentucky Derby, 12 have won the Preakness, and four have won the Belmont.

But none of them was ever any more celebrated than a colt who finished 12th at Kentucky, eighth at Maryland and never even got to New York. They wrote poems about Earl Sande, but they wrote songs about Silky Sullivan. He was more famous than Trigger.

Maybe Indian Charlie or Artax or Real Quiet, who will duel in this year's Santa Anita Derby, can become a horse for the ages. We'll see. But it's not likely we'll see again a horse that can spot the field 49 lengths and overtake it. That's like spotting Mike Tyson the first 30 punches undefended and winning a decision, giving Mark McGwire 20 straight fastballs, promising not to return the first 20 Pete Sampras serves, or letting Billy the Kid draw first.

Silky Sullivan is still the only horse in the game who could go from "Where is everybody?" to "Where is everybody?" in 10 furlongs. He was kind of like a pitcher with a 100-mph fastball but no control, a fighter who had a great punch but a glass chin, a golfer who had a 320-yard drive but couldn't putt. But he was more exciting than any of those who could.

Sub Title: [Home Edition]
Edition: Record edition
Column Name: JIM MURRAY
Start Page: 1
ISSN: 04583035
Subject Terms: Horse racing

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