Who's Your Favorite Horse? – Bill Finley

Easy Goer | Horsephotos

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Favorite: Easy Goer (Alydar). Every once in a while a horse comes around that makes you believe that nothing is impossible. They don't just win, they win effortlessly. They don't just run fast, they break track records. They have the perfect pedigree. They're in the right hands. What can they accomplish? What can't they accomplish?

That was the way I felt about Easy Goer. After losing his debut by a nose, Easy Goer reeled off four straight wins, including the 1988 GI Champagne S. He would win by four, five lengths, but it always appeared that he could have won by 20. It wasn't just me. Just about everyone in New York racing thought this was as good a prospect as they had ever seen.

Back then, newspapers mattered and newspapers actually covered horse racing. I was the racing writer for the New York Daily News, but in this case, was not the greatest fit for that job. Reporters aren't supposed to have favorites. Impartiality is a must. To do so, though, I'd have to stop being a fan. That was something I just could not do. Here comes this horse who embodied everything about the sport that I loved and I wasn't supposed to root for him? Was never going to happen. I became Easy Goer's biggest fan and didn't do a very good of hiding it in my writing.

The 1988 GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile was going to be the race that completed a brilliant 2-year-old campaign and leave little doubt who the horse to beat would be six months later in the GI Kentucky Derby. Only it didn't work out that way. Over a muddy track at Churchill, Easy Goer spun his wheels and finished second.

Looking back, the defeat was a sign that while Easy Goer was a very good horse he probably was not the second coming of Secretariat. But that would take objectivity, which was in short supply among his legion of admirers. Plus, there was an easy built-in excuse. Clearly, he did not like the off track. He would make amends in the Derby.

The story didn't change as Shug McGaughey began to prepare him for the Derby. He won the Swale at Gulfstream by 8 3/4 lengths and then returned home to New York for the GII Gotham S. The Gotham is far from the biggest race Easy Goer ever won, but it might have been his best single best performance. Never asked for his best by jockey Pat Day, he won by 13 lengths and his time for the mile, 1:32 2/5, shattered Secretariat's stakes record (1:33 2/5) and the track record (1:33 1/5) and just missed Dr. Fager's historic world record (1:32 1/5).

”What do you think he would do if I asked him to run?” Day said afterward. It was a question everyone was asking.

Easy Goer came back two weeks later (yes, horses used to do that) in the GI Wood Memorial and won again, by three lengths, in a victory that was more workmanlike than brilliant. But that didn't matter. The Breeders' Cup loss was behind him and he had spent the spring doing his best to prove that the hype was justified.

Out West, a colt trained by Charlie Whittingham named Sunday Silence was also doing some pretty special things, but the Easy Goer believers never imagined he could topple our hero in the Derby. With each race, we had grown not just more confident, but more arrogant. Our horse wasn't just good. He was invincible.

Or maybe he just didn't like the mud. Back at Churchill, again asked to race over a muddy track, Easy Goer finished second behind Sunday Silence. It was a staggering defeat, but we did have our excuse and a quick turnaround before everything would again be right with the world. Despite losing the Derby, Easy Goer was still the star of the GI Preakness, the 3-5 favorite. The track was fast and, surely, the real Easy Goer would show up. That didn't turn out to be the story. In what was easily one of the best races ever run, Sunday Silence beat him again, by a nose after a stirring stretch duel.

At last, there was room on the Easy Goer bandwagon. Some were quick to make Day the scapegoat, but it was still hard to argue that Easy Goer was the better horse of the two when he had lost two in a row to Sunday Silence. Many of Easy Goer's most ardent cheerleaders picked Sunday Silence to win the Belmont and even I wavered. But I wasn't ready to give up on him. I didn't know why he was losing to Sunday Silence but I was not going to admit that I was wrong when I decided that this was one of the most extraordinary horses I had ever seen.

It's hard, though, when so much of what you believe is shown to be wrong. My faith needed to be justified.

Again breaking every rule of journalism, the 1989 GI Belmont became personal. I was tired of the California crowd gloating and relishing in our misery. I realize now that it was unfair, but I came to really resent Sunday Silence. He went from the underdog to a villain, the horse that had spoiled not only Easy Goer's dreams but ruined my fantasy and shaken my beliefs.

All of which is why the Belmont is my favorite race ever and nothing will ever change that. In the matter of two minutes and 26 seconds, everything I had believed in had come true. Winning by eight lengths in the second fastest Belmont ever, Easy Goer was the Easy Goer I fell in love with again. This was a lot more than one win. The pain of the Derby and the Preakness had been forgotten. The story of the day was not just that Easy Goer had won but that he had been vindicated. That night is now a hazy recollection of hitting bars near Belmont, accepting congratulations from those who realized I was one of the few who stuck with Easy Goer and knowing what it is like to float 10 feet off the ground.

After the Belmont, the story continued along a familiar path. Easy Goer would win five straight Grade I's, again living up to the hype, again giving credence to the theory that the real Easy Goer did not show up in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The stars were aligning again and, surely, he would beat Sunday Silence in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic. Once again, he came up short, this time losing to his nemesis by a neck. For the first time in print, I caved in and wrote that Sunday Silence was the better horse. It seemed only fair to finally give that horse his due, but my heart wasn't in it.

Being a Easy Goer fan was not easy. He was defeated in four of the five biggest races of his life, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. He sure could break your heart. But it was worth it. He made you dream that there could be such a thing as a perfect horse, and it was a wonderful feeling.

Email Gary King ([email protected]) to have your say.

 

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