Racing folklore topped by Silky Sullivan

Folklore and embellished tales of physical strength and compassion for the underdog are a part of America’s society.

[cleeng_content id="183088269" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]There was Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. Out West, Pecos Bill was a strong man with a peaceable disposition. Jack Armstrong was the All-American Boy. Popeye the Sailor Man and Superman came straight from the comics pages of many a long-gone daily newspaper.

In the sports world, there was once a muscular chestnut colt — as bright as a newly-minted penny — who rounded up fans as quickly as UCLA rounded up basketball national championships during the coaching stand of John Wooden.

By the Saturday of the 1958 Kentucky Derby, the chesty Silky Sullivan was paraded to the post, a prancing 16-plus hands tall and 1,250 pounds of crowd-pleasing, pre-race folk hero.

Most of the thousands gathered at Churchill Downs for the first leg of the Triple Crown series had never seen “Silky” race.

“Silky” didn’t do well in his two Triple Crown races.

“Silky” didn’t do well in his two Triple Crown races.


And the tales drifting in from California had Silky being more powerful than a speeding bullet, able to fly higher than an airplane, and just completely full of charisma and down-home appeal.

Not only did the robust chestnut have the good looks expected of Hollywood stars, but it was his unique style of running that attracted the populace’s attention and affection.

Silky Sullivan ran with a come-from-behind style.

Not the usual come-from-behind style, mind you.

He had won a race in California where he had once trailed the leader by 41 lengths.

His style wasn’t dictated by trainer Reggie Cornell. Fresh-faced jockey Bill Shoemaker, just getting started in his Hall of Fame career, once said of his trips on Silky, “You don’t do a thing with him, you just have to allow him to run his own race, at his own speed, in his own style in the first quarter or maybe the first three-eighths. And you just sit there and wait, hoping you won’t have to wait too long, because when he really gets going you have to be alert or he might just leave you behind — and then you hold on for dear life.”

Silky was not just a figment of some publicity person’s fertile imagination. Sure, he was bred by a California dentist (Riley Roberts) and his wife. And he had a small white star in between his eyes and a white patch on one leg.

Anybody digging into his genealogy would be sifting through the racing histories of Fair Play, Pharlaris, and Mr. Sullivan. Fair Play was the sire of all-time great, Man o’ War.

Even before he had ever raced, things were lined up in Silky’s favor. He was visually perfect. His forefathers had a generous amount of on-track success. And, later, he would accomplish plenty himself.

From the time he was purchased as a yearling for $10,700 by cattleman Phil Klipstein from Bakersfield and lumberman Tom Ross from Oakland, he was bound for San Fernando to be trained by Reggie Cornell.

Even Cornell wasn’t sure how Silky would do in his first race as a two-year-old, a mere 5 1/2-furlong dash at Hollywood Park. When he seemed disinterested and lagged so far behind, Cornell and jockey George Taniguchi both thought his first race might be his last.

But when struck lightly by the jockey’s stick, Silky accelerated and swallowed the entire field with his land-eating move.

Falling behind by 27 lengths in the one-mile Golden Gate Futurity, he later appeared to fly over the ground in moving through the stretch to win.

In his first try as a three-year-old, Silky won in a three-horse photo finish at the close of a mile race. His reputation as a heart-attack horse was growing. As was his popularity.

The next time out in the California Breeders’ Champion Stakes, Silky dawdled some 40 lengths in back of the pack. And he lost by a neck to a horse named Old Pueblo ridden by Hall of Famer Eddie Arcaro.

Said Arcaro, “He’s just a running fool. You feel like you’re standing still. Sometimes when he comes up alongside, you are.”

Near the end of February, Silky fell back by 41 lengths in a sprint of only 6 1/2-furlongs. His rush through the Santa Anita stretch passed the co-leaders with about 50 yards left. It was the most distance he had ever trailed by before rallying to win.

In his next-to-last race before the Kentucky Derby, his ballyhooed presence drew a crowd of over 61,000 for the Santa Anita Derby. Bill Shoemaker would be Silky’s rider. Interest came from the Backeast media. Film crews came to record the race so it could be shown on newsreel bits in movie theaters and could be watched as teasers on the CBS television network making ready for the Kentucky Derby.

There was a 10-horse field. Celebrities abounded. Arcaro was aboard Old Pueblo. Bill Boland was one of the riders. He was joined by Ismael “Milo” Valenzuela and Johnny Longden, two more jockeys headed for racing’s Hall of Fame.

When chronicling the race, the official chartmaker showed Silky trailing the field by some 28 lengths. Shoemaker was just along for the ride. And then he asked Silky to go.

At the wire, the legend of the folk hero, Silky Sullivan, was even larger. He had won.

Dr. Roberts and his wife were offered $350,000 to sell Silky. They turned aside the offer and planned for the first leg of the Triple Crown in Louisville.

“Kentucky, here we come!”

The “California Comet” arrived in Louisville where he was mobbed by writers, film makers, and Churchill Downs officials.

The day dawned for the Kentucky Derby with a canopy of clouds awaiting the public and thoroughbreds. It had already rained. The racing surface was heavy and muddy. Silky had raced only once on a muddy track, and he had been a beaten fourth that day. Humidity still clogged the air with its stamina-draining presence.

Silky was co-favored with Calumet Farm’s Tim Tam and his red-clad jockey “Milo” Valenzuela.

During the post parade, the gleaming chestnut stood out like a 200-foot yacht in a flotilla of Naval Academy dinghies.

With CBS television using split-screen technology to follow the lollygagging style of Silky, the ‘Derby’ was run according to the pre-race predictions. Silky fell back by 30 lengths on the backstretch. He moved past several stragglers, but after about one-sixteenth of a mile his rush was over.

He finished 12th.

Tim Tam won it for Calumet Farm.

There was another Silky disappointment in the Preakness. His rally was again short-lived and he finished eighth as Tim Tam won in the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Back in California, his popularity was just as strong. Although he never regained his winning ways, Silky was given birthday and Christmas cards when he was retired. He was brought back to several tracks for special dates like St. Patrick’s Day or the Santa Anita Derby. A secretary was hired to do little more than answer all his fan mail.

Even at age 20, the still-photogenic chestnut was paraded before race patrons with his mane and tail braided with green cloth. He danced and playfully kicked back into the air.

When found dead in his stall at age 22, Silky had become a part of the language. An individual or team making a bid to pull out a win despite trailing badly or being a distinct underdog would often be compared with Silky Sullivan.

He was “Mr. Heart Attack” or the “California Comet” to thousands.

His come-from-behind style gave him notoriety and made him a national folklore hero.[/cleeng_content]

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