by Ryan Martin
Less than an hour from post time to the 1989 Belmont Stakes, trainer Shug McGaughey walked over to the Belmont Park paddock area alongside Easy Goer with a sense of confidence. He said to his assistant Buzz Tenney, 'If this race goes the way I think it will, it's going to be a fun one to watch'.
The New York-based Easy Goer was entering the Belmont off of two hard-fought, gut-wrenching losses in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to California's Sunday Silence, in the biggest West Coast vs. East Coast rivalry since Swaps and Nashua three decades earlier.
The Belmont Stakes was the perfect stage for Easy Goer to regain the momentum that he brought into the Kentucky Derby with three stellar wins, including a 13-length victory in the Gotham, where he finished only a fifth of a second off of Dr. Fager's one-mile world record.
"He was always competitive when he was on his game," said Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, who piloted Easy Goer in all 20 of his career starts. "When he was one fifth off the world record in the Gotham, I never squeezed him. He was just big heart and a lot of try."
The Belmont Stakes also was a chance for long time thoroughbred owner and New Yorker Ogden Phipps to score his first win in the Belmont. His iconic black and cherry capped silks entered the winner's circle for some of the most prestigious races in North America, but never an American Classic.
The stockbroker had owned champions such as Buckpasser, Numbered Account and, in the year prior, the undefeated Personal Ensign, who helped earn Phipps the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Owner and Breeder. Easy Goer also earned an Eclipse Award in 1988 for Champion 2-Year-Old, despite finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs to Is It True over sloppy and unfavorable track conditions.
The rivalry with Sunday Silence hearkened back to another Triple Crown showdown, as Easy Goer was sired by Alydar, whose rivalry with Affirmed 12 years prior became one of the most exciting and thrilling rivalries in racing history. Alydar was a gritty, tough as nails Thoroughbred but fell to Affirmed in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
Easy Goer's effort in the Preakness was one of the most memorable in racing history, battling with Sunday Silence the length of the Pimlico stretch, but fell a nose short of victory.
Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day's ride in the Preakness was met with criticism when he made an early move down the backstretch. Day said the criticism was somewhat deserved.
"He was on the receiving end of a not well-judged ride on my end in the Preakness and that really fired him up," Day said. "I had never expected to go the lead as soon as I did, but he was very anxious early on. We ended up alongside Sunday Silence and Pat Valenzuela [jockey of Sunday Silence] started to float me toward the outside. I just didn't want to end up in the nine or ten path, so I just let him go thinking I was going to get the advantage on Sunday Silence."
With Day making an early move aboard Easy Goer, Sunday Silence was pinched in between his rival and pacesetter Houston. Valenzuela responded by maneuvering Sunday Silence to the outside and confronted Easy Goer at the top of the Pimlico stretch - a tactic that Day said proved decisive.
"As I'm letting Easy Goer take a breather, Sunday Silence is taking advantage," Day said. "He got me in tight down the stretch and Easy Goer had never been in that position before. He just wasn't comfortable down there on the inside. At the eighth pole, he put his head back in front, but then he just ran out of gas."
Both Sunday Silence and Easy Goer had been away-gaming it in the Derby and Preakness, but heading to New York for the final leg of the Triple Crown in the Belmont the latter had the advantage of racing out of his own stall.
McGaughey said that home-field advantage and maturity gained from his earlier Triple Crown efforts steeled Easy Goer for the 'Test of the Champion'. The Belmont would mark Easy Goer's sixth race in a 13-week span, but the battle-tried Easy Goer continued to thrive.
"He just came out of each race really well," McGaughey said. "He had run in the Swale, Gotham, Wood, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He came back up here at his home and it was good. He obviously liked it here. He liked training on this big track. Every day, he kept on getting better and better and better. There were no qualms about the five races. It didn't knock him out by any means."
If anything, Easy Goer was stronger than ever with eyes fixed on the Belmont Stakes. David Carroll, who galloped Easy Goer in the mornings, said that the horse continued to thrive in morning training sessions heading into the Belmont.
"When we came back to Belmont with him, he just came out of the Preakness like a man," Carroll said. "He trained unbelievably well for the Belmont and we never lost faith in him. The way he trained wouldn't allow you to do that."
Despite being favored over Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness, the public's favoritism switched to the West Coast-based sensation for the Belmont - the only time in Easy Goer's career that he would not go off as the betting favorite.
In crafting his strategy for the Belmont, Day used the Preakness experience as a guide to denying Sunday Silence his bid for a Triple Crown. At no point during the 1 ½-mile journey was Easy Goer to his arch rival's inside. Instead, Day sat patiently aboard Easy Goer in perfect striking position behind Sunday Silence down the backstretch and when he asked his charge, Easy Goer responded with an incredible burst, racing by Sunday Silence en route to an eight-length win.
Easy Goer stopped the clock in a time of 2:26 which remains the second-fastest Belmont Stakes since the great Secretariat's record effort in 1973.
After two hard fought losses to Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, so dominant in New York heading into the Triple Crown, found redemption with his convincing score over his West Coast rival and provided Phipps the elusive first victory in an American Classic.
"Mr. Phipps had been so good to me. He had raced the mare [1981 Eclipse champion older mare Relaxing], and bred the horse so to be able to have him win the Belmont here was nice," said McGaughey. "They were New York people and New York racing meant a lot to them. To be able to do that was a big thrill for me as well."
After the Belmont, Easy Goer did anything but slow down. In fact, he went on to win five more prestigious Grade 1's in New York, taking the Whitney and Travers at Saratoga before winning the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont later that year.
"He never missed a beat. Today, horses don't run often as they used to," McGaughey said.
He retired in 1990 following a win in the Grade 1 Suburban at Belmont. As a stallion at Claiborne Farm, Easy Goer's career was short lived but still highly productive, siring Grade 1 winners My Flag, Furlough and Will's Way. He passed away in 1994 and was posthumously voted into Racing's Hall of Fame three years later.
Day, a Hall of Fame rider with 8,803 wins to his credit, said Easy Goer was the best horse he ever piloted.
"He had a big engine and was incredibly talented," Day said. "Sunday Silence was a good horse, but pound for pound, Easy Goer was the best horse I ever rode."
Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. As a New York legend, Easy Goer is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of his connections and racing fans all across the Empire State. Even 30 years later.