Silky Sullivan: The Ultimate Closer

April 24, 2020

Silky Sullivan with Bill Shoemaker up winning the 1958 Santa Anita Derby

Photo Credit: Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection

Last week, you read about Malicious, the come-from-behind horse that everyone on the West Coast was rooting for in the 1930s. We’ve also written about Zenyatta and Winx, two closers that were actually champions — among the best of all time.

But none of them compares to the infatuation and adulation that people bestowed upon Silky Sullivan.

The one-time winner of the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby hopeful made it a habit of closing from such a large distance, people would wonder if he was injured or just outclassed. When his career ended at age 4, he had won only 12 of 27 starts, but in those 27 races he won the hearts of horse racing fans with his come-from-out-of-nowhere style of running.

Born with a Closing Style

Silky’s unique style of running from off the pace started at an early age. Farm hands where the colt was born noticed that when the yearlings were let loose in the paddock, Silky would wait patiently by himself until the group was halfway across the 28-acre field, then take off after them like a bullet and catch them by the end of the paddock.

He broke his maiden as a 2-year-old at Hollywood Park on May 17, 1957, his first race. The racing notes declared that he “lacked early speed, rallied after reaching the stretch, closed fast and was up in the last strides.” Those notes would be repeated many times throughout Silky’s career.

He won four of seven races as a 2-year-old — enough to gain attention from fans, who marveled at his style of running. He came back from 27 lengths down to take the Golden Gate Futurity Dec. 7, and a star was born.

Shoemaker Gets Involved

At Santa Anita on January 30, 1958, he was 20 lengths behind at the half-mile pole but rallied to win by a nose, robbing jockey Bill Shoemaker, who was riding a horse called The Shoe, from winning his 3,000th race.

Six days later, he staged what the San Francisco Examiner called “probably the greatest stretch run in racing history” when he finished second by a nose to the favorite, Old Pueblo. He started the 1 1/16 mile race like a plowhorse, trailing the leaders by 41 lengths on the backstretch. He trailed the next-to-last place horse by 100 yards at the half-mile pole before making his move. He was 14 lengths back at the 1/8 pole, 10 lengths at the 1/16 pole, but he rocketed past the pack and would have taken Old Pueblo had the race been a few yards longer.

Then in an allowance race at Santa Anita on February 25, the media and fans crowned him “Mr. Heart Attack.” In a six and one-half furlong race — no time for any horse to come from off the pace – he casually lingered in the rear, 25 lengths off the lead at the half-mile before finishing “like lightning,” according to the Los Angeles Times, his long legs working furiously down the homestretch to win by a half-length. 

His jockey? Bill Shoemaker, who liked what he had seen a month earlier and decided to ride him.

The Santa Anita Derby

Silky Sullivan got his revenge on Old Pueblo in the Santa Anita Derby — a race old-timers would talk about for decades to come. On March 8, in front of 61,123 screaming fans, the horse barely trotted out of the gate and trailed the leaders early by 28 lengths. Shoemaker tried to urge him on, but at the five-eighths pole, the colt was still 19 lengths behind. 

Suddenly, Silky decided the half-mile pole was the time to move. He shifted gears, went inside the pack on the far turn, and the locomotive took off. Shoemaker did nothing to steer him or urge him on. 

The colt ran down the rest of the 10-horse field at a frenzied pace, as if the others were standing still, and won going away by 3 1/2 lengths. His time for the last furlong? Twelve and two-fifths seconds — miraculous for the end of a race. The Los Angeles Times dedicated 2 1/2 pages to his victory, including a full-page gallery of photos showing the progress of his stretch run. Old Pueblo finished fourth.

Silky was quickly instilled as the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby along with Calumet Farm’s Tim Tam. Newsreels showed his remarkable runs from off-the-pace, and fans and the press threw accolades toward him, calling him sensational, and a myth and a phenom. Drinks and ice cream sundaes were named after him.

Then the wheels started falling off the Silky Sullivan express.

Derby Hopes

In his last prep for the Derby on April 12, an allowance race once again at Santa Anita, Silky failed to fire in the homestretch and finished a shocking third to a horse called Gone Fishin’. Some 19,000 fans who had spent more than $1 million at the betting window were disappointed in the outcome, but when owners Phil Klipstein and Tom Ross decided to ship him east to run in the Kentucky Derby, the fervor peaked again. A throng of schoolchildren and fans sent Mr. Heart Attack off to Kentucky like a war hero about to do battle.

Silky and Calumet Farm’s Tim Tam were made co-second-favorites on Derby Day, which was rainy and muddy. Silky may not have liked the mud getting caked on his face and chest, but he was so far behind the pack that he probably didn’t have any mud on him. CBS used a split screen to show the leaders and monitor Silky’s progress, since the field and Silky could not fit in one camera angle. But once again, his trademark closing style didn’t kick in, and he finished 12th out of 14 horses, 20 lengths behind Tim Tam.

In the Preakness, it was more of the same. Eighth place out of 12 horses, some 16 lengths back. The party was over.

Silky Sullivan didn’t race in the Belmont Stakes. In 1998, Wally Dollase, a trainer, told the Sacramento Bee that the horse was simply a sprinter who loafed for most of the race before saving the sprint for the finish. Perhaps he didn’t have the stamina for longer races such as the Kentucky Derby.

He won only five of 12 races in 1958 and three of eight in 1959 before retiring with $157,700 in winnings. He died in 1977 and was buried at the infield at Golden Gate Fields, the site of several of his come-from-behind wins. And to this day, extraordinary wins by such horses as Zenyatta and Winx are called “Silky Sullivans.”

Contributing Authors

Peter Lee

Peter is a  former journalist and  a horse racing historian. He is also the author of Spectacular Bid: The Last Superhorse of the Twentieth Century.

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