Racing history is filled with the stories of 3-year-olds whose star flickered far too early. They were brilliant on an afternoon in March or April, but then wilted when the first Saturday in May arrived and the all-consuming challenge of the Triple Crown proved to be formidable for them.
Perhaps no horse personified that better than Bellamy Road. On April 9, 2005, he resembled any of the sport’s most famous stars when he demolished six completely overmatched rivals in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and sailed away to an amazing 17½-length victory.
Sadly, for anyone who thought that race made him a mortal lock in the Kentucky Derby, Bellamy Road’s outstanding performance in the Wood was merely his 15 minutes of fame rolled into a 1:47.16 journey around New York’s Big A. He never won another race after that spectacular victory, finishing seventh behind Giacomo in the Kentucky Derby and then second in the Travers to Flower Alley in his final start.
If that story sounds familiar, there’s no doubt dozens of similar tales involving great efforts that generated tremendous optimism but were eventually exposed as nothing more than false advertising. It’s all part of the turbulent life on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Pat Day: ‘It sends a chill up my spine’
And yet, there are those precious few moments when something so magical happens that it can withstand all of the demanding rigors placed on it by the passage of time.
The 1989 Gotham Stakes was surely one of those magnificent days on the Triple Crown trail.
On April 8 of that year at Aqueduct, Easy Goer turned his penultimate Kentucky Derby prep into that rare race that decades later still stands tall as a magnificent effort serving as a window to a Hall of Fame career.
One-hit wonder? The 1989 Gotham was The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits and Michael Jackson’s Thriller rolled into one album.
“I still get such great enjoyment going back and watching Easy Goer in the Gotham. It sends chills up my spine,” said retired jockey Pat Day, who rode Easy Goer for trainer Shug McGaughey in all 20 of his races and landed in the winner’s circle in 14 of those starts. “That was the day when nobody was going to beat him. Nobody.”
Perhaps one horse could have beaten Easy Goer that day – but not by much.
As Easy Goer entered the starting gate for the Gotham, one of racing’s most revered records was the world best 1:32⅕ it took Dr. Fager to run one mile in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington while carrying 134 pounds. Even Secretariat could not come close to that time when he captured the 1973 Gotham in an electrifying 1:33⅖.
Yet, if anyone believed Dr. Fager’s record was unassailable, they were proven wrong.
Not only did owner Ogden Phipps’ homebred son of Alydar come within a fifth-of-a-second of Dr. Fager’s record while winning by 13 lengths, he was timed in an incredible 1:32⅖ with no urging from Day during the stretch run.
“I was blown away when I got back and Shug told me to look at the time,” Day said. “I saw 1:32⅖ and said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I couldn’t believe it. In retrospect, if I had known we were going that fast, I would have been tempted to squeeze him a bit, because he could have broken the world record that day.”
Day, who was merely along for the ride, wasn’t the only one stunned by the final time for the one-turn mile.
“It was pretty exciting to see a horse run that way at that time of the year, and to run as fast as he did. He was a good as he could be then,” McGaughey said. “I knew how fast it was, but I didn’t realize it was a fifth off the world record until later. I knew he had set the track record, but I found out later it was nearly a world record and that made it even more enjoyable. We presented a pretty darn good horse that day.”
Even before Easy Goer made his first start, it was widely known that Easy Goer was a “pretty darn good horse”.
In the summer of 1988, there was a deafening buzz running rampant in the Belmont Park backstretch that McGaughey had an unraced 2-year-old in his barn who was moving so quickly and gracefully in workouts that he was touted as that summer’s version of ‘The Fastest Horse in the World’.
Sent off as an 8/5 favorite in his career debut on August 1 at Belmont, even though winning with first-time starters was not McGaughey’s strong suit, Easy Goer’s debut did not follow the expected script as he broke slowly lost by a nose to rival named Lorenzoni.
Shipped to Saratoga, the handsome colt prevailed by 2½ lengths in his next start as a 3/5 choice, and, after a four-length win in the Champagne Stakes for a fourth-straight win, he was bet down to a 3/10 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Yet, in a scene that would be repeated six months later in the Kentucky Derby, Easy Goer had no love for a sloppy surface at Churchill Downs and finished second by 1¼ lengths to It Is True.
McGaughey gave Easy Goer a four-month break and brought him back in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 4. If there were any concerns how about Easy Goer would handle his growth spurt from two to three, they were answered in the 1:22⅕ it took the reigning division champ to overwhelm his rivals in his 1989 debut.
“I thought he got a little ahead of me after the way he won so easily in the Swale,” McGaughey recalled.
‘People were going nuts about the horse’
After that dazzling effort, Easy Goer returned to his stall at Belmont Park and did something even more mind-boggling. He took several steps forward, putting him on edge for a performance that would become part of racing lore.
“He was a good as he could be then,” McGaughey said.
The Gotham figured to be an easy day at the office for Easy Goer. Yet, even with the public hammering the 3-year-old star down to 1/20 odds, his connections had been involved in racing long enough to understand that success is guaranteed to no-one.
There was certainly an abundance of confidence, but it was mixed with excitement and some anxiety over the considerably larger rewards awaiting Easy Goer in the spring classics and how the young colt was rapidly becoming the sport’s biggest star.
“It was a really cool time,” said Daisy Phipps Pulito, the daughter of Ogden Mills Phipps and granddaughter of Ogden Phipps, who was 15 years old when the 1989 Gotham was contested. “Shug and my grandfather were crushing it back then with all the great horses and that’s what convinced me and my brother and sisters to continue with the racing stable after my grandfather  and father  passed away. My grandfather and Seth Hancock [of Claiborne Farm] did a great job of including us in everything.
“The Easy Goer years were a really fun time, and I’m hoping for another one like him to come along. He was such a neat horse to be around. You knew he had a big presence and you knew he was a good horse when you were around him. I remember after some of these races, especially at Belmont Park, my grandfather would get to the winner’s circle and then he would be signing autographs for 20 minutes. People were going nuts about the horse. People would leave notes on our cars congratulating us.”
For all of Easy Goer’s charisma, he had a different, more poignant bond with one member of the team caring for him.
Easy Goer’s first exercise rider was Mary Jane McGaughey Smith, who at the time was married to Shug McGaughey. She was aboard Easy Goer on a regular basis until October of 1988, when she stopped riding because she was carrying her second child with McGaughey, Reeve.
Yet, even if Smith could not ride Easy Goer, she was still a mother hen to the young, gifted colt.
“The Gotham was such an emotional day for me,” said the 65-year-old Smith, who was divorced from McGaughey in the mid-1990s. “Even after I stopped galloping him. I went to the barn every day and walked him and hosed him and grazed him. He had so much personality and was so kind. I have pictures of me grazing him and he was playing with my belly while I was pregnant.
“He was such an incredible horse. When you galloped him, he moved so smoothly. I rode a number of good, Grade 1 winners for Shug, but he was best horse I was ever on.”
None of the four horses that faced Easy Goer in the Gotham – Diamond Donnie, Expensive Decision, Cantrell Road and Texian - are known for anything more than being than supporting actors in an Oscar-winning movie. Yet it wasn’t the quality of the foes that Easy Goer beat which made the Gotham such a one-of-a-kind race, it was the manner of his victory (see video below).
When the starting gates opened for the one-turn mile, while Diamond Donnie rushed out for the lead, as was his wont, Easy Goer was at the back of the small pack after breaking from the outside post. Yet in a few strides Day and Easy Goer moved up to be on the leader’s flank.
“He broke well and settled nicely,” Day said. “Then, when we were coming out of the chute, a horse drifted out in front of him and he got fired up. He jumped into the bridle and dragged me up to the leaders and then he settled again.”
As Easy Goer dropped back slightly to fourth, Diamond Donnie covered the opening quarter-mile in 22⅖ seconds with the heavy favorite a little more than two lengths behind.
With Diamond Donnie and jockey Vince Bracciale Jr racing in the three path, Cantrell Road and Texian moved inside of him to challenge for the lead.
The half-mile was covered in a quick 44⅕, and Day was still sitting chilly with Easy Goer.
“He didn’t look like he was running that fast. He was a push-button horse to ride,” Smith said. “When I would breeze him, you could slow him down with your fingers. You didn’t have to take hold of him if you felt you were going too fast. He would do whatever you wanted.”
‘He was just gliding over the racetrack’
On the turn, Diamond Donnie, a Maryland-based minor stakes winner, drew clear for a moment.
Just a moment, not a second longer than that.
As Bracciale looked behind him, he saw the Phipps’ black and cherry red silks swiftly moving toward him.
“Around the turn, he started picking them up. He was just gliding over that racetrack. I never asked him,” Day said. “I was just going with him. I wasn’t encouraging him.”
After passing the quarter pole in 1:08⅖, Easy Goer took off and left Diamond Donnie in his wake. “Easy Goer went past him so fast, [Diamond Donnie] probably didn't even realize what was going on,” Horace Parker, trainer of Diamond Donnie, told the Washington Post. “I haven’t seen a horse move like that since Spectacular Bid.”
Secretariat might have been a better comparison as Easy Goer sailed to a 2½-length lead at the eighth pole and resembled the second coming of a “tremendous machine” in the final eighth of a mile.
“It was so impressive the way he did it. Watching him on the backside, if you take away that he was wearing our silks, when you see a horse moving like that, if you are a horseman, you say, ‘Wow, that’s a serious horse out there.’ His fluidity and the way he moved over the racetrack was amazing,” Pulito said. “When he passed [Diamond Donnie] it was incredible. He didn’t even have time to realize someone was coming up to him. He went by the other horse like that one was tied to a pole. Easy Goer was pulling away and Pat Day was motionless. It was amazing.”
At the finish, Easy Goer tacked 10½ lengths onto his lead in the final furlong, but that wasn’t the mind-boggling number.
‘A lot more in the tank’
What raised eyebrows among the fans at Aqueduct and those watching on ESPN was the seemingly impossible final time of 1:32⅖. Gone was Forage’s 15-year-old track record of 1:33⅕, as well as Secretariat’s 1973 stakes mark of 1:33⅖ – by a considerable margin.
“It was pretty exciting to see a horse run that way at that time of the year, and to run as fast as he did,” McGaughey said. “Making it even better, Pat Day came back and said there was a lot more in the tank.”
As Pulito put it, “Secretariat was the pinnacle. That’s what you are trying to reach all the time, and to break his stakes record was amazing.”
Day, for his part in the record-shattering performance, was perhaps the most surprised person of all when he brought Easy Goer back to the winner’s circle and saw the final time.
“I was never decidedly conscious of the time. It sounds skewed but I was more concerned with the way a horse was moving underneath me,” Day said. “If they are going fast and doing it easily, it’s better than dropping an anchor and trying to slow them down. I had no idea we were going that fast in the Gotham. He was going easily so I wasn’t concerned.”
Given the circumstances, it was not surprising that an increasing number of turf writers began penning paragraphs with “Easy Goer” and “Secretariat” in them.
Emergence of a rival
Yet, on that same afternoon there was another sign of things to come, only this one took place in California. In the $500,000 Santa Anita Derby, Sunday Silence was stamped as the ‘Best of the West’ by virtue of an 11-length victory for legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham.
“I remember watching the Santa Anita Derby and commenting on it. I said [Sunday Silence] ran great and I wish someone else trained him. That’s how much respect I and everyone else had for Mr. Whittingham. He made the rivalry a lot of fun and I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like that again.”
After Easy Goer captured the Wood Memorial by ‘only’ three lengths, one of racing’s greatest rivalries began when the Phipps colt and Sunday Silence squared off in all three legs of the Triple Crown as well as the Breeders’ Cup Classic at year’s end.
Sunday Silence won three of those meetings (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic, with Easy Goer second each time) yet three decades later, Day still insists Easy Goer was the better horse.
“Not to take anything away from Sunday Silence, but I do not believe he was as good a horse as Easy Goer. If they had lined up in the starting gate on the day of the Gotham, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have put him away,” said Day, who piloted Easy Goer to an eight-length victory in the Belmont Stakes that thwarted Sunday Silence’s Triple Crown bid. “We had a plausible reason for a lackluster race on Derby Day when we were second to Sunday Silence on a wet track.
“In the Preakness, I’ll take the blame for running second. I don’t think I rode the best race of my life. On the racetrack, there’s a saying that the shorter the margin of defeat, the greater the room for second-guessing and I know in my heart that I could have, would have, should have ridden the race differently and the outcome would have been different.
“When he beat us in the Breeders’ Cup, Easy Goer wasn’t a willing participant. He only ran hard for a quarter-of-a-mile in the mile-and-a-quarter race and came up a diminishing neck short. The record says Sunday Silence beat us three out of four times, but in my heart, when we got beat Easy Goer wasn’t at his best.”
As debatable as some of that may be, there’s absolutely no question that the 1989 Gotham was indeed one of those days when Easy Goer wasn’t just at his best, he was at his greatest.
“The Gotham wasn’t just a freak performance,” Smith said. “It was an honest, legitimate showing of what a great horse he was.”
It was true 30 years ago and even today it still stands one of the most magnificent measuring sticks in a process that builds so many of the sport’s greatest runners – horses like Easy Goer.