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A horse race 40 years ago still holds a lesson for today

Forty years ago this very day, a fantasy choo-choo train formed in West Texas and slid gracefully toward the sunrise. Cars with spacious compartments and larders of bubbly and sirloin made it special transportation, almost vulgar in its luxury.

This was a Texas & Pacific Railway promotion called the Champagne Special. There were some heavy hitters aboard; Julius Schepps and Les Stemmons, not exactly lightweights, were among the Dallas contingent.

The train headed to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville; it made several stops in Texas, picking up parties, all in celebratory moods, until it became sort of a mobile Mardi Gras. Once anchored in the Louisville yards, the train served as a swank hotel. It was rather high on the hog.

But most memorable about that 1958 experience was that its Derby starred the most flamboyant animal in its storied history. That was my first Derby, but in yearly visits since I have never seen its match, not in pre-race excitement about one particular animal, not Secretariat, nor Seattle Slew nor Majestic Prince nor any other.

In marquee competition, Silky Sullivan was the champ. Silky was a Left Coast colt, where he was the toast of the movie crowd. Because of modest bloodlines (he sold for just $10,700 as a yearling) and his running style, he also was the favorite of the Kansas City milkman and the Hoboken bus driver. He may have been the most popular pre-Derby horse ever.

Silky was a handsome devil, the color of a bright new penny, broad across the chest as a quarterhorse. Among the trimmer Derby colts, he looked like a bricklayer crashing the debutante ball. He was the original Rocky Balboa. And then, of course, there were his dramatics.

Silky Sullivan was a stretch runner par excellence. He wasn't interested until the late stages. And then he came with a furious rush, nostrils flaring, eyes outlined in white, ears jutted like royal lances. Early in his third year, Silky trailed by 41 lengths in a sprint race before his closing rally. In another win, he was behind 50 lengths at one point. TV producers devised a split screen for his races, left half showing the field, right half focused on Silky Sullivan loafing nonchalantly far to the rear. One of his owners, Phil Klipstein, had a heart condition and was forbidden by his doctor to watch Silky's races.

In the Santa Anita Derby, Silky trailed 29 lengths. And then he cranked up going into the far turn, sweeping past others, winning by almost four lengths. Horse people became quite insane.

Oh, I know that a racehorse has a brain the size of a walnut, but somehow I believe that this Silky thing was aware of his popularity.

On Derby day, when horses left their barns at Churchill Downs and were led by grooms on the long walk through the backstretch gate, around the first turn to the paddock behind the stands, 70,000 folks waited impatiently when Tim Tam came by and Jewel's Reward.

Then a murmur began when someone spotted a flash of red far down the barn path, behind the backstretch. The murmur swelled to a roar when Silky entered the track. Red ribbons were braided into his mane and tail. His nose band was red. His blanket was red, and his handlers wore red shirts and caps. The roar swelled and swelled, louder from each bleacher section as he walked by. Instead of being spooked by the noise, I swear, Silky seemed to bask in it. His head turned toward the stands, and he seemed to bob in acknowledgment. The common man raced to the windows. There were more $2 tickets sold on Silky Sullivan than any horse in any Derby.

The race started, and Silky assumed his customary position, far to the rear. At one point, he was 32 lengths behind the leading Lincoln Road. Then approaching the far turn, he passed a horse, and the crowd exploded. Here he comes! Here comes ole Silky!

Ole Silky didn't. Ole Silky was missing in a race that will ever be known as the Silky Sullivan Derby, he finished 12th, 20 lengths behind winning Tim Tam, and broke every heart in horseland. A young sports writer compared it to a smitten starlet sneaking into a dressing room and finding Clark Gable with his teeth in a glass.

Blackie Sherrod is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.


The Dallas Morning News
Blackie Sherrod