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Silky Sullivan

Silky Sullivan
Silky at the Santa Anita track
Sire Sullivan
Dam Lady N Silk
Damsire Ambrose Light
Gender Stallion
Foaled 1955
Country USA
Color Red
Breeder Mr. & Mrs. Riley Roberts
Owner Phil Klipstein
Tom Ross
Trainer Reggie Cornell
Record 27: 12-1-5
Earnings $157,700
Silky Sullivan is a thoroughbred racehorse out of Lady N Silk by Sullivan. He was born around 1955 in the USA, and was bred by Mr. & Mrs. Riley Roberts.
Major wins
Golden Gate Futurity making up 27 lengths (1957)
Santa Anita Derby making up 28 lengths (1958)
First horse buried in the infield at Golden Gate Fields. He has since been joined by Lost in the Fog
The Silky Sullivan Handicap at Golden Gate Fields
The Silky Sullivan Award given to a top 3 year old male (ie: Buddy Gil (2003)
Horse (Equus ferus caballus)
Last updated on December 31, 2007

Silky Sullivan (February 28, 1955 – November 18, 1977) was an American thoroughbred race horse best known for his come-from-behind racing style. His name is now a term used in sports as well as politics for someone who seems so out of competition they could never win, yet often do.


Silky Was A Racehorse

There were other great closers—Whirlaway, Stymie, Needles Gallant Man, Forego and John Henry—but none could hang so far back, let the field get so far ahead, and still win. Called the "California Comet" and often ridden by the Hall of Fame jockey Willie Shoemaker, Silky once galloped along in a race until the field was 41 lengths in front of him—and still won by three lengths. To accomplish this, he had to clock the last quarter in 22 seconds flat. His trainer, the West Coast veteran Reggie Cornell, said, "I've never seen a horse in my life, or heard of one either, go faster." (Reggie Cornell trained for movie star Betty Grable and her husband, bandleader Harry James. He was the uncle and mentor of the hall-of-famer, Ron McAnally, who trained the great gelding John Henry.)

Willie Shoemaker once said of Silky, "You can'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."

Out of his 27 career starts, he was in the money 18 times with 12 Wins, 1 Place, and 5 Shows. His career earnings were $157,700. Purses were much smaller when Silky raced than they are nowadays.

Two Acres and a Stall

Bred by a Pasadena, California dentist, Dr. Riley H. Roberts, and his wife, Mrs. Nell Frances Roberts, Silky was foaled on February 28, 1955. The colt was a chestnut with a white star on his forehead and a front left white pastern.

Silky's pedigree seemed undistinguished. His sire, Sullivan, rated strictly as a sprinter and raced in Ireland as a two-year old, winning only once. In California, he won five of eight races. In 1957, Sullivan had one other stakes winner, Sully's Trail. But Silky's dam, Lady N Silk, a non-winner in four starts (and rescued from the Santa Anita track in 1951 by Dr. Roberts before she could be destroyed due to a T-crack in her left front foot), had Fair Play three generations back in her pedigree. Fair Play was the sire of Man o' War (ranked in Blood-Horse magazine's top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century at number 1). Her chart also shows the famous European stallion Phalaris as the great-great grandsire of Silky Sullivan. Lady N Silk had two foals before Silky: the stakes placed Doc Upton (named for the track vet who notified Roberts about Lady N Silk's injury) and Lady Selena, a winner.

Racing Days the Silky Sullivan Way

Sent to Three Rings Ranch in Beaumont, California to be conditioned for the yearling sales, Jack Lynaugh, in charge of the younger horses, called him "John L." after John L. Sullivan. Lynaugh said the thing about Silky, "...was all the personality he had, more than any horse I've ever handled, and I've handled thousands since starting in this business in 1932. I've always been crazy about him. When the other yearlings were let out of the paddock, Silky would wait until they were half way across the 28-acre (110,000 m2) pasture, then take out after them. He always wound up on top, just like his races."

Sold at the 1956 California Thoroughbred Breeders Association's Del Mar yearling sales to Phil Klipstein (a retired cattleman from Bakersfield) and Tom Ross (a successful lumberman from Oakland) for $10,700, the colt was sent to Devonshire Downs in San Fernando to train under Reggie Cornell.

Silky's first race was a 5 1/2 furlong dash for maidens at Hollywood Park Racetrack on May 17, 1957. Cornell said, "He came out of the gate in a trance and a truss and I said, here's one for the glue factory. Then all of a sudden, it was like he was stung by a bee. Until he made that big move, I thought I'd be looking for a job." His jockey, George Taniguchi, said, "He broke with the field and then it was as if he was sucked back, and I thought, oh, my God, what's he doing? He was immediately 15 or 20 lengths behind the other horses. I let him go like that until the three-eights pole and finally gave him a tap on the shoulder, and then he changed gears. I never thought we'd catch up, we were so far back, but I never rode anything like that before. We were flying."

"Silky Sullivan wasn't simply a racehorse; he was a folk hero. No horse in history ever captured the imagination of the public the way Ol' Silk did." (from 'He Wasn't Smooth, but He was Silky')
Jim Murray, 1998

On December 7, 1957, he won the one-mile (1.6 km) $25,000 Golden Gate Futurity after making up 27 lengths. His jockey, hall-of-famer Manuel Ycaza, said later, "When I asked him to run, he answered and ran like a machine, like a rocket. You felt there was something special because nobody had seen anything like that. It takes a helluva lot of running when you're 20 lengths behind. You have to be greased lightning."

The next year, when he was three, he ran in a mile race on January 30, 1958. In that race, two horses had been dueling for the lead: Circle Lea, ridden by Ray York, and The Shoe (out of Khaled), ridden by Willie Shoemaker. When the tote board flashed a photo finish, York was sure he'd nosed out Shoemaker. "I beat you this time, Willie," said York. "Yeah," agreed Shoemaker, "but you didn't beat that sucker on the outside." Silky Sullivan had beaten them both by a neck. Later, he came from 40 lengths out of it to lose by a neck to Old Pueblo in the $67,360 California Breeders' Champion Stakes. Eddie Arcaro, riding Old Pueblo, had this to say: "He's just a running fool. He runs that last eighth in 10 seconds flat—or less. You feel like you're standing still. Sometimes when he comes up alongside, you are." In Silky's next start, on February 25, 1958, he came from 41 lengths behind to win a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race.

Silky's Santa Anita Derby

In 1958's Santa Anita Derby (GI), California's main Kentucky Derby prep race, 61,123 people showed up, making the attendance on March 8, 1958 a record crowd. Carrying 54 kg (118 pounds), the same as every other horse, Silky was up against nine very fast three-year-olds including Old Pueblo, who'd just beaten him in the Breeder's Champion Stakes.

The ten-horse field for the 21st running of the Santa Anita Derby by post position went like this: 1. Carrier X (by Count Fleet), George Taniguchi up, 1a. Old Pueblo (by Windy City 2), Eddie Arcaro up, 2. McTavish (by Khaled), Henry Moreno up, 2b. The Shoe (by Khaled), John Burton up, 3. Silky Sullivan (by Sullivan), Bill Shoemaker up, 3c. Harcall (by Call Bell), William Boland up, 4. Sabredale (by Blue Swords), Ismael Valenzuela up, 4d. Martins Rullah (by Nasrullah), Johnny Longden up, 5. Furyvan (by Good Ending), Alex Maese up, 6. Aliwar (by Alibhai), Ralph Neves up.

In the first five furlongs, Silky fell 28 lengths off the pace. But when Bill Shoemaker asked him, he took off. Shoemaker swore, "He knows when to move inside and then out. He knows when to make his winning move." "He's so smart," added Cornell, "that he could win at five-eighths. He's got speed whenever he wants it. He just knows when to turn it on."

"Silky ran by me so fast he darn near sucked me under!" (after riding Harcall, who placed)
Jockey Bill Boland

Silky's Kentucky Derby

The 84th Kentucky Derby was held on May 3, 1958. Silky Sullivan was joint favorite with the Jimmy Jones-trained and regally-bred Tim Tam (see pedigree below), a dark bay son of the champion Tom Fool (ranked at number 11 by Blood-Horse magazine in the 100 best thoroughbred racehorses of the Twentieth century) out of the winning mare Two Lea (ranked at number 77), and herself the daughter of Bull Lea, Calumet Farm's famous sire of champions. Bull Lea had already produced three winners of the Kentucky Derby: Citation in 1948, Hill Gail in 1952, and Iron Liege in 1957. Indeed, Citation took the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing in his year, winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. But Silky made the news.

File:SI Silky 58.jpg
Photo: John G. Zimmerman

Turning down an offer[1] to buy him for $350,000, his owners sent him East to Kentucky. William Robertson wrote, in his comprehensive "The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America" (published in 1964): "In a field of typical thoroughbreds mincing to the post, Silky resembled a battleship under escort."

CBS used a "split screen" for its telecast of the 1958 Kentucky Derby, necessitated by the presence of Silky, knowing he would be running far off the pace. Most of the screen was allotted to the main group of runners, but the lower right corner was given over to Silky Sullivan. Writing in 2002, the sports writer William F. Reed said, "Besides the split-screen, Fred Caposella, calling the race for CBS, mentioned Silky's name five times and Tim Tam's only once during the first mile and an eighth. At the end, the score was Silky 6, Tim Tam 4."

On the Kentucky Derby site, in its historical section under the year-by-year Derby charts, this is the description of Silky's effort that first Saturday in May: "Silky Sullivan broke well but was allowed to stride while saving ground until final turn where he made only a brief and ineffectual bid of less than a sixteenth mile and refused to extend himself thereafter."

If the write-up is a true reflection of the race, basically, Silky did not try that day.

Tim Tam won. He also won that year's Preakness Stakes.[2] In the Belmont, he broke a sesamoid bone in his right foreleg coming down the stretch, yet still came in second. (At the race that day was a man who'd created a new chocolate biscuit. Perhaps unfortunately, he thought Tim Tam was the perfect name to call his creation.)

"Nashua, Native Dancer, Man O' War, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey—they all lost. I still think Silky is great." (Silky's exercise boy)
Pete Kozar, 1958

California's Horse

With Silky back from "his" Derby, people came out in their thousands to see him run, or later, when he retired after his 4-year-old season, just to see the horse they called "Mr. Heart Attack." For the rest of his life, they sent him birthday and Christmas cards. They cheered when he was paraded each year, beginning in 1965, at Golden Gate Fields for Saint Patrick's Day and at Santa Anita for the Santa Anita Derby. He had his own secretary to answer his mail.

When the founder of San Francisco's British Motor Car Distributors, Ltd., Kjell Qvale,[3] heard Silky was for sale, he made an immediate offer. In 1963, Silky Sullivan became the property of Kjell, who cared for him for fourteen years. Kjell (pronounced "Shell") would take Silky to the winner's circle, his mane braided with green and white pom poms, and every time, ears pricked, head held high, Silky would turn his rump on his audience, then kick out both hind legs.

Speaking of Silky's Kentucky Derby, Kjell said, "I understand he had some temperature a few days before the Derby. I don't know if that's true. He may have gone too fast too early." To this day, there's no accounting for why Silky would run in one race and not another.

File:Silky bday4.jpg
Celebrating Silky's birthday on St. Patrick's Day with Kjell Qvale

At stud at Qvale's 60-acre (240,000 m2) Green Oaks Stud Farm nestled amongst the vineyards in Napa Valley, 40 miles (64 km) NE of Golden Gate Fields, Silky Sullivan sired a few winners. Mr. Payne and Son of Silky (see external links for pedigrees) were both dual stakes winners. On August 2, 1965, Mr. Payne copied his famous father's "come-from-behind" style with a stirring victory in the Oceanside Handicap, and then the La Jolla Handicap. Son of Silky won the Omaha Gold Cup and the Centennial Derby. In 1968, another of his sons, Silky's Image, owned and bred by Qvale, won the Silky Sullivan Purse. In Cheshire, England, at Pickmere Stud[4] a stallion called Pickmere Mistral is also a part of Silky's bloodline. Silky's daughter Silky Starlet foaled Tromeros out of Camden Town, who sired Pickmere Pure Gold, who was dam to Pickmere Mistral.

There's a lot of Silky Sullivan in today's quarter horses. The owners of good quarter horses brought him some of their best mares in the hopes of a foal with his explosive kick.

Silky Sullivan was found in his stall at his last home in Pleasanton on November 18, 1977, dying in his sleep at the age of twenty two.[5] Kjell Qvale was on the operating table when Silky passed, undergoing heart surgery. Alice Campbell, the wife of his last keeper, the trainer Emmett Campbell, phoned the Qvale family with the news, and Mrs. Qvale felt it fortunate that Kjell was still groggy when told of Silky's passing. If all of California loved Silky, Kjell perhaps loved him more. "There was no horse like him," said Kjell, "He was a gentleman. He'd let children walk under his belly, let them sit on his back and kick him giddy-up...but let an adult try that, and he'd—very gently—remove them. Silky was a person, a unique person, and I miss him."

"It was fun while it lasted," said the original co-owner Ross (or Klipstein), whose heart outlasted Silky's by only a month and a half.


Silky is now in the lexicon. His name is a horse-racing term for holding back until the last possible moment before making a huge bid for the win (not always successfully). Once run in March, the stakes race in Silky's name now takes place in November: the $100,000 9 furlongs Silky Sullivan Handicap (gr. III T) for 3-year-olds on the grass at California's Golden Gate Fields. (His race is probably turf because of the tendency of turf courses to favor horses with a strong late kick.)

Silky is buried at Golden Gate Fields in the infield to the left of the toteboard. He is considered by many to be the greatest closer of all time and was, until the death of Lost in the Fog, the only horse buried there. In the winner's circle, a bronze plaque bears a long tribute by one of his most ardent fans, one stanza of which goes: "Out of the gate like a bullet of red, Dropping behind as the rest sped ahead, Loping along as the clubhouse fans cheer, Leisurely stalking the field in first gear." (from 'A Tribute to Silky Sullivan', by Elaine Marfoglia, 1977)


  1. ^ The Shoe rode the legendary horses of the century. Besides Swaps, he rode Gallant Man, Round Table and Silky Sullivan. He rode Buckpasser and Damascus and Ack Ack. He rode John Henry and Northern Dancer and Forego. The Shoe rode against those most racetrack aficionados consider the greatest jockeys who ever lived—Johnny Longden, Eddie Arcaro and Angel Cordero. Bill Shoemaker died in 2003.
  1. ^ "The Thoroughbred of California" told its readers: "We vow faithfully to write of Silky Sullivan as if he were a horse. Which, of course, is ridiculous."
  1. ^ Some say it was Tom Ross who had the heart problem, but it's a certainty that one of his two owners could not watch Silky run for fear of his life. (It seems, according to the March 17, 1958 issue of Sports Illustrated, both men had a heart condition. That must account for the confusion.)
  1. ^ "Missed him entirely," said the announcer.
  1. ^ A layer of sheepskin over a horse's nose to protect his/her eyes from dirt kicked up on the track.
  1. ^ Some say it was $500,000 and came from an Eastern syndicate who proposed that Silky join a Circus and tour the Nation. Klipstein expressed interest but Ross thought the idea was a crime. Cornell was all for it. He thought Silky should have hit every country fair in the U.S.
  1. ^ Still hopeful, Cornell entered Silky.
  1. ^ An ardent supporter of horse racing, Kjell Qvale was born in Norway and raised in Seattle, Washington. He served as president of the Pacific Racing Association (Golden Gate Fields) for 25 years, then as Chairman of the Board of the California Jockey Club (Bay Meadows). He also donated major medical equipment to his favorite tracks to assist not only with jockey injuries, but with the injuries to the horses he loved. In his late eighties, he still goes every working day to British Motors, the San Francisco company he founded in 1947, and he still runs horses at Golden Gate Fields.
  1. ^ To see Silky's great-great-great grandson, see External links (Silky's blood flows on).
  1. ^ Tim Tam outlasted Silky by five years, dying in 1982.

Further reading



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