For many New York racing fans who came of age too late for Secretariat in 1973, Easy Goer’s victory in the 1989 Belmont Stakes was the sweetest moment ever spent at a racetrack.
I came across these words a few weeks ago in Joe Drape’s To the Swift: Classic Triple Crown Horses and Their Race for Glory. Steven Crist wrote them in “Last Bouquet for Easy Goer,” published when the 1989 Belmont winner died in 1994 at Claiborne Farm.
Since I first read Crist’s encomium a few weeks ago, I have returned to it more than a dozen times, so simply and beautifully and eloquently does it express what Easy Goer meant to him, and to the legions of fans who followed Easy Goer along the Triple Crown trail, from bitter disappointment in the Derby and Preakness to dominant vindication in the Belmont. [I had intended to link to the article, but, curiously, I can’t find it in the New York Times archive. Hm. This will merit further investigation.]
For a Belmont Stakes post I wrote recently about Easy Goer, I asked my brother to talk to me about what it was like to be at Easy Goer’s Belmont. After reading Crist’s piece, I brazenly asked him to tell me what made Easy Goer so special to him, and he kindly obliged:
I don’t think any of Easy Goer’s fans find him more likeable or endearing because of the defeats to Sunday Silence — those are still haunting, nightmarish stretch runs that 20 years later I can barely bring myself to watch.
(And before any of you Sunday Silence fans out there start reaching for the keyboard to tout your favorite’s greatness, just hold on as we get this out of the way: Crist also wrote: “Easy Goer was a great horse and so was Sunday Silence. I still think Easy Goer had more pure, raw talent, but Sunday Silence often had a strategic advantage due to his tactical speed and the way he ran on turns.” So, consider Sunday Silence’s greatness acknowledged as we return to our regularly-scheduled Easy Goer programming.)
Easy Goer’s Belmont resonated so strongly with his fans for a confluence of reasons. The anti-Easy Goer sentiment had turned ugly by then, and he was being routinely referred to as a “fraud” and a “creation of the parochial New York media.” Even neutral people were mad at Easy Goer. USA Today did their usual
sportswriter poll the day before the race, and I think all 12 people except me picked Sunday Silence. My colleague at the Washington Post said Sunday Silence would win by 8 lengths.
Also, the successive Derby victories by Ferdinand, Alysheba, Winning Colors and Sunday Silence had led to a simplistic conclusion from the once-a-year drop-in general sportswriters that California had overtaken New York.
Then there was the Alydar factor. A lot of Easy Goer fans had been Alydar’s fans, and we’d lost five in a row — three to Affirmed and now two to Sunday Silence. So there was that extra grace note of revenge when Easy Goer won and
everything came together in that glorious stretch runaway: Easy Goer, New York, and Alydar all avenged and restored in one mighty swoop.
Another noted and published New York racing fan, Ernie Munick, responded similarly in a comment on the Belmont Stakes site:
I am a New Yorker, and it took me at least ten years before I could admit that Sunday Silence was the better horse (he also had the better rider). Sunday Silence was a tremendous athlete, a fine champion, NO DOUBT; Easy Goer had a few great moments and one spectacular, historic day…Easy Goer gave New Yorkers humongous hope, so that one day, the day he beat “the better horse,” is held special in our hearts—especially since he did it here in New York.
We’re not supposed to fall in love with racehorses; it’s against all the rules, and unless you happened to fall in love with Personal Ensign, at some point, one of them is going to break your heart. Crist used exactly that language as he closed his eulogy, looking ahead to Easy Goer’s offspring and the other two-year-olds of 1994:
I will be…hoping for that one brilliant colt who just might be the next Secretariat—or at least let me think that he is for a while. He doesn’t have to win the Triple Crown and it’s 3-5 he will break my heart along the way. If he gives me just one day at the races like the 1989 Belmont, though, I will be forever in his debt, as I am to the late, great Easy Goer.