It’s only fitting that the Sunny’s Halo Lounge at Churchill Downs offers up million-dollar views.
The picturesque setting, festooned in floral brilliance, is certainly befitting the striking chestnut colt who galloped to glory in the 1983 running of the iconic Kentucky Derby, a gallant effort that marked the second time a Canadian-bred horse had triumphed in the ‘Run for the Roses.’
In 1964, the legendary Northern Dancer made history as the first Canadian-bred horse to win the Derby when the son of Nearctic-Natalma gutted out a gritty neck victory over Hill Rise.
And while it would take 19 years to add to the list, Sunny’s Halo exploits on the big stage were met with similar elation across the country, including at Woodbine, the track where the David Foster homebred had stamped himself as a bona fide star.
“That Sunny’s Halo had raced locally as a juvenile and had succeeded in the Grey and Coronation Futurity and won a Sovereign Award for his efforts helped build his popularity with the home base,” recalled Jim Bannon, a Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee, and one of the sport’s most renowned handicappers and TV commentators. “His legitimacy gained traction with his success in the Arkansas Derby. Given the well-documented infirmities [shins and feet] Sunny’s Halo was trying to overcome added to the intrigue of his bid.”
On the day of the Derby, fans and horsepeople packed Woodbine, shoulder-to-shoulder, hopeful the David Cross Jr. trainee could win one for the home team.
As the field loaded into the gate, the decibel level swelled throughout the building.
“It was very much an ‘us versus ‘them’ Derby, which came early in the new era of simulcasting,” remembered Bannon. “The crowd at Woodbine that day was large and loud. Fans were collectively glued to the TVs showing the Derby and were unanimously vocal throughout the race. I was in a crowd on the second floor down by the 1/16th pole standing on a row of seats in a group of a couple hundred partisans. For those of us who had experienced Northern Dancer’s historic stretch run in the Derby, the similarities hit home. Like Northern Dancer, Sunny’s Halo was down inside with the lead in early stretch with a tough rival to his outside. For Northern Dancer it was Hill Rise and for Sunny’s Halo it was Desert Wine.”
Sunny’s Halo, the first 3-year-old thoroughbred in North America to earn more than $1 million in a single season, delivered his expansive Canadian fan base with a two-length victory in front of the 134,400 people at Churchill Downs.
“The stretch seemed extra-long that day just as it had for Northern Dancer,” offered Bannon. “The tension was thick, but the excitement overrode it. The crowd was hoarse with desperate pleas and when Sunny’s Halo hit the wire on top there was an explosion of relief and sighs of gratitude for another great moment in Canadian racing. The high-fiving and back-slapping among those previously not introduced was an amazing development.”
Sunny’s Halo magnificent season also included a record-equaling track effort in the $1 Million Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, a race he won by a dozen lengths. He launched his campaign with victories in the Rebel Handicap at Oaklawn Park and the Arkansas Derby.
And now, he was a Kentucky Derby champion.
Hindered by a skin rash, he was unable to replicate his Derby performance in the Preakness and finished sixth. He didn’t compete in the Belmont.
Sunny’s Halo was retired at the end of his 3-year-old season with a record of 20-9-3-2 and $1,247,791 (U.S). in earnings.
As a stallion, he sired 36 stakes winners, including Dispersal, Sunny Sunrise, Irgun and Beautiful Sensation. His progeny had lifetime career earnings of more than $26 million.
In June 2003, at Double S Thoroughbred Farm in Tyler, Texas, Sunny’s Halo was euthanized due to the infirmities of age. He was 23.
“He’s an easy horse to train for the simple reason that he enjoys his work,” Cross had said in the days leading up to the Derby.
On a rainy afternoon at Churchill, Sunny’s Halo worked overtime to complete his task.
And now, 39 years after that triumph, another colt will look to become the third Canadian-bred to lay claim to the Derby crown.
Messier, an Ontario-bred son of Empire Maker-Checkered Past, would make it a maple leaf hat trick if he were to win on Saturday.
Owned by SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert Masterson, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine Donovan, Golconda Stable, and Siena Farm LLC, and trained by Tim Yakteen, the bay colt won the Grade 3 Bob Hope and Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis, and was second in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, his final start before the Derby.
Canadian racing fans are hopeful he can go one better this time.
“For Messier, his Canadian identity hinges on fragments of his pedigree, his iconic breeder [Sam-Son Farm] and his easily recognizable name,” said Bannon. “Any real momentum for him will have to be built through accomplishments in the big events.”
Jeff Bratt, longtime host/commentator and handicapper with Woodbine, believes the sophomore is up to the task.
“I like that he has the ability to stay close and I think in the Derby that is a good thing as many of the closers get into trouble coming from off the pace. I actually don’t mind the fact that he lost his prep coming into the race. He had to fight and maybe that will do him some good in his second start off the bench. I haven’t seen him in person, but on television, he looks like a good-looking colt, physically.”
For those who have booked their spot in the Sunny’s Halo Lounge, the place at Churchill that ‘offers a privileged vantage point of the final turn and starting line,’ they could be witness to a third Canadian-bred Derby triumph.
And for those gathered at Woodbine to watch the big race, a familiar scene could play out, just like the joyous outpouring that took place on May 7, 1983, orchestrated by the hooves and heart of Canada’s beloved ‘Halo.’
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms