Many racing fans today who have lived through nine Triple Crown sweep attempts since 1997 take for granted the 3-year-old media star who reaches out to mainstream America to capture the attention and the hearts of the general public.
Over the past 15 years, we’ve been taken on magic carpet rides by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, California Chrome, Big Brown, and I’ll Have Another, as well as Charismatic and War Emblem; all with their own unique story. Whenever there is a horse trying for the Triple Crown we come to expect crowds of 90,000 to 100,000 and higher for the Belmont Stakes. Smarty Jones set the standard in 2004, drawing a staggering 120,139 fans to Belmont Park.
Because of the rapid growth in popularity of the Belmont Stakes, few take notice of the 70,082 fans who witnessed Silver Charm’s attempt to sweep the Triple Crown in the 1997 Belmont and even fewer can appreciate what a renaissance horse this was and how he and his trainer Bob Baffert reignited the public’s passion for the Triple Crown at a time when racing’s big hero was the older horse Cigar and there was little interest in the Belmont Stakes.
After all, there had not been a horse attempting to sweep the Triple Crown since Sunday Silence in 1989, and after seven uneventful years, the attendance for the Belmont Stakes had plummeted to below 40,000. The jump from 37,171 in 1995 and 40,797 in 1996 to 70,082 one year later was unimaginable at the time and made the Belmont Stakes THE place to be in early June. The attendance for the Test of the Champion kept increasing each year there was an attempt at a Triple Crown sweep, as more and more people flocked to Belmont for the chance to be part of history. In only eight years, thanks to the heroics and popularity of Silver Charm, the attendance for the Belmont Stakes more than tripled.
It should always be remembered that this new phenomenon began with Silver Charm, who made a rock star out of his charismatic, white-haired trainer. It was the first time in memory that a Thoroughbred trainer had transcended the Sport of Kings to become a national celebrity.
One evening, when Baffert inquisitively wandered into a wedding reception off the lobby at the old Executive West Hotel in Louisville a week before the Belmont Stakes, the event stopped and guests flocked to Baffert, having him sign anything they could get their hands on, from matchbooks to cocktail napkins. Another night, it took him some 10 minutes to get to his table at a Japanese restaurant, as people kept asking him for his autograph in the lobby and wishing him good luck in the Belmont Stakes.
After doing a two-hour radio show at John E’s restaurant, Baffert was mobbed by the crowd, signing autographs on posters, photos, buttons etc. At the Kentucky Derby Museum, people were lined up out the door waiting for Baffert to arrive and sign their Silver Charm memorabilia.
It was quite a story in itself that Baffert even got to train Silver Charm. The year before, he made his first trip to the Kentucky Derby with Cavonnier, who suffered a heartbreaking nose defeat at the hands of Grindstone and Baffert’s arch rival Wayne Lukas, going back to their Quarter Horse days. The then little-known Baffert was crushed and felt he had blown his one and only shot at winning the Derby.
But an event took place before the following year’s Derby that would change Baffert’s life forever and dramatically alter the downward course the Triple Crown had been on since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer seven years earlier.
A week before the Derby, Baffert left Louisville to fly to Phoenix to saddle The Texas Tunnel in the Phoenix Futurity. Shortly before that, Baffert had purchased a 2-year-old at Keeneland sight unseen for $80,000 without having him vetted. When the colt failed the vet’s exam after the sale, the consignor fortunately took him back. If he hadn’t, Baffert would have been stuck for the $80,000. Baffert had lucked out, but more important, he had learned a valuable lesson. He swore he would never buy another horse without first having him vetted.
So, when bloodstock agents J.B. McKathan and his brother Kevin informed Baffert while he was in Phoenix that they found a long-striding 2-year-old son of Silver Buck at the Ocala sale that had worked like the wind under no urging at all, Baffert told them to send him the video of the work, in which the colt went a quarter in :21 4/5 and galloped out three furlongs in :34 2/5.
Baffert planned on watching the video at the Executive West in Louisville when he returned, and if he liked what he saw, he would have the colt vetted. But he was late departing from Phoenix and then ran into weather problems and more delays and couldn’t make it back to Kentucky in time. When J.B. McKathan asked him if they should bid on the colt for him, he declined, having vowed never again to buy a horse sight unseen and not having him vetted first.
The McKathans, who had fallen in love with colt, were disappointed, feeling this was “THE” horse that they needed to have.
By the time Baffert arrived back in Louisville, the sale was over. He watched the video anyway and loved what he saw, which was “a big gray flash coming down the stretch.” Baffert was sick he had missed the opportunity to buy the colt and told J.B. “We screwed up.”
McKathan told him the colt went for $100,000, but was a buy-back. “We can still get the sonofagun,” he said. Baffert gave the go-ahead and the McKathans went back and bought him privately for $85,000. Fortunately, the owners of the horse were clients of the McKathans and were still green in the business and were comfortable negotiating with J.B. According to J.B., they wanted to sell the colt for $100,000, but instead of upping the bid at $97,000 they upped it at $100,000, which meant a world of difference, considering many agents are instructed to bid up to $100,000. Had they bid $97,000 they might have gotten their $100,000 bid.
In any event, Baffert had bought the colt, but now had to find a buyer. His initial attempts proved unsuccessful. He then called one of his newer clients, Bob Lewis, to talk to him about his horse Criollito, who was running on Derby Day. During the conversation, Baffert mentioned that he had just bought a 2-year-old he really liked for $85,000 and asked Lewis if he was interested. Lewis said yes and Baffert had his buyer. Lewis and Baffert had taken the first step in a journey that would change their lives.
Over the next year, Baffert could not get the image of Cavonnier’s defeat out of his mind, as it continued to gnaw away at him. He kept a photo of the finish on his office wall as a constant reminder of his near-obsessive quest to remove that demon from his psyche. He had his chance at immortality and had seen it stripped away from him in the final jump. He thought at first Cavonnier had won, which made the defeat even harder to take. All he could say was, “At least I knew what it felt like to win the Derby for a few seconds.”
The following year, here was Baffert back at Churchill Downs with the gray colt, now named Silver Charm, whom he had nearly let slip away the previous year. Not only was Baffert back in the Derby only a year later, he had one of the favorites. When he went to the Kentucky Derby Museum he watched the high-tech Derby slide presentation and was forced to re-live that gut-wrenching moment.
“To come back this quickly is unbelievable,” he said. “I feel like it was two weeks ago. I got to win this thing.”
The Derby had become Baffert’s Moby Dick and he would not rest until he had avenged that one moment that had haunted him for the past year.
As the field came down the stretch in the 1997 Derby, Silver Charm had the lead, but here came the classy stretch-running favorite, Captain Bodgit, charging on the outside, pulling on near-even terms. Was the nightmare returning? Was Baffert about to suffer an unthinkable second straight heartbreaking defeat in the Derby?
The one thought that kept him optimistic was of Silver Charm’s heart, courage, and tenacity, which would become the colt’s trademark during his entire career.
As Captain Bodgit looked Silver Charm in the eye and the images of 1996 began to flash before Baffert’s eyes, he pleaded, “Please Lord, don’t do this to me again. I can’t take it.”
It was that same morning that a bleary-eyed Baffert sauntered into the coffee shop at the Executive West to join his brother Bill and the McKathans for a quick eye-opener before heading to the track to check on his colt.
“I need some coffee, please, before I kill you,” Baffert joked with the waitress. After downing his coffee he headed out the door of the hotel mouthing the music from “Rocky” and throwing a flurry of punches into the air.
But now the joking was over. Baffert’s life was about to change in a matter of seconds, either reaching the all-time pinnacle or plunging to depths even deeper than before. It all depended on the gutsy colt staring defeat in the eyes. Silver Charm would not let him down. He dug deep and refused to let Captain Bodgit pass him, winning by a head.
Baffert had won his Derby, and back at the Derby Museum for the post-race party, the slide presentation once again was shown, and as Baffert looked in awe at the spectacle that he had just become a part of, he was noticeably choked up. Nearing the end of the show he watched once again as the images of Cavonnier getting nipped at the wire flashed across the entire room. When the lights came back on, Baffert realized something had changed.
“You know what?” he said. “That race doesn’t bother me anymore.”
Two weeks later in the Preakness, Silver Charm again had to reach deep into his heart to pull out another head victory over Free House and Captain Bodgit. Racing not only was about to have its first Triple Crown sweep attempt in eight years, it was about to capture the imagination and the interest of the American public, thanks to a courageous horse who refused to be beaten and his larger than life trainer whose mop of white hair became a familiar sight in newspapers, magazines, and on national TV.
Because of the Silver Charm/Baffert phenomenon I arranged with Baffert and Tex Sutton Horse Transport to fly down to Louisville the Monday before the Belmont Stakes to watch Silver Charm’s final work and then fly back to New York with the horse. The New York Post’s David Grening did the same, so we traveled to LaGuardia Airport together and boarded a plane to Louisville.
Several days earlier, while doing a radio show, Baffert, unaware of the floodgates he was opening, invited the public to come to Churchill Downs to watch Silver Charm’s final work before departing for Belmont Park. Churchill Downs now had to contend with a problem they hadn’t counted on. Local television and radio stations announced the invitation, and at 7:30 Tuesday morning, a steady stream of cars began filing into the Churchill Downs parking lot.
“Look at that,” Baffert said from the trainer’s stand. “Is that awesome or what? See what I started. If you work The Charm they will come.”
Baffert called the work the most important of his life, and it was the crowd he had invited to watch it that almost caused a catastrophe. As Silver Charm turned around at the eighth pole and headed back to begin his work, Baffert told exercise rider/jockey Joe Steiner on the two-way radio, “Don’t let him duck out when he sees that crowd.”
Seconds later, as Silver Charm was galloping by, a horse named Firecrest, walking in the opposite direction, got stirred up when about 2,500 fans erupted in applause. Firecrest shied from the sudden noise and veered right into Silver Charm’s path. Steiner grabbed hold of Silver Charm and swerved sharply to avoid the out-of-control Firecrest, with the two horses merely grazing each other.
With disaster narrowly averted, Silver Charm went about his business and worked five furlongs in 1:01. It was time for Baffert and Silver Charm to leave Camelot and head to New York and the Triple Crown.
After 10 days of being treated like a king by an adoring community, Baffert now found himself face to face with reality as he approached the Tex Sutton Boeing 727 that would take him and Silver Charm to their final battle in their quest for racing’s Triple Crown.
Earlier that morning as Baffert drove through the gates of the Churchill Downs backstretch, he said, “I wish I could look into the future through a crystal ball. I’d like it to be two weeks from now, and I want to drive by Esposito’s (the popular tavern across from the Belmont stable area) and see what colors they have hanging up there.”
Just before 6 a.m., Baffert, accompanied by his main client and longtime friend Mike Pegram, arrived at Barn 33, where he had nine horses stabled with trainer April Mayberry. After unloading his luggage from his rented Lincoln Town Car, Baffert said, “I feel like I’m going to camp.”
Baffert said he felt like the weight of Kentucky was on his shoulders, especially after seeing the huge turnout for the previous morning’s work. “I’m looking forward to getting up to New York and getting this thing done and coming back to Kentucky wearing the Triple Crown on my head,” he said.
After arriving at the airport, Baffert said goodbye to April Mayberry, who had been caring for his horses while he was in California.
“Well, April, this is the end of the road,” he said.
Silver Charm was loaded on the plane and would be the only passenger, at great cost to Lewis. There among the many empty red stalls was the familiar gray face of Silver Charm digging into his hay rack. Mel Prince, who had worked for Tex Sutton for 34 years, said it was extremely rare to fly only one horse.
From the time Silver Charm boarded the plane to the time he arrived in New York he did not stop munching hay. By the end of the trip he had dug a large hole in the rack and was still pulling out hay with great vigor. All the while, groom Rudy Silva sat in a chair, holding the shank, his eyes fixed on his horse.
“Look at Rudy,” Baffert said. “Is he dedicated or what? He hasn’t left that horse’s side for two months.”
Also accompanying Silver Charm was his hotwalker Eddie Thomas, who, ironically, worked around the last Triple Crown winner Affirmed as a teenager.
“It’s scary how this horse has gotten stronger and kept his flesh,” Thomas said. “Usually, they back up, but he drank three buckets of water after the Derby and only a half to three-quarters of a bucket after the Preakness.”
As the plane made its descent, Baffert, who had been suffering with his allergies throughout the flight, said all he wanted to do was get Charm settled in, go to the hotel, turn off the phone, and go to bed.
The plane touched down at JFK Airport in New York at 8:50 a.m. after the hour and 45-minute flight. Silver Charm was led on the van, and with a police escort leading the way, the van meandered through the streets of Queens into Long Island, as pedestrians quizzically watched the procession.
Unlike the plane ride, Silver Charm was a bit wound up, pawing a path through the straw on the floor. Silva kept stroking the colt on the neck while exercise rider Larry Damore offered a few reassuring words.
“Normally, he loves to just look at things, but there’s something about van rides that gets him stirred up,” he said.
As the van pulled up near Barn 9 at Belmont, a mass of humanity could be seen gathered in front of the barn. It was the largest assemblage of reporters, photographers, and cameramen I had ever witnessed. They surrounded Silver Charm as he walked from the van to the barn, and before long, Baffert was engulfed by the media. Kentucky was already a memory. There was a Triple Crown to be won.
Silver Charm, of course, just failed in his Triple Crown quest, as he was busy fighting off Free House and never saw Touch Gold charging up the middle of the track. Only a half-length separated him from Triple Crown immortality.
Silver Charm did not race again that year, but would go on to a lucrative Hall of Fame career, becoming the first Kentucky Derby winner to compete in and win the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup. He would retire with earnings of over $6.9 million.
Now, after nearly 10 years in Japan, the 21-year-old Silver Charm, the horse who rejuvenated the Triple Crown, has returned to America to live out his remaining years at Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky., where he has already attracted hordes of visitors.
Racing and the Triple Crown owe a great deal to Silver Charm, and it is reassuring to know he will be treated like the king he once was will be again by the sport’s most beloved caretaker, Michael Blowen. When you really think about it, you have to ask yourself: has there ever been a horse and a human who were meant for each other more than Silver Charm and Blowen, whose star resident at Old Friends for years has been a miniature pony, aptly named Little Silver Charm? It was only natural he would get the larger version one day.
One of the common sights at Old Friends is Blowen racing his horses along the paddock fence. As for his latest addition, good luck, Michael, trying to pass him.
From Three Chimneys Farm to Japan and now Old Friends, you can say that for one of America’s great equine heroes, the third time is indeed the charm.
Silver Charm greets fans at Old Friends Farm.
Video by Adam Spradling