Looking back at my Triple Crown memories, one of the special ones was in 1997 when
I flew to Louisville from New York about a week before the Belmont Stakes (G1) after making arrangements to fly back to New York with Silver Charm on his quest to become the first Triple Crown winner in 19 years.
The plan was to fly there to watch Silver Charm’s final work at Churchill Downs, where he was stabled and then join him on his flight, in which he would be the only equine passenger, at great cost to owners Bob and Beverly Lewis.
Arriving in Louisville I couldn’t help but think back to Kentucky Derby (G1) morning when I met trainer Bob Baffert for breakfast, along with his brother Bill and bloodstock agents J.B. and Kevin McKathan, who found Silver Charm at an Ocala 2-year-old sale. Even after a year, Baffert was still hurting from the nose defeat by Cavonnier in the previous year’s Derby. At the time, he thought he would never get that chance again and couldn’t believe he was back a year later, and with one of the favorites.
At 7 a.m., a bleary-eyed Baffert sauntered into the coffee shop of the Executive Inn West Hotel, where he was staying, for a quick eye-opener before heading to the track to check on Silver Charm.
“I need some coffee, please, before I kill you,” Baffert said jokingly to the waitress. He flipped through the Courier-Journal and discussed a variety of subjects while avoiding Derby talk. When it was time to head off, Baffert left the hotel mouthing the music from “Rocky” and throwing a flurry of punches into the air.
Now here we were four weeks later and Silver Charm and Baffert were household names on the verge of immortality.
Silver Charm was scheduled to have his final work before departing the following morning. The day before, Baffert took it upon himself to invite the public to come out and watch the work, much to the dismay of Churchill Downs. Like everything with Baffert, it was said half in jest, but little did he realize the floodgates he was opening. Local television and radio stations announced the invitation, and at 7:30 a.m. the Tuesday before the Belmont Stakes, a steady stream of cars began filing into Churchill Downs.
“Look at that,” Baffert said from the trainer’s stand. “Is that awesome or what?” Taking a line from the movie “Field of Dreams,” Baffert added, “If you work the Charm they will come.”
And boy did they come. By 7:45, about a hundred people had gathered outside Barn 33, many with still and video cameras, waiting for Silver Charm to emerge. Out on the frontside, the apron was packed 15 to 20 deep from the finish line to the bleachers on the clubhouse turn. The matrix board in the infield was lit up with the words, “Good Luck in the Belmont Silver Charm.”
But now, reality hit, and Baffert acknowledged that this was “the most important work of my life.” Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to have all these people out there. Churchill Downs had given Baffert permission to work Silver Charm before the others came out to the track, but Baffert refused, saying the colt likes to have other horses on the track to get his competitive juices flowing.
When Baffert saw the crowd and heard them cheer wildly as Silver Charm jogged by the wrong way, he said, “This is going to be a disaster. There’s going to be some horse that gets loose. This might not have been such a good idea.”
As Silver Charm turned around at the eighth pole and headed back down the stretch, Baffert told jockey Joe Steiner on the two-way radio, “Don’t let him duck out when he sees that crowd.”
Seconds later, a horse named Firecreek bolted halfway across the track, with exercise rider Filamon Garcia pulling back so hard he was almost on the horse’s rump. Steiner steered Silver Charm out of harm’s way, but the incident was enough to bring a chorus of gasps from the crowd.
“Sonofabitch,” Baffert said. “They got to tell the crowd to knock that off.”
Silver Charm finally began his work, rattling off the eighths in :12 1/5.
“Beautiful, just like that,” Baffert told Steiner. “OK, let him pick it up; you can tap him on the shoulder the last eighth.” After Silver Charm hit the wire, “Baffert said to Steiner, “1:00 4/5, beautiful…don’t fall off.”
“That was a good deal,” Baffert said. “He’s ready.”
Baffert admitted afterward that he was to blame for inviting everyone out. He immediately called Bob Lewis, who was preparing to fly 110 people to New York.
“Big Bob, he did great – a minute and four,” Baffert told him. “He’s right on schedule. You should have seen the crowd out here today; it was unbelievable. They had over 2,000 people screaming and yelling down there. The crowd scared some other horse, and he jumped out in front of us. It could have been disastrous, but we dodged a bullet. He’s off the track and everything is great. Go ahead and fuel up the plane.”
The following morning, it was time to leave. After 10 days of being treated like a king by an adoring community ,who flocked to him for autographs and photos wherever he went, Baffert now found himself face to face with reality as he approached the 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 stable area for the last time, 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 (tavern across the street from the Belmont stable gate) and see what colors they’ve got hanging up there.”
Just before 6 a.m., Baffert, accompanied by 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 the trunk of his Lincoln Town Car, Baffert said, “I feel like I’m going to camp.”
It was tough saying goodbye to the people of Louisville, who embraced him like a native son and their hero.
“I feel like he’s a Kentucky horse, and the weight of Kentucky is on my shoulders, especially after the turnout we got for the work and all the people who showed up at the Derby museum to see the new slide show and get autographs,” the trainer said. “That’s why I feel like I’m carrying the torch for Kentucky. I’m looking forward to getting up to New York and getting this thing done and coming back to Kentucky, hopefully wearing the Triple Crown on my head.”
After arriving at the airport, Baffert said one final goodbye to April Mayberry, who had been taking care of his horses while he was in California.
“Well, April, this is the end of the road,” he said.
Once on the Tex Sutton-chartered plane, it became apparent who the real star of the Triple Crown was. There, in the middle of dozens of red empty stalls was the familiar gray and white 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 one horse by itself.
“Chartering an entire plane is very expensive,” Prince said. “I think the last time they did it that I can remember was when we flew Genuine Risk from New York to the Kentucky Derby in 1980.”
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 hole in the rack and was still pulling out hay with great vigor. All the while, groom Rudy Silva sat on a chair next to him, holding the shank and carefully watching the colt, making sure he was happy and comfortable.
“Look at Rudy,” Baffert said. “He hasn’t left that horse’s side for two months.”
Although it looked as if Silver Charm’s head was precariously close to the ceiling before takeoff, Prince said that once the plane takes off, the pressurization becomes a natural tranquilizer to a horse and makes them lower their head.
Because of his allergies, Baffert spent most of the flight up front, sitting on a cooler, reading a newspaper, and talking with Pegram or Prince. Baffert had to pop an allergy pill before the flight, and whenever he became exposed to the timothy hay, he went into a sneezing fit.
One thing Baffert said he wasn’t feeling was nervous.
“I’m just playing the waiting game,” he said. “The horse worked well and everything is going good. The thing about him is that he’s such a push-button horse. You ask him to go and he picks it up. He doesn’t waste any energy at the barn and doesn’t get hot.”
One other person who had been around Silver Charm every day was hotwalker Eddie Thomas, who ironically worked around the last Triple Crown winner Affirmed when he was a teenager.
“It’s scary how this horse has gotten stronger and kept his flesh,” Thomas said. “Before the Derby, he wasn’t even eating up that much, but after we got to Pimlico he was tearing up his feed tub. It was like he needed the Derby. Usually, they back up, but he drank three buckets of water coming out of the Derby and only a half or three-quarters coming out of the Preakness.”
As the plane made its descent, all Baffert wanted to do was “bed the horse down, go to the hotel, turn off the phone and go to bed.”
The plane touched down at JFK at 8:50 a.m. after the hour and 45-minute flight. Silver Charm was led onto the van, and with a police escort, headed through the streets of Queens to Belmont Park.
Unlike the plane ride, Silver Charm got 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.
“This is the only time he gets upset,” Damore said. “Around the barn and when we gallop him he likes to look at things. The more action the better. But there’s something about the van ride.”
The van continued to meander through the streets with people staring quizzically at the sight of a horse van with a police escort.
Silver Charm arrived at Barn 9 just before 9:45 to perhaps the largest throng of reporters, photographers, and cameramen ever gathered to greet the arrival of a horse.
For Baffert, who was now engulfed by the media, Kentucky was a memory. There was a Triple Crown to be won. Little could he have known it would take him another 18 years to achieve that feat, as Silver Charm was narrowly beaten by Touch Gold in the Belmont. Silver Charm had put his arch rival Free House away in mid-stretch and never saw Touch Gold on the far outside.
Now almost pure white in color, Silver Charm, at age 26, is back in Kentucky at Old Friends, still attracting a multitude of visitors daily and still every bit the star he was during the Triple Crown.