By Phil Janack/Maryland Jockey Club
USA: It was just his second time at the Preakness, a race the future Hall of Fame trainer would later come to own, so pardon Bob Baffert if he was a little confused by the idiosyncrasies that come with being the second-oldest racetrack in the United States.
In one of the most memorable finishes in the history of Pimlico racecourse, which ran its first races in the fall of 1870, three horses hit the wire together in the 122nd Preakness Stakes in 1997. Based at nearby Bowie, local favourite Captain Bodgit was on the outside with west coast homebred Free House on the rail.
Between them was Baffert’s blue-collar hero Silver Charm, a $16,500 yearling owned by the late Bob and Beverly Lewis who had run second to Free House in a pair of California prep races before edging Captain Bodgit two weeks prior in the Kentucky Derby. Ridden by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, Silver Charm was no better than third choice in the Preakness.
“I was actually watching the wrong line,” Baffert recalls. “Bob Lewis kept telling me: ‘Oh, no, we won Robert!’ He always called me Robert. I was like, ‘No, just relax. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves. I think we got beat.’ I’ll never forget, he turns around and Nick Zito is standing behind us. He said, ‘Nick, will you tell him?’ and Nick goes, ‘No, you won.’ Then they put it up.
‘I realised I was watching the wrong pole’
“If you watch the replay, you can see that I didn’t think I won,” Baffert goes on. “They’ve got a little skinny pole before the wire, something weird, and I was looking at that. He was beat the jump before. Then when I watched the replay I realised I was watching the wrong pole.”
The official margin was a head over Free House, with Captain Bodgit another head back. Touch Gold, who would spoil Silver Charm’s bid for Triple Crown immortality in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later, finished fourth. “It was one of the greatest Preaknesses I’ve ever been involved in,” Baffert says.
Such an assessment is heady praise coming from Baffert, winner of a record-tying seven Preaknesses including Triple Crown champions American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. Silver Charm was his first; aged 26, he is also the oldest-living Preakness winner.
“Silver Charm was the kind of horse that would give you whatever he needed,” says Baffert. “He never gave you more. I remember Gary Stevens said he was beat.
“He could not get by Free House and then, when he felt that horse coming on the outside, that’s when he ran. If Captain Bodgit’s not there, he would have run second. As soon as he felt Bodgit on the outside, that’s when Silver Charm took off and that’s what won the race.
‘He was just a very noble horse’
“Silver Charm was so exciting,” he adds. “He just made it really exciting. He ran great in all three of the [Triple Crown] races. He was just a quiet, cool horse and he walked up there and never turned a hair, never got hot. He was just a very noble horse. That was just him.”
In 24 career starts, Silver Charm hit the board 21 times with 12 wins – 11 of them in graded-stakes, three of those G1 including the 1998 Dubai World Cup – and just a few dollars shy of $7 million in purse earnings. The champion three-year-old male of 1997 was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007, predating his trainer by two years.
Following his racing career, Silver Charm entered stud in 2000 at Three Chimneys before being relocated to Japan in 2005. He stood at Japan Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association’s Stallion Station until 2014, when he was retired to the Old Friends equine retirement facility in Georgetown, Kentucky, in a cooperative effort between the JBBA, Lewis family and Three Chimneys.
Spurred by the news of 1987 Horse of the Year Ferdinand’s death in a Japanese slaughterhouse, Michael Blowen founded Old Friends in 2003. “I’ve been in love with this horse [Silver Charm] since 1997, and I’d never set eyes on him in person until he showed up here,” he says. “Now he’s in my backyard, just a stone’s throw from Touch Gold. It’s unbelievable.”
Old Friends has grown from one horse and a leased paddock to more than 200 retired and rescued horses spread over 236 acres, as well as a satellite facility at Cabin Creek Farm near Saratoga.
‘How would you like an old grey stallion at your farm?’
“I remember that December 1st in 2014 – that’s when he showed up here,” Blowen says. “But a few months earlier I got a call from Sandy Hatfield over at Three Chimneys. She knew that he was one of my favourites and she said: ‘How would you like an old grey stallion at your farm?’ and I knew who she was talking about.
“As a personality, usually if you fall in love with someone or something it never quite lives up to your imaginary expectations. There’s always some fly in the ointment,” he adds. “But, with him it’s exactly the opposite. He’s the kindest, most self-possessed, easygoing thoroughbred stallion we have ever had here, by far.”
Silver Charm’s popularity on the racetrack has carried over to retirement, where fans flock year after year to catch a glimpse of him in person.
“He’s the king – we’ve got a lot of good horses here, but he’s like Elvis,” Blowen says. “Silver Charm is by far the biggest draw we have, even though we have some amazing animals here. We’re so lucky to have these athletes here, but he is by far the most popular.
“And everybody comes with stories. My wife is actually collecting the stories that people tell when they come in and see him.”
Baffert is a regular visitor to Silver Charm, typically combining his annual visits with trips to Kentucky for the Derby or its Thoroughbred auctions.
“I see him every year and every time I see him I get emotional, because I think of Bob Lewis and the family and everybody, my parents; it was just a lot of fun,” Baffert says.
‘You could lead him around with dental floss’
“He’s a must-see; people love seeing him. He still has a lot of personality. When you go to the fence, he’ll jog down there. He loves attention. That’s one of those things about good horses, they love the attention. He loves it.”
Blowen agrees. “Silver Charm, he’s got the charisma,” he says. “He’s got the ‘kavorka’, as Kramer used to say in Seinfeld. He really does. He knows who he is.
“He doesn’t like his head petted but I tell people when they come on the tour that you can feed him carrots, you can get your picture taken, he loves selfies. He’ll put his head on your shoulder. He knows what the deal is and he loves the adulation.
”You could lead him around with dental floss. If he were my son or something I’d feel embarrassed bragging about him like this, but it’s all true.”
‘He is one of the greatest’
“Silver Charm, he’s just special,” he says. “People that come here that are thinking about retiring stallions to us, they can see how good he looks at his age now and how well these horses are taken care of, so he’s become a tremendous ambassador – not only for the horses at Old Friends, but I think for all off-the-track Thoroughbreds.”
As for Baffert, Silver Charm will always hold a special place in the legendary trainer’s affections as the horse that helped make him a player on the thoroughbred stage. “He is one of the greatest,” he says.
“He didn’t have the greatest pedigree, but he was a great horse that really had a lot of fans. They just liked his grit and determination.
“That horse brought us so much excitement,” adds Baffert. “When he won the Dubai World Cup, Sheikh Mohammed and his brother Sheikh Hamdan, they went down and they all had to go pet him on the neck. They all wanted to touch him. It was so cool.
“He just beat their horse and they didn’t want a picture with him, they just wanted to touch him. They wanted to feel greatness.”
• Visit the Old Friends website