August 17, 2009

Remembering ... Free House

I will never forget the look in his eye as he turned to eyeball his great rival Silver Charm coming down the stretch of the 1997 Preakness. It was like he was telling his adversary to bring everything you have, because you are in for the fight of your life. Never mind the two other great horses on either side of them, Captain Bodgit and Touch Gold. This was all about two great rivals giving their all to get to the wire first. It was the fight of both of their lives as they battled to the wire in a head-bobbing, too-close-to-call finish. That was the day my appreciation grew into a real love for Free House. Oh, those long white legs and those expressive eyes.

It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul and for Free House, I knew this to be true. I always felt that he had just a little more depth to him than the average thoroughbred race horse. Smart and sensitive with a whole lot of heart. His heart was on display for millions to see that day in the Preakness. For me, a sad result, but fitting in a way that Silver Charm got the head-bob and defeated Free House by a nose or a small head or whatever they would call it. You see, Free House was the perfect horse to root on, for a diehard Cubs fan like me. Always teasing greatness, but never able to win the really big one. I take solace in the fact that next year or the next race could finally be the big one.

Don’t get me wrong, Free House had a very successful career. He is considered to be one of the greatest California breds ever to run. The homebred son of Smokester won 9 times in a 22 race career and earned over three million dollars. Trained by Paco Gonzalez and owned by John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, his victories include the biggest races run in California: the Norfolk, San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, Swaps, Bel Air, Pacific Classic, San Antonio, and the Santa Anita Handicap. He never raced in an allowance race and was a major player in one of the best crops of horses I have seen. 3-year-olds of 1997 included Silver Charm, Touch Gold, Captain Bodgit, Pulpit, Deputy Commander, Concerto, Behrens and my favorite, Free House.

Together with Silver Charm, he was part of one of the greatest rivalries of modern racing. Their rivalry was another reason for me to be so fond of Free House. Fans could not help taking one side or the other. They faced each other eight times, all in major stakes including all three races of the Triple Crown. Silver Charm won four of those races and Free House won three. Only in the Belmont Stakes did another horse, Touch Gold, win a race that they both ran. In that race Silver Charm and Free House battled the majority of the stretch before Touch Gold swooped by them late with Silver Charm just missing out on a Triple Crown and Free House, who had gone very wide throughout, a tough luck third. Most fans were heartbroken over the Charm losing his bid for immortality, I was saddened that my gray lost again after such a valiant performance. What a Triple Crown series he had run only to be defeated by Silver Charm each time. The final tally was Silver Charm 5 and Free House 3. I for one, wonder when we will ever see two great horses like these ever face each other so often again.

It was ironic that in Free House’s final race he found himself battling to the wire again at Pimlico. This time he would fall just short to another Bob Baffert trained, near Triple Crown winner, Real Quiet in the Pimlico Special. It was almost exactly two years after his finest hour and again he showed all the courage that he had in that thrilling Preakness. The performance was all the more impressive when you consider he strained a muscle early in the race. He retired as one of the few horses ever to win at least one Grade 1 race in four consecutive years.

Free House’s life came to a sudden, tragic end in 2004 when he injured himself severely at his farm in California. He was only ten years old. In his short career as a stallion, Free House was well on his way to becoming a force among California sires. His life was cut way too short, I miss those long white legs and those expressive eyes. I remember you … Free House.


Abitaamber said...

Ok...first to comment. ;)

Brian Zipse said...

Got this quote from one of my heros in the business and I just had to share:

"Terrific stuff. I especially loved your piece on Free House and agree with everything you said. I too remember that eye. He was such a kind horse to be around. What a fantastic rivalry that was. Lenny Shulman writes a chapter about it in the book "Racing's Greatest Rivalries." Keep up the good work."

-Steve Haskin

Thanks Steve!