February 22, 2010

Remembering ... Silver Charm

A ZATT Guest Blog - by Jay Valter

This is a story about many things. It’s a story about a dingy OTB in Louisiana. About a wedding. About the only Derby I’ve missed in 25 years. About a white-haired dude from Arizona. But mostly it’s a story about the horse with the “ham sandwich price,” my favorite thoroughbred I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.

It was early 1997, the spring semester of my first year at Tulane Law School, a Kentucky boy transplanted to New Orleans. Like any good degenerate fan of the ponies, I found a couple of kindred souls in my good friends, Adam & Chris. It wasn’t long before we were making regular trips to the track when we should be in class. At the time, the Fair Grounds was still recovering from the 1996 fire, so they only had temporary wagering tents available. We opted instead to cross the river to Gretna, and make our wagering home a converted movie theatre, one of the dumpiest venues ever. Soon we were holding Contracts II study sessions there.

I didn’t immediately fall in love with Silver Charm that Spring. I mean, I was aware of him. Bob Baffert had burst onto the national racing scene with the year before with Cavonnier, and it was obvious he was becoming a major player on the west coast. But I was more focused on a couple of east coast horses: the mighty Pulpit and a plodding closer named Jack Flash. Even a couple of weeks before the Derby, I was still focused on Jack Flash, simply based on his passing a lot of dead horses in the lane in the Bluegrass. I was trying to keep up with all the three-year old contenders, but first-year law school is time-consuming.

Everything changed sometime in mid-April sometime in the wee hours of the morning. In those days, ESPN’s Racing Across America came on at some odd times, and that included something along the lines of Thursdays at 3 a.m. They showed a replay of the Santa Anita Derby. Silver Charm went out with the speedball filly Sharp Cat, ran thru some sizzling fractions, got the lead at the head of the stretch, and was beaten barely by his main rival, Free House. Everything about the race stood out to me. He had no business being around at the end, but he was, a near-winner. Free House got the win that day, but Silver Charm won me over. I had my Derby horse.


Derby Day 1997 was going to be bittersweet for me. Law school finals were going on, and on top of that, I was engaged to be married six weeks after Derby Day (in Louisville, no less.) Logistically and financially, I could not attend the Kentucky Derby. This was like being gouged in the eye. Being away from Louisville on Derby Day; indeed, not being at Churchill Downs on Derby Day was something I had not experienced in a long time (and haven’t experienced since.) But, I was determined to make the best of it. Finals were keeping Adam and Chris close to home, but I convinced my fiancée to make the drive out to the Gretna OTB. I’m certain she hated every minute of it, and given the tight state of finances that we were experiencing this close to the wedding, I’m certain she was not happy that I was doing any wagering whatsoever. Nevertheless, I placed a small trifecta, Silver Charm & Captain Bodgit on top with Free House & Jack Flash in 2nd and3rd. A small $12 wager.

The 1997 Derby was exhilarating. Gary Stevens kept Silver Charm close to the early pace, but kept him from getting into a deadly speed duel. At the top of the stretch he made a brilliant 3-wide move, passing Free House with a furlong to run. To his outside, however, flying was the favorite, Wood Memorial champion, Captain Bodgit. It looked to all observers like the Cap’n was going to run down Charm. But then Silver Charm caught a glimpse of the Captain, and kicked into one extra gear 100 yards from the wire. Stevens got Silver Charm home first. Bob Baffert had won the Kentucky Derby. I had my first Derby winner since Winning Colors (and last before Street Sense), and also cashed a nice little trifecta. I didn’t attend the 1997 Kentucky Derby, the only such anomaly for me in the past 25 years…but it’s my favorite Derby. Go figure.

On to the Preakness. Four weeks before by wedding. Finals were now over, and that meant Adam was in for the trip to Gretna. Once again, Captain Bodgit was favored, as the betting public thought he’d flip the results on Silver Charm. Free House was back as well, and so it was that those three found themselves side by side by side deep in the stretch at Pimlico. They hit the rail whiskers apart, but in between the other two, Silver Charm got a nose in front. I went bonkers, in complete love with this colt. Adam told me later he had never heard someone scream so much during a race. Silver Charm was 2/3 of the way to the Triple Crown, in scintillating fashion. The readers of Blood-Horse magazine would later vote the 1997 Preakness as the Race of the Decade. They got it right.

Three weeks later, it was time to go for the Triple Crown. My fiancée and I were leaving for Louisville the next day, as the wedding was only one week away. She was none too happy that I was headed out to watch a horse race, but there wasn’t a chance in hell I was missing this. This was going to a coronation of a silver king!Most likely, you know what happened. Silver Charm didn’t have Captain Bodgit to worry about this time (he had suffered a minor injury and was retired), but he did have his old pal, Free House to contend with. There was also the presence of Preakness fourth-place finisher, Touch Gold, who had stumbled badly at the start, but rallied on the rail to finish only a couple of lengths behind the top 3. In the Belmont, Silver Charm appeared to have the race won in mid-stretch, having put away Free House. But Chris McCarron had Touch Gold zooming on the far outside. Baffert and Stevens insist that because Free House was in between the two, and blocking Silver Charm from seeing Touch Gold coming, that that was the only reason why McCarron could get by him. If Silver Charm locked eyeballs with him, they reason, he could never make the pass. But he did. And I was crushed. It was the most pain I’ve ever experienced watching a horse race, and it look me along time to get over it. Maybe that’s what doomed my marriage! But that’s a story for another day.

Silver Charm’s owners, Bob & Beverly Lewis, an elderly couple from California, had gotten in the race game late in their lives, and had a lot of success, Timber Country and Serena’s Song chiefly among them. But for them, Silver Charm was a whole different stratosphere of love and adulation. Following the grueling Triple Crown trail, the Lewises and Baffert made the decision that Silver Charm would definitely run as a 4-year old, with the Dubai World Cup and the Breeder’s Cup Classic the top goals. To wit, they decided to give Charm a rest until late in the year. He returned in December with a second-place finish in the Malibu Stakes. For 1997, Silver Charm finished with 3 wins and 4 seconds in 7 starts, good enough for the Eclipse Award as Champion Three-Year Old.

Silver Charm’s four-year old campaign was a roller-coaster ride, and I was watching every exciting moment. The big jewel was his trip to Dubai for the world’s richest race, which was just the third-running of the event. Cigar’s win in the initial running had put the event on the map, and Singspiel’s subsequent win evened the score for the Europeans. So it was a matchup of one of the USA’s big guns vs. Europe’s top contender, Swain in the 1998 event. At the time, the event was not televised stateside and the internet was in its infancy. I was desperate for results that Saturday morning when the race was won. I saw an ad in the Daily Racing Form that an audio replay of the race would be available shortly after the race had been run. Of course, I was on that line every other minute until finally the call was available. And while I couldn’t see the race, hearing the exhilarating stretch duel between Charm and Swain nearly stopped myheart. The gritty gray was a winner of the Dubai World Cup by a nose! Silver Charm is the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup (in fact, before Curlin won in Dubai, he was the only horse to win in Dubai and any leg of the Triple Crown).

The ride continued that summer. He won some brilliant races --- the Kentucky Cup Classic in a dead heat with Wild Rush, the Clark Handicap, the San Pasqual; he also had some agonizingly close losses. He once again beat his old rival Free House in the Goodwood in his final prep for the Classic. For me, it all boiled down to the Breeder’s Cup Classic; not only was Churchill Downs the 1998 venue, but I was finally going to see Charm run in person!

The 1998 Classic field is probably the strongest in the event’s history --- Touch Gold was there, Swain as well. Add in Skip Away, Gentlemen, Victory Gallop, Coronado’s Quest…well, you get the picture. Beating this field was going to be tough.

I had seats at the ¼ pole, so I had a birds-eye view of what transpired in the stretch. Silver Charm seized the lead, but Swain was coming to his outside, just like Dubai. Could Stevens hold him off, I thought? Then, suddenly, Swain bore out badly under Frankie Dettori’s whip. I swear that I have never seen a horse come out that far at Churchill Downs. Silver Charm, ever the eyeballer, drifted out with Swain, though not nearly as bad. The slight drift allowed Pat Day and Awesome Again all the opening he needed, and the big payday. Once again, a year-and-a-half after breaking my heart in the Belmont, it had happened again. It was an emotional defeat, and it hurts me to write about it here.

Silver Charm raced as a five-year old; indeed Baffert sent him to Dubai to attempt to pull off the repeat. He bled and finished sixth, the worst result of his career. He just wasn’t the same. His career ended for me in depressing fashion, at the Gretna OTB, watching the 1999 renewal of the Stephen Foster Handicap. I was ready to embrace this as the spark he needed to move forward in his five-year old season. But it was clear he just wasn’t the same. A fourth-place finish signaled to me that he was finished, and apparently Baffert and the Lewises agreed; he was retired the next week.

Words can never properly describe what watching Silver Charm meant to me. I could certainly recite the stats, 12 wins in 24 lifetime starts, close to $7 million in earnings, a 2007 Hall of Fame inductee, a #63 ranking on Blood Horse’s top 100 racehorses of the 20th century. Those are all well and good, but they don’t measure how happy watching the Charm, the horse Bob Baffert described as being bought for a ham sandwich, made me feel. Those were halcyon days, those law school days. And I am damn glad I had Silver Charm to help me along.

Do I remember Silver Charm? You’re damn right I do.


Ciarán said...

nice work Jay.

EricKalet said...

Great story Jay! Silver Charm was my first ever Ky. Derby winning selection.

Heather said...

Great story!! Silver Charm was undoubtedly one of the best horses i've seen in my lifetime :)

LDP said...

That was unbelievably moving. The horse I feel the same way about is Curlin, and was heartbroken when a combination of a long hard season, synthetics, and perhaps a questionable ride got him beat in his try to become the second BCC winner. Your feelings for this horse are evident. Very very well done.

Anonymous said...

nice story....see you loved this horse..i had the pleasure of meeting bob and beverly the night before the belmont stakes...they were so kind and pleasant and enjoying themselves so..felt bad when he couldnt get it done

Anonymous said...

I love the Charm.


tjreyn01 said...

Great write up Jay. I love how you related so much of it to your personal feeling throughout his career and how the wins and losses touched you. He indeed was a marvelous horse.

Kate said...

I feel ya Jay. Charm is my all time favorite. His grit and determination. I saw his last race in person. He got me into this sport and now I am working hard to get a job in it. I literally owe it all to Charm. I visit him every summer in his Japanese home. (I live in Japan right now...I am not that crazy! haha) He is doing very well! I spend hours next to his paddock talking and taking pictures. I love that horse. He has had a tough break in the breeding shed. I wish they gave him more dirt mares. Maybe they would get better dirt horses.

Here are pictures of Charm in Japan!

railbirdjay said...

Good Job! Very nice post!