Three days before this year's Kentucky Derby, a TV crew and members of the sporting press visited the witty California trainer Bob Baffert and his dark-gray colt, Silver Charm, at the Churchill Downs stakes barn. When the mob arrived, they found the horse standing backward in his stall, head to the far wall, showing them his rump.
"This is what I want the other horses to see Saturday afternoon," Baffert explained. He got a big laugh.
And so it went. After stalking and putting away the much-heralded (and now much-injured) Pulpit, Silver Charm held off a rushing Captain Bodgit in the deep stretch to win the Derby in a photo finish. Two weeks later Charm prevailed again, nipping front-runner Free House at the wire in the Preakness Stakes and catapulting himself into the national spotlight. Captain Bodgit was a flying third. Now, for the first time since 1989, a three-year-old has a chance in Saturday's Belmont Stakes to win racing's Triple Crown.
How tough is that? Well, since Paul Hines first did it for Providence in 1878, just fourteen major-league hitters have won baseball's Triple Crown by leading the league in batting average, homers and runs batted in. In the history of racing, only eleven horses have won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
In 1989, Sunday Silence earned the red roses in Louisville and the black-eyed Susans at Pimlico, then became the twelfth such horse to lose the white carnations in New York, finishing second in the Belmont to his old rival Easy Goer. He joined some pretty fancy company. Since 1944, Triple Crown hopefuls Pensive, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Kauai King, Forward Pass, Majestic Prince, Canonero II, Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony and Alysheba also failed in the mile-and-a-half "test of the champion."
Millions of casual racing fans will be watching Saturday afternoon as Silver Charm and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens try to show their hind ends to the Belmont field. Bona fide students of the breed--silk-suited turf clubbers and cigar-chomping railbirds alike--will be looking, many praying, for something more: Silver Charm's entrance into a charmed circle where only the greatest three-year-olds dwell. Sir Barton. Gallant Fox. Omaha. War Admiral. Whirlaway. Count Fleet. Assault. Citation. Secretariat. Seattle Slew. Affirmed. The Triple Crown winners.
"We need that Triple Crown bad," jockey Stevens said last week. "The sport needs it."
Despite the recent heroics of the great stakes runner Cigar, American thoroughbred racing has been losing attendance and revenue for a decade. The first Triple Crown winner in nineteen years might help.
When he purchased Silver Charm for owners Bob and Beverly Lewis for just $85,000, Baffert had no illusions that he was getting a monarch of the sport. Affectionately, he called the horse "a ham sandwich." Now penciled in for the David Letterman show and, if things go right, a trip to the White House, the newly famous trainer still jokes about his colt's humble origins and bargain-basement price and downplays his own skills. After winning the Derby (last year, his Cavonnier was beaten by a nose), Baffert pretended that the Preakness was no big deal. To hear him talk about the Belmont in recent days, you'd think Silver Charm was running Saturday in a $5,000 claiming race at Finger Lakes.
Don't believe it. But if you believe in omens, it wouldn't be a bad idea to order a ham sandwich Saturday at Belmont Park. Or down at your local saloon.
How tough will it be for Silver Charm? The last time a horse wore the Triple Crown, Jimmy Carter was president and the Montreal Canadiens, coached by a fellow named Scotty Bowman, had just won the third of four consecutive Stanley Cups. The year was 1978, and on three springtime Saturdays, racing fans thrilled to the neck-and-neck duels of Alydar and Affirmed. When the dust settled in June, Affirmed and his brilliant eighteen-year-old jockey, Steve Cauthen, had beaten Alydar by a length and a half at the Derby, a neck in the Preakness and a head in the Belmont. They had won all three races by a total of less than two lengths. It was one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the sport.
But who was the greatest three-year-old? Some old-timers may still hold out for Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner who became the sport's first equine millionaire. There's simply no arguing, though, against the great Secretariat, the big red horse who won the very next Triple Crown--25 years later.
Yardsticks? Secretariat ran his Kentucky Derby mile and a quarter in an all-time fastest 1:59 2/5; Silver Charm came home in 2:02 2/5. By the horseman's old rule of thumb, it takes one-fifth of a second to run one length. So while track conditions may have varied between the 1973 and the 1997 races, Secretariat still comes up a fifteen-length winner over Charm. It's unlikely any three-year-old will ever run the Derby in under two minutes again.
At the Preakness, Big Red was officially clocked at 1:54 2/5 for the mile-and-three-sixteenths, just two-fifths faster than Silver Charm, but the timing has long been disputed. Some watches said Secretariat set a Preakness record.
As for the 1973 Belmont, there is no dispute. In the single greatest performance in racing history, Secretariat demolished a field featuring Sham, Twice a Prince, My Gallant and others and won the twelve-furlong race by an astonishing 31 lengths. He stopped the clock in 2:24. Suffice it to say that sixteen years later, Easy Goer ran the next fastest Belmont ever--in 2:26. That's 10 lengths behind Secretariat. In 1995 Gary Stevens won on Thunder Gulch in 2:32. That's 40 lengths back.
To say that Silver Charm is no Secretariat is like saying Ellis Burks has a way to go before catching Henry Aaron. But does that diminish Burks or the brave gray colt? Absolutely not. If Silver Charm becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, every racing fan will exult. And Bob Baffert will get to visit Bill Clinton.
Meanwhile, here are the obstacles to glory:
1. History. The twelve Derby and Preakness winners who failed in the Belmont (five of them ran second) were anything but dog food. Put simply, it's hard for a three-year-old to run three grueling races in five weeks, especially when number three is a mile-and-a-half marathon, a distance most horses will never run again. No wonder only eleven greats have managed it.
2. Free House. Guess what. The Belmont Stakes looks endless, but in recent years it has often been won by a speed horse that is able to seize the lead, slow down the pace, then run on for home. Under savvy rider Kent Desormeaux, Free House is just that type. He's also run two monster workouts at Belmont. But do we think he can get the carnations? An emphatic no. House is good--he ran third in the Derby and got out-nodded in the Preakness--but he could be even more exhausted than Silver Charm. As for Captain Bodgit--Silver Charm's potential Alydar--he retired post-Preakness because he'd strained a tendon in his left front leg. So long, big fella. Have a high time in the breeding shed.
3. Touch Gold. Preakness-watchers saw the horrendous break Chris McCarron's colt got coming out of the gate May 17. Popular at the betting windows, Gold stumbled badly at the start, went almost to his knees, then gamely recovered and picked up horses for the next two minutes, finishing fourth while closing on the rail. How many lengths did he lose at the start? Plenty. Maybe enough to have won. But Touch Gold also has a quarter crack in one of his hooves. It's healing, but we still say no.
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4. Wild Rush. Now, this is scary. Foreign horses and fresh horses who have won recent stakes races well are always dangerous in the Belmont, and Rush is the most dangerous of all. But first, the others. One outclassed newcomer, Irish Silence, has obviously been entered in the Belmont to serve the vanity of his owner, New York restaurateur Austin Delaney. He will justly go off at the kind of odds you'd get on Oprah if she fought Mike Tyson. Another Belmont mystery horse, Mr. Energizer, has won six straight races in Puerto Rico, including a Grade 3 stakes, but if he's ready for the big time, I'm Mickey Mantle. Arkansas Derby winner Crypto Star? He's got nagging respiration problems, a 3.73 Dosage Index (indicating he can't run this far) and, sad to say, a noticeable lack of heart. So we're happy to throw him out.
That leaves Wild Rush. The classic Belmont upsetter. After skipping the Kentucky Derby, the extraordinarily clever trainer Richard Mandella saddled his charge May 10 in the Illinois Derby at Chicago's Sportsman's Park. Sportsman's is not exactly the twin spires of Churchill Downs, but Kent Desormeaux got his colt going early, led every step of the way while setting very fast fractional times and won a Grade 2, mile-and-an-eighth event in a track-record time of 1:47 2/5. Wow! He races Saturday with one week's more rest than Preakness battlers Free House and Silver Charm, and he's got speed. And because Desormeaux is already committed to Free House, Mandella has settled on the services of...the most talented jockey on the face of the earth. Mister Jerry Bailey, the rider of Cigar, 1993 Derby winner Sea Hero and 1991 Preakness and Belmont winner Hansel.
If all that doesn't add up to a Silver Charm ambush, I don't know what does. After all these years, racing fans deserve another Triple Crown winner, and Silver Charm may be good enough for the job. But watch out.
Meanwhile, make that a ham sandwich on rye, okay? Don't forget to put a white carnation on the plate and, if you can manage it, a little Secretariat spirit inside Silver Charm.