1997: Silver Charm

Sunday, May 04, 1997
By Maryjean Wall, Herald-Leader Racing Writer
He was winning the $1 million Kentucky Derby. Yet all the while he thought his worst nightmare was coming true. The silver-haired Bob Baffert groaned with each determined stride of Silver Charm down the stretch at Churchill Downs and worried that he wouldn’t hold off Captain Bodgit who was inches away from catching him. “I was saying, `No, no, don’t do this to me again,’ ” said Baffert, Silver Charm’s affable trainer. “I was saying, `Please Lord, no, I can’t take it.’ ”
It would have been the worst possible way to lose this race, a re-creation of the agony that Baffert knew at last year’s Derby. That’s when he thought he’d won with Cavonnier - then realized seconds later that he’d lost to Grindstone by a nose. But this year when the horses hit the wire there was no mistaking whose head was in front.
Baffert’s second time at the Derby had worked like a charm - a Silver Charm. The gray colt paid $10 winning the 123rd Derby in 2:022/5 over the favorite, Captain Bodgit, with Free House 31/2 lengths behind them in third. Pulpit was fourth, another 3 lengths back, a nose in front of Crypto Star who ran fifth in the field of 13.
Baffert felt his heart leap with the gray colt’s final surge across the finish. He felt the rush of elation that he’d known only briefly last year before he realized he’d lost. This time he knew that great feeling wouldn’t turn to bitter disappointment. He gave in to his joy, and reached over and hugged Bob Lewis, who owns Silver Charm with his wife, Beverly J. Lewis. A short while later the fourth largest Derby crowd in history - 141,981 - saw Baffert dance a little jig from the winner’s stand in the infield as he held the trophy high in the air.
“What a feeling it is,” Baffert exclaimed. “It’s a feeling I’ll probably never experience unless I win the Kentucky Derby again.”
Jockey Gary Stevens knew just how Baffert and the Lewises felt, for he was winning his third Derby, following up on Winning Colors in 1988 and Thunder Gulch in 1995. “The feeling I had galloping back to the winner’s circle was just incredible,” Stevens said. With that he joined Isaac Murphy, from the 1800s; Earl Sande from the 1920s and `30s and Angel Cordero from the 1970s and ’80s as the only jockeys to ride three Derby winners. For Stevens, named two days ago to the Hall of Fame, it had been an outstanding week.
In the seats where Captain Bodgit’s 32 owners watched the race, the grim look on Barry Irwin’s face told of their dismay. This was the 18th consecutive year the favorite has lost the Derby. Irwin, president of the ownership syndicate called Team Valor, was feeling the same agony that Baffert had felt with his close loss last year.
Would Captain Bodgit have caught Silver Charm within a few more strides? Was his straight aim on Silver Charm compromised when he came over slightly toward Silver Charm in the stretch?
From the side it looked as if Silver Charm might have crossed over into Captain Bodgit’s path but this was really not the case, as the head-on view of the video shows. There was neither a jockey’s foul claim nor an inquiry. And Stevens said, “I didn’t feel any contact. Captain Bodgit was drifting in more than my horse was drifting out.”
Silver Charm was not drifting for he was finishing strongly, digging in with every stride in the way Baffert had thought he would from the way he’d trained since arriving at Churchill Downs from California. The gray son of Silver Buck came to Kentucky backed by a growing conviction among racing fans that he was the best horse in losing the Santa Anita Derby to Free House, by a head.
He’d lost that race far sooner than the finish, when he hooked Sharp Cat in a speed duel that would have finished many other horses. He got the lead at the top of the stretch, then lost it to Free House but was cutting into that one’s advantage when the wire came up.
Yesterday in the Kentucky Derby, Stevens took a lesson learned from his loss in the Santa Anita Derby. “We lost the battle in the Santa Anita Derby but we came back and won the war today,” he said, telling how he put that knowledge to use. He snugged Silver Charm back in fourth place going past the stands for the first time when Pulpit raced out to the front.
Some handicappers had thought D. Wayne Lukas would order Deeds Not Words to go to the front, to take his best shot with his 32-1 shot that was a surprising, last-minute entry when it looked as if Lukas would go without a Derby horse for the first time in 17 years. But Deeds Not Words never went to the front. He never got past ninth, and finished last.
Pulpit was stalked closely by Free House to the first turn, Concerto racing just off those two while Silver Charm relaxed in fourth for Stevens. It was the start of what Stevens would later describe as a “dream trip” through the mile and a quarter. Getting Silver Charm back off the pace was crucial in getting that dream trip.
“Into the first turn was the most critical point for me,” Stevens said. “The horse from the extreme outside (Free House) dropped over but I was able to get up and save my position, the stalking position I wanted early on down the backside.”
Pulpit held his lead down the backstretch, clipping off a half-mile in :472/5 after a first quarter timed in :232/5. He was still on the lead heading to the final turn and was giving Claiborne Farm some hope that he would be their second Derby winner , reaching the three-quarter mark in 1:121/5, a head in front of Free House. But there had been a feeling among many racing fans that Pulpit would prove not to be a 11/4-mile horse. And when the real running began on the far turn, Pulpit began to give way.
That’s when Free House took a brief lead, pushing his head in front of Pulpit while Silver Charm ranged up on their outside. Pulpit fought back to regain his lead as they rounded the turn into the stretch. But he could fight no further. “At the quarter pole the ground started breaking away from me,” jockey Shane Sellers said. “He wasn’t able to sustain a drive.”
Now Free House found himself battling Silver Charm instead of Pulpit as they headed down the stretch. And Captain Bodgit was eating up the ground with every stride, joining Silver Charm in battle the instant Free House dropped back.
“I swung out at the quarter pole and he fired,” said Captain Bodgit’s jockey Alex Solis. “At the eighth pole I thought we were the winner. I thought the winner was struggling a bit, but when that horse saw me he shifted into another gear.”
The gear that Silver Charm reached deep inside himself to find won the race for him. And Bob Baffert finally breathed a sigh of relief.

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