Ninety minutes after the breathtaking running of the 122nd
Preakness Stakes, as twilight began to fade at Pimlico race
course, just about everyone milling around the stakes barn was
still having a difficult time getting a firm grip on his
emotions. Outside the stall of Free House, Trudy McCaffery, who
with her companion, John Toffan, owns the big gray colt, dabbed
her eyes with a white handkerchief. A groom was walking Free
House round and round the barn, cooling him out, and every time
he came into view, Trudy would begin crying again. She would
stop the groom, pat Free House's neck, kiss his nose, whisper
sweet nothings to him. At one point she turned and said, to
nobody in particular, "He ran his eyeballs out.... It was a head
bob.... It could have gone either way."
She wouldn't have gotten an argument from Bob Baffert, the
white-maned free spirit who trains Silver Charm for Bob and
Beverly Lewis. For the last quarter mile of the 1 3/16-mile
classic, Free House and Silver Charm ran a head-to-head duel
that forced each to reach deep. It was a stride-for-stride,
Baltimore alley fight of a race that brought to mind Affirmed
edging Alydar in 1978 and Sunday Silence holding off Easy Goer
in 1989. But this time there was more. As the dueling grays
approached the finish line, Captain Bodgit came flying down the
middle of the racetrack, bearing down on the leaders.
Only two weeks after his trademark late rush had come just a
head short of catching Silver Charm in the Kentucky Derby, the
dark bay Captain was charging again, thrilling those in the
crowd of 88,594 who had made him a slight favorite. For most of
the race he had been so far behind--12 lengths after half a
mile, just over seven after a mile--that trainer Gary Capuano
thought "we were going to be a badly beaten third or fourth at
best." But he hit the top of the stretch rolling, and now he was
closing the gap with every stride.
As the three horses flashed past the wire in a tangle of
slashing whips, straining necks and pounding hooves, nobody
except Bob Lewis seemed sure of the outcome. "We did it, we did
it!" he shouted in his basso profundo. But Baffert only said,
"We did?" Since last year's Kentucky Derby, when the
Baffert-trained Cavonnier lost to Grindstone by a nose, Baffert
no longer trusts his eyes. "I couldn't give a good hoot and
holler, because I just wasn't sure," he said.
Once the result was official, Baffert made up for his initial
reserve. He bolted up the track to greet Silver Charm and jockey
Gary Stevens. He put the Preakness trophy atop his head and did
a little boogaloo on the victory stand. He showed up for his
news conference dancing on his toes, shadowboxing and chanting,
"Hey, hey, hey." But when asked to review the race, Baffert
turned serious and spent almost as much time praising Free House
and Captain Bodgit as he did Silver Charm. "These are the three
greatest 3-year-olds I've ever seen in my life," Baffert said.
The winner's margin over Free House was officially a head, but
it was really a matter of who won the bob. Captain Bodgit was
another head back in third. More incredible, finishing fourth
was Touch Gold, who had raced only twice previously as a
3-year-old, skipped the Derby and promptly found himself in a
ton of trouble in this race, only to recover and lose by just a
length and a half--thereby announcing himself as a force to be
reckoned with at the Belmont on June 7.
The day was breezy, bright and cool--perfect weather for a
racing epic. When the gate sprang open, the long shot Cryp Too
bolted to the lead, hell-bent for his place in oblivion. (He
finished next-to-last in the 10-horse field.) Meanwhile, Touch
Gold, who had rolled to an 8 1/2-length victory in the Lexington
Stakes at Keeneland on April 20, stumbled leaving the gate and
dropped to his knees so severely that his nose hit the ground.
Chris McCarron got his colt back into the hunt so efficiently
that turning for home, Touch Gold was moving for the lead on the
inside of the front-running Free House. But Kent Desormeaux
moved Free House inside and closed that hole, causing Touch Gold
to bang the rail.
With that rival out of the way, Desormeaux turned his attention
to Silver Charm, who was at Free House's throat. That was no
surprise; in two California preps for the Derby (the San Felipe
on March 16 and the Santa Anita Derby on April 5), Silver Charm
had made runs at Free House that fell barely short. And now
ranging up outside Silver Charm, though Desormeaux couldn't see
him, was Captain Bodgit. Inside the 16th pole, Desormeaux
decided to hand-ride Free House to the wire, while Stevens was
hitting Silver Charm with repeated righthanded licks. They moved
together, and, in the final strides, Free House cocked his head
to check out Silver Charm. "He was looking for his pal," said
McCaffery, and Baffert agreed. "Silver Charm likes to hang with
a horse," Baffert said. "He must think Free House is a cuz or
something. But he moved again when Captain Bodgit began to move
The day of the race, according to Baffert, Silver Charm had been
rather docile until Captain Bodgit arrived from the Bowie
Training Center, where he had been stabled since arriving from
Kentucky. When Silver Charm caught sight of Captain Bodgit, he
became so restless that he had to be tied to the sides of his
stall. "I don't think he likes Captain Bodgit," Baffert said.
"Maybe the Captain said something to tick him off."
In the race itself, Silver Charm again responded to the sight of
Captain Bodgit, this time with a surge. "That may have won the
race for him," said Baffert. The winning time was 1:54 4/5, and
all three top finishers earned a speed figure of 118, the
highest of any recent Preakness.
What lies ahead is equally tantalizing. Because of three
bobs--Lewis, Baffert and the one by his head at the wire--Silver
Charm now has earned a shot at becoming the 12th horse in
history to attain the sport's Holy Grail, the Triple Crown.
Racing hasn't had a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978,
and it hasn't had a horse even go to the post at the Belmont
with a chance since Sunday Silence eight years ago.
At a mile and a half, the Belmont is the longest of the Triple
Crown races, which might be Captain Bodgit's cup of tea. His
power-into-the-stretch style appears well suited for the track's
wide, sweeping turns, but if he falls too far behind he may find
catching up impossible. The Belmont is often won by a
front-runner (such as Free House) or by a colt tractable enough
to stay close to the pace, waiting patiently for his chance.
That would be Silver Charm.
As the last sunlight faded at Pimlico, McCaffery sought out and
congratulated Baffert and the Lewises. Hugs, kisses and tears
were exchanged. As McCaffery walked away, Baffert wheeled
around, his trademark cockiness gone, his voice quivering. "Now,
that," he said, "is what this game is all about."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES As Free House (third from left) clearly saw, Silver Charm got up at the wire. [Silver Charm, Free House and other horses racing in the Preakness Stakes]