Heading for home as they swept off the final turn at Belmont
Park last Saturday afternoon, jockey Gary Stevens sensed that
the moment had come--the Triple Crown was his for the
taking--and all he had to do was ask his horse for one last
surge of speed. So, folded over Silver Charm's back, Stevens
pumped his hands in rhythm with the horse's stride, asking the
iron gray one more time for what he had given so often. Stevens
had ridden the colt to victories in the Kentucky Derby and the
Preakness, and what he felt in that instant was electric.
"I got the most explosive move from Silver Charm that I'd gotten
from him in any of his races," Stevens says.
The quarter pole flashed past. Silver Charm was sprinting
through the top of the stretch, racing through one of the
fastest final quarters in the history of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont
Stakes. Free House, the Charm's foil in the Preakness and the
Derby, was on his right, just a head behind, but Stevens knew he
had the measure of that colt; all he had to do was hold off any
late charger down the lane. As they bounded to the eighth pole,
220 yards from the wire, Silver Charm began to pull away from
Free House, inching to leads of a neck, then half a length.
Nineteen years had passed since Affirmed, in 1978, became the
11th and last horse to win the Triple Crown, and now all that
remained between Silver Charm and history was an empty, 200-yard
stretch of sunlit dirt. Off to Stevens's right, as Free House
began to fade, the rafters of Belmont Park were rocking. A crowd
of 70,682, the largest to see a race in New York since Seattle
Slew completed his Triple Crown sweep in 1977 and the third
largest ever, was on its feet and roaring. Stevens felt a rush
like no other in his life. "Inside of me it flared," Stevens
said. "We're gonna do it.... We're gonna win the Triple Crown!"
Alas, well to Free House's right--unseen by either Stevens or
his mount--jockey Chris McCarron and his handsome bay colt,
Touch Gold, were charging down the middle of the track. By the
eighth pole McCarron was slashing away with his stick in a
desperate attempt to run down the leader. "I was in the garden
spot," McCarron said. "I had swung out, and we were in the clear."
The scene at that moment, with Stevens hunched over Silver
Charm, with the wide-eyed Free House yielding grudgingly and
with McCarron bouncing and thrusting his shoulders forward on
Touch Gold, is worthy of a place in any history of the Triple
Crown. Since Affirmed's triumphs over Alydar, four horses had
won the Derby and the Preakness but lost the
Belmont--Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981),
Alysheba (1987) and Sunday Silence (1989)--but none of their
romantic quests touched the nonracing public as deeply as Silver
Charm's this spring. Unfashionably bred, Silver Charm commanded
only $85,000 as a 2-year-old in training when Bob and Beverly
Lewis bought him from trainer Bob Baffert in the spring of 1996;
he was about as close to common folk as Derby-Preakness winners
get these days.
But it was more than his price and pedigree, of course, that
appealed to the crowds that clicked through turnstiles for the
Belmont. By then Silver Charm had revealed himself to be not
only a colt of exceptional physical gifts, combining speed and
stamina, but also an alley fighter. He won the 11/4-mile Derby
by a mere head, after beating back Captain Bodgit's late charge.
Two weeks later, in the Preakness, he leaned into the bit and
nipped Free House by the bob of his head. Baffert, whose
silver-white thatch had made him as instantly recognizable as
his roan colt, says he sensed how popular Silver Charm had
become when on the night before the Belmont he took his family
to Yankee Stadium to see a baseball game. As they made their way
to their seats by the Yankees' dugout, along aisle after aisle
fans called out his name, clamored for his autograph and shouted
encouragement: "Bob Baffert! Silver Charm, right? Is he gonna do
it? Is he gonna win the Belmont?"
"Yeah, he's gonna do it," Baffert called back.
At one point Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer came out of the
dugout and, cupping his hands around his mouth, asked Baffert,
"Who can I use in the exacta?" To which Baffert responded, "Free
House." The trainer was overwhelmed. "That's when I first
realized that Silver Charm had gotten to people," Baffert said.
This in a sport whose attendance has been falling dramatically,
from 55.4 million in 1980 to 35.7 million in 1995.
In the days leading up to the Belmont, dozens of reporters and
TV camera crews camped out at Barn 9, the temporary home of the
colt, and the engaging Baffert exuded confidence. "He will win
the Triple Crown," he said more than once. Stevens tightened the
screw further. "I guarantee it," he announced three days before
In Barn 3, about 300 yards from Baffert's place, trainer David
Hofmans tended quietly to the needs of Touch Gold, paying
particular attention to the hoof injury he had suffered in the
Preakness. Stumbling to his knees out of the gate in that race,
the talented colt had nearly fallen on his face, and in
thrashing to regain his footing, he kicked his left front hoof
with his left hind. The colt lost nearly five lengths at the
break, then got taken up behind horses twice during the race,
but still finished fourth, beaten only a length and a half--an
astonishing performance for a colt with only six previous races.
Hofmans had him fitted with a patch to bind the crack in the
hoof, and the only question about him coming into the Belmont
was whether the injury would compromise his chances. His
workouts seemed to be those of a sound horse. Eight days before
the race he stir-fried through seven eighths in 1:23 4/5 ("Too
fast," Hofmans complained) and by June 5 he was galloping like a
young stag, his lustrous bay coat dappling in the morning light.
As the sport navigated its dire straits, with many pulling for
the Charm to win it all and give the game a moment in the sun,
Hofmans relished the role of potential spoiler. "If you want to
be there with Seattle Slew and Affirmed, you've got to prove you
belong there," he said. "You've got to earn it."
The raging rhetorical question, before Saturday, was whether
Touch Gold would have won the Preakness had he not experienced
so much trouble. "He'd have been a lot closer if he hadn't
stumbled," Hofmans said. "Would he have won? I don't know.
Silver Charm and Free House will let you run to them, but then
they won't let you get by. They see you and find that little
extra gear, those two monsters."
So Hofmans and McCarron had it worked out before the race.
Knowing that Silver Charm dug in whenever he saw a horse gaining
at his side, Hofmans urged McCarron to stay away from him.
"Don't run up next to him," he told the jock. "Don't touch him.
Don't let him see you."
McCarron could not have ridden better. When Touch Gold grew rank
on the first turn, the jockey let him sail to the lead, and the
colt settled down at once. Down the backstretch, as Wild Rush
and Silver Charm raced by, McCarron let them pass. Stevens
figured that Touch Gold had dropped out of the hunt. He couldn't
have been more wrong. McCarron sat patiently behind them, still
as statuary, waiting for the final turn. No sooner had Silver
Charm exploded in that rush off the bend than McCarron was
swinging outside for his own charge. With 75 yards to run,
Stevens glanced right and saw a shadow out there. "I was about
10 feet outside of him," said McCarron. Stevens thought it might
be the stretch-running Crypto Star. Silver Charm apparently saw
nothing because the tiring Free House, trying gamely to hang on,
had blocked his view.
Frantic, Stevens slashed for the wire. It was too late. Touch
Gold grabbed the lead 50 yards out and, in several quick
strides, widened his lead to a neck, then half a length. "I was
screaming, 'Come on, wire!'" McCarron said. "I knew that gray
dog would not stop, and he would come back."
But there was no time. Touch Gold beat Silver Charm by three
quarters of a length. In less than 10 seconds the gray had gone
from being the first Triple Crown winner in almost 20 years to
being the fifth horse since 1978 to lose it in the Belmont.
Whether McCarron's riding tactics made the difference is hard to
say. "Silver Charm just ran into a better horse today," said
Much clearer, by far, was the pall that fell over the place as
the horses pulled up and returned to the front of the hushed
stands. "A lot of unhappy faces in the crowd," said McCarron.
Shaken by the sudden turn of events, Stevens seemed near tears.
"I'm feeling one of the lowest lows I've ever felt in my
career," he said. "It was a gallant performance. The best that
Silver Charm ran in the Triple Crown races. When you're dealing
with a 1,200-pound animal, it's a lot like a locomotive. They
just can't pick up speed instantaneously. Touch Gold had the
momentum when he passed us, and we didn't have the time to
Like Baffert, Stevens had lost more than bragging rights at the
stable kitchen. Gone, too, was that extra $500,000 they each
would have been paid had they won--their 10% share of the $5
million bonus that Visa had put up for a Triple Crown winner.
In the end, though, the loss was less about money than it was
about the failed attempt to make history. What they will always
have--all those who raced and followed Silver Charm, Touch Gold
and Free House--are the memories shared in one of the grandest
Triple Crowns in recent history. This was the year when
America's oldest and most coveted races were fought bitterly
down to the wire, and for one brief day stately Belmont Park
transported the sport back to the era when large, exuberant
crowds played the game as though it were the only one in town.
They gave Silver Charm a rousing, standing O when he came back
to be unsaddled. It was the only crown that would be his this day.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES By the time Touch Gold took the lead, it was too late for Silver Charm (right) to fight back. [Horses Touch Gold, Free House and Silver Charm in race]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [Horse Silver Charm in race]
COLOR CHART: CHART BY PARAGRAPHICS TUNING IN AFTER TURNING OFF When Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, racing's TV ratings were riding high. Since then they'd been on a downhill path until Silver Charm (above) drove through the '97 spring classics. [Chart not available--line graph showing TV ratings for Belmont, Kentucky Derby and Preakness from 1973 to 1997]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON With Free House (5) blocking the view of Silver Charm, Touch Gold mounted his charge on the outside. [Touch Gold, Free House, Silver Charm and other horses in race]