The picture lingers in the mind of Trudy McCaffery, and in the memories of racing fans. Two great gray horses thundering down the stretch in the 1997 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), shadow roll to shadow roll, both with one eye on the finish and one fixed on each other, making sure they were running together till the end.
Silver Charm would go on to win the race by a head, taking his second classic in as many weeks. But McCaffery would have been no more proud of her charge, Free House, had he nosed the line first. She clapped for him as he came back, and ran her hand up and down his nose, rubbing the lipstick stain from her pre-race kiss into his soul.
Free House, 10, died July 19 at his home at Vessels Stallion Farm in Southern California, the result of a freak accident. Feeling good, playing, he reared, a back leg slipped, and he fell and hit his head. Playing was a full-time job to Free House, and loving him was McCaffery's.
"Even when he was a baby, he had that impish spirit to him," said McCaffery, who bred and owned Free House with John Toffan. "I had a feeling about him right away because he looked so athletic. He was a big, tall, lanky kid. When he started to train I remember clearly (trainer) Paco (Gonzalez) was very excited about him, liked his spirit. His first race was hysterical--he was all over the place. I swear, he never really learned to run until he was five."
Therein lies one of the reasons for Free House's popularity--he ran for parts of four seasons. Also, his dramatic bright gray coat, augmented by the yellow shadow roll and leg wraps that matched the McCaffery/Toffan silks. Finally, there was The Rivalry. Way back in the '90s, horses actually ran against each other on multiple occasions. You can look it up: Silver Charm and Free House battled eight times in the afternoon over three years. Fans took notice.
"Bob Baffert and I have always thought Free House and Silver Charm knew each other," said McCaffery. "When Free House would get up and beat him, it was like, 'You won the last one; I'll win this one.' You had two gray horses, both from California, the Lewises (Silver Charm's owners Robert and Beverly Lewis) are friends, and it was just a fun rivalry to have. And people saw that. It's not often you get horses that race against each other through all the preps and the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and then through the Triple Crown."
It's not often you see horses as good as those two, either. Of the eight times they faced one other, all in graded stakes, Silver Charm won four and Free House three. They ran two-three in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Free House won grade I events in three consecutive years. Although Silver Charm accomplished more, Free House, the California-bred, captured the hearts of just as many fans who had the privilege of watching him play on the racetrack.
"Of all the horses I've owned, he stands out because he had so much radiance to him," said McCaffery. "Everything he did, he did for fun. He loved to run, and he always tried hard. It's sad he died so young because he's proving he was going to be a good sire."
Foals from Free House's first crop are now 3-year-olds, and his House of Fortune is already a multiple grade II winner. McCaffery expects his progeny, like their sire, to blossom as they get older. She has six or seven Free House weanlings, a like number of yearlings, and two in training.
Free House was buried at Vessels in what McCaffery described as "a beautiful spot" under a tree, near a pond. "He was a special horse, and I was able to go see him so often because he was out here. I'd come to his paddock and 'Freebie' would come running over. People came to visit him all the time. Bien Bien was an amazing one, too, and Came Home, but he retired young. Because Free House raced for so many years, it was a special situation for us. He retired healthy and sound, and you don't get many horses like that with such charisma. It's like losing a son. I like to talk about him because it makes me feel better."
We loved to watch the big gray run for the same reason.