It was 6:30 a.m. and the cars were already filing into Churchill Downs at a steady clip. By 8 o’clock, some 2,500 fans had gathered on the apron and in the grandstand. They were there for only one reason: to see Silver Charm work before his departure the following day for Belmont Park, where he would attempt to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 19 years.
Several days earlier, trainer Bob Baffert kiddingly had invited the public to come watch Silver Charm work, unaware that every local TV and radio station would relay that invitation. People flocked to the Downs in droves. Silver Charm and Baffert had become heroes to Kentuckians, who embraced them with a fervor unlike anything seen before in the Bluegrass State. Baffert was mobbed wherever he went, autographing everything from buttons, posters, and photographs to napkins and matchbook covers.
The morning after the work, it was time to bid farewell to the fans and embark on the final leg of the journey. I had flown to Louisville just for the work, along with David Grening of the New York Post, and we had arranged to fly back to New York with Baffert and Silver Charm, who would be the lone equine on the Tex Sutton-chartered Boeing 727. Mel Prince, who had worked for Tex Sutton for 34 years, said it was extremely rare to fly one horse—but this one horse was special.
New York already was abuzz over the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), which had been in decline, with record-low attendances almost every year. It was Silver Charm who would awaken “The Test of the Champion,” attracting a crowd of more than 70,000 and paving the way for the record crowds that would follow.
Baffert was reluctant to leave Camelot with his trusty gray steed to face the cold reality of New York and the Belmont Stakes. He just wanted it to be over.
“I feel like the weight of Kentucky is on my shoulders,” he said before leaving for the airport. “I wish I could look into the future through a crystal ball. I want it to be two weeks from now, and I want to drive by Esposito’s (the popular tavern across the street from the Belmont backstretch) and see what colors they’ve got hanging up there.”
On the plane, the lone figure of Silver Charm stood out among the dozens of empty stalls. The big gray was relaxed, picking at his hay rack under the watchful eye of groom Rudy Silva, who sat on a chair holding the shank.
“Look at Rudy,” Baffert said. “Is he dedicated or what? He hasn’t left that horse’s side for two months.”
The plane touched down in New York at 8:50. All Baffert wanted to do was bed the horse down, check into his hotel, turn off the phone, and go to sleep. Silver Charm was loaded on the van and given a police escort to Belmont Park, where he was greeted by one of the largest throngs of reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen ever assembled at a racetrack.
Silver Charm would be denied the Triple Crown by Touch Gold, who was able to sneak up on him out in the middle of the track, avoiding the eye of the tiger. It wasn’t the defeat that hurt Baffert as much as it was Silver Charm’s inability to see the winner until it was too late.
He had seen Captain Bodgit in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and turned him aside. He had seen Captain Bodgit and Free House on either side of him in the Preakness (gr. I) and out-gamed them both. He would see Swain in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) and turn certain defeat into victory. But just as he was about to gain entrance into the pantheon of the immortals, his vision in the Belmont was blocked by his nemesis Free House.
When the doors of the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., open for him Aug. 6, there will be no one blocking his way, and he will take his rightful place among the greats of the sport.
I will never forget that plane ride and the ensuing van ride to Belmont with the horse who would usher in a new era for the Belmont Stakes and New York racing.