Secretariat

Gold and Silver Anniversary of ’97 Belmont Stakes

On the 25th anniversary of the Touch Gold — Silver Charm Belmont Stakes, it is time to get nostalgic and recall my personal interest in that historic race and how the journalist and racing fan in me clashed and left part of me ecstatic and another part sad following the race, which is what happens when you’re rooting for two horses. This was the rebirth of the Belmont following seven down years and would launch the race to new heights.over the next two decades. ~ Steve Haskin

Gold and Silver Anniversary of ’97 Belmont Stakes

By Steve Haskin

Silver Charm and Touch Gold photos courtesy of Old Friends

 

Even the most objective journalist has moments when personal feelings take precedence over objectivity. Racing is a sport often fueled by emotion because of the passion inspired by its athletes. Sometimes circumstances bring us close to some of those athletes and we can’t help bonding with them.

I, like all racing fans, have my all-time favorite horses, especially those who first grabbed hold of me 55 years ago and pulled me into this magical world that would change my life.

But as a professional you eventually train yourself to write about the sport and the horses with an open mind. That is until circumstances force those personal feelings to once again emerge. There was one time during my career when they not only emerged but collided. How do you deal with having two strong rooting interests in the same race?  And with one of them attempting to become the first Triple Crown winner in 19 years and trained by racing’s newest rock star to whom you had become very close. The other was strictly about the horse and the unique history I had with him from the time he was a yearling.

I am referring to Silver Charm and Touch Gold, and what better time to tell their stories and my personal connection to both horses than on the 25th anniversary of their thrilling battle in the Belmont Stakes.

Because of the rapid growth in popularity of the Belmont Stakes that reached a crescendo when 120,000 fans jammed into Belmont Park to see Smarty Jones, few take notice of the 70,082 fans who witnessed Silver Charm’s attempt to sweep the Triple Crown in the 1997 Belmont and even fewer can appreciate what a renaissance horse this was and how he and his trainer Bob Baffert reignited the public’s passion for the Triple Crown at a time when racing’s big hero was the older horse Cigar and there was little interest in the Belmont Stakes.

After all, there had not been a horse attempting to sweep the Triple Crown since Sunday Silence in 1989, and after seven uneventful years, the attendance for the Belmont Stakes had plummeted to below 40,000. The jump from 37,171 in 1995 and 40,797 in 1996 to 70,082 one year later was unimaginable at the time and made the Belmont Stakes THE place to be in early June. And it was all because of Bob Baffert and Silver Charm

Following Silver Charm’s victories in the Preakness Stakes, Baffert emerged from the race like a rock star, with fans flocking to the potential Triple Crown winning trainer wherever he went to have him sign anything they could get their hands on, from matchbooks to cocktail napkins.

Because of the Silver Charm/Baffert phenomenon I arranged with Baffert and Tex Sutton Horse Transport to fly commercially down to Louisville the Monday before the Belmont Stakes to watch Silver Charm’s final work and then fly back to New York with the horse.

Several days earlier, while doing a radio show, Baffert, unaware of the floodgates he was opening, invited the public to come to Churchill Downs to watch Silver Charm’s final work before departing for Belmont Park. Churchill Downs now had to contend with a problem they hadn’t counted on. Local television and radio stations announced the invitation, and at 7:30 Tuesday morning, a steady stream of cars began filing into the Churchill Downs parking lot.

Baffert called the work the most important of his life, and it was the crowd he had invited to watch it that almost caused a catastrophe. As Silver Charm turned around at the eighth pole and headed back to begin his work, Baffert told exercise rider/jockey Joe Steiner on the two-way radio, “Don’t let him duck out when he sees that crowd.”

Seconds later, as Silver Charm was galloping by, a horse named Firecrest, walking in the opposite direction, got stirred up when about 2,500 fans erupted in applause. Firecrest shied from the sudden noise and veered right into Silver Charm’s path. Steiner grabbed hold of Silver Charm and swerved sharply to avoid the out-of-control Firecrest, with the two horses merely grazing each other.

With disaster narrowly averted, Silver Charm went about his business and worked five furlongs in 1:01. It was time for Baffert and Silver Charm to leave Camelot and head to New York and the Triple Crown.

After 10 days of being treated like a king by an adoring community, Baffert now found himself face to face with reality as he approached the Tex Sutton Boeing 727 that would take him and Silver Charm to their final battle in their quest for racing’s Triple Crown.

Earlier that morning, just before 6 a.m., Baffert, accompanied by his main client and longtime friend Mike Pegram, arrived at Barn 33, where he had nine horses stabled with trainer April Mayberry. After unloading his luggage from his rented Lincoln Town Car, Baffert said, “I feel like I’m going to camp.”

Baffert said he felt like the weight of Kentucky was on his shoulders, especially after seeing the huge turnout for the previous morning’s work. “I’m looking forward to getting up to New York and getting this thing done and coming back to Kentucky wearing the Triple Crown on my head,” he said.

Silver Charm was loaded on the plane and would be the only passenger, at great cost to Lewis. There among the many empty red stalls was the familiar gray face of Silver Charm digging into his hay rack. Mel Prince, who had worked for Tex Sutton for 34 years, said it was extremely rare to fly only one horse.

From the time Silver Charm boarded the plane to the time he arrived in New York he did not stop munching hay. By the end of the trip he had dug a large hole in the rack and was still pulling out hay with great vigor. All the while, groom Rudy Silva sat in a chair, holding the shank, his eyes fixed on his horse.

“Look at Rudy,” Baffert said. “Is he dedicated or what? He hasn’t left that horse’s side for two months.”

Also accompanying Silver Charm was his hotwalker Eddie Thomas, who, ironically, worked around the last Triple Crown winner Affirmed as a teenager.

“It’s scary how this horse has gotten stronger and kept his flesh,” Thomas said. “Usually, they back up, but he drank three buckets of water after the Derby and only a half to three-quarters of a bucket after the Preakness.”

As the plane made its descent, Baffert, who had been suffering with his allergies throughout the flight, said all he wanted to do was get Charm settled in, go to the hotel, turn off the phone, and go to bed.

The plane touched down at JFK Airport in New York at 8:50 a.m. after the hour and 45-minute flight. Silver Charm was led on the van, and with a police escort leading the way, the van meandered through the streets of Queens into Long Island, as pedestrians quizzically watched the procession.

As the van pulled up near Barn 9 at Belmont, a mass of humanity could be seen gathered in front of the barn. It was the largest assemblage of reporters, photographers, and cameramen I had ever witnessed. They surrounded Silver Charm as he walked from the van to the barn, and before long, Baffert was engulfed by the media. Kentucky was already a memory. There was a Triple Crown to be won.

Yes, I had bonded with Silver Charm. How could I not sharing a plane ride and van ride and being that close to such a magnificent horse on his way to the gates of racing’s pantheon. How could I not root for him and for his trainer, with whom I would write his autobiography two years later? Silver Charm and Bob Baffert were about to make history and I was right there with them all the way.

But that is only half the story.

We have to go back two years to the 1995 Keeneland July yearling sale. Back then, as national correspondent for the Daily Racing Form who covered the Saratoga yearling sale each August, I decided to try something different. I would play buyer, or at least bloodstock agent, and select one yearling from the Keeneland July sale whose pedigree intrigued me and then go to Lexington several weeks before the sale to do a background piece on him. I would then return for the sale and follow his every move right up through his time in the ring. I wrote the first part of the feature for the July 8 issue of the DRF and then part two the Sunday after the sale on July 23.

I figured this would provide readers with an inside look at the life of a sales yearling and what it takes to prepare him for the sale, and the pressures and uncertainty of actually selling him.

After careful scrutiny and studying all the pedigrees, avoiding the obvious high prices and looking for a mid-priced, affordable colt, I settled on Hip No. 65, a son of Deputy Minister, out of the Buckpasser mare, Passing Mood. I loved Buckpasser mares, and this colt had a good blend of speed and stamina, and was a half-brother to Canadian Triple Crown winner With Approval.

The colt was being pinhooked by bloodstock agent John Moynihan, part-owner of Walmac Bloodstock Services with John T.L. Jones, who had purchased him in partnership as a weanling for $180,000 from Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency, owned by brothers John and Glenn Sikura.

Following his sale as a weanling at the Kentucky November mixed sale, the colt was sent to Bedford Farm, a 1,200-acre facility near Paris, Ky., which served s Walmac’s satellite farm. The farm, formerly owned by a French syndicate headed by Francois Boutin, was home to the broodmares, yearlings, and weanlings raised by Walmac for public auction.

For the yearlings, this was a time prior to the July sale for them to prepare for the most important journey of their lives. When I visited the farm in late June with Moynihan to see the Deputy Minister colt and learn about his background, the yearlings had already been prepping for the sale for a month, exercising on a lunging rein in a round pen, jogging for 10 to 15 minutes, then being walked by hand for 30 minutes.

Because “my” colt had been purchased as a weanling and wasn’t raised with the other horses he had been kept in a separate paddock ever since he arrived on the farm.

Farm manager Bobby Miller said this was done because it was difficult introducing him to the pack at such a late date, fearing he would wind up at the bottom of the pecking order and possibly get kicked or injured.

Moynihan said the Deputy Minister colt had always been easy to handle, but had a good deal of energy and was always full of himself. He said, although the goal was to sell him, he was not in a “do or die” situation, and would only sell him if they got a reasonable price. The colt was smallish to average size and was a May 28 foal, which is quite late, so he had a great deal of scope for improvement as he got older and matured physically.

Moynihan was also pinning his hopes on the fact that the colt’s full-sister, Daijin, was undefeated in four starts that year in Canada, racing in the colors of the Sikura brothers. Daijin had won the six-furlong Star Shoot Stakes before capturing the Selene Stakes.

After we arrived at the farm, Miller had the colt brought out. He made a splendid appearance, although nothing flashy. As I stroked his forehead, he cocked his ears and lifted his head, accentuating his well-conformed frame, complete with powerful hindquarters and a near-perfect hind leg (as Moynihan pointed out).

“He’s very correct,” Moynihan said. “He was correct when I bought him and he’s stayed that way throughout. With weanlings you never know if they’re going to stay the same as when you bought them. Of all the horses I looked at in the November sale, I thought he was one of the best physical specimens and the best pedigreed colt in the sale.”

I was happy to hear that an experienced bloodstock agent had seen the same promise in his pedigree as I had.

When they first bought him, the feeling was that he was extremely small, but they felt he had done a world of growing since the purchase. One of the reasons they went after him was his value as a stallion prospect. They didn’t buy him specifically to resell, but they were certainly prepared to if he brought what they felt he was worth.

Miller said several prospective buyers had already been at the farm to see the colt, and he expected to have about 15 showings before the sale. Passing Mood had died the previous June, shortly after foaling the Deputy Minister colt, and this was the last chance for buyers to obtain one of her offspring.

The Keeneland Sale

It was now several weeks later, and I was back in Kentucky for the July sale. What I found was a colt totally different than the one I had seen and played with back on the farm. On this particular morning he was a bit more ornery than usual, as the sweltering heat and humidity had buyers and sellers retreating into the air conditioned sales pavilion and buffet lunch in the Keeneland dining room.

Moynihan sat in one of the few shaded areas outside Barn 10, still trying to get a feeling of how this year’s sale was shaping up and how much appeal the Deputy Minister colt was going to have. He said he was afraid to even speculate, because no one was showing their hand on anything so far.

“It’s been feast or famine,” he said. “You either get the money or you don’t get any of it. All you can do is keep your fingers crossed.”

At 10:30 a.m., Frank Stronach, one of the leading owners and breeders in North America, stopped by to inspect the colt, along with his manager Mike Doyle. As the colt kept pulling hard on the lip chain and trying to turn his head, Cherise Gasper, head of sales for Walmac, explained to Stronach and Doyle that he has a habit of trying to bite the handler.

“He’s a nice kind of horse, though,” Doyle said nonchalantly, not wanting to tip his hand in any way.

Later that morning, the colt was given a heart scan, which measures the heart size and the intake of blood and oxygen. He was rated a “4,” which Moynihan said was “as good as it gets.”

That night, Hip No. 65 was the fourth horse scheduled to sell in the Monday night session. At 7:50 p.m., Greg Partain of Walmac was given instructions to bring the colt out and walk him prior to the sale.. As the colt was given a last-minute grooming outside his stall, he continuously tried to bite his handler.

“He can really get on your nerves,” Partain said. “But he’ll get over this when he gets older. Right now, he’s like a little kid who wants to play. But he’s been a real trouper. He’s been out hundreds of times and he’s stood up very well. When we first got him as a weanling he was just a little thing, but he’s really grown up. When John first bought the colt, people gave him a hard time because he was so small.”

The colt then was walked around near the back of the pavilion, where buyers could get one final look. Among those watching him closely were Stronach and Doyle. As they walked into the pavilion, Gasper gave Doyle some final words of encouragement and wished him luck.

I watched the sale on the TV monitor behind the pavilion. When the gavel fell, Stronach had bought the colt for $375,000, giving Moynihan a 100-percent profit on his initial investment.

Following the sale, I went to Stronach and asked him what he liked about the colt and what the plans were.

“He’s a little immature, but he’s a good-looking colt and I liked the whole family,” he said. “He’s a late May foal and we’re not going to hurry him. We’ll send him to our farm here (Adena Springs in Versailles) where he’ll be broken.”

Doyle added that the colt would then be evaluated along with the rest of Stronach’s young horses, and at that time a decision would be made where he’ll be sent.

“Letting him grow is probably the most important thing right now,” Doyle said.

Moynihan then stopped to congratulate Stronach. “You’ve got a really nice horse,” he said. “I’m glad you got him.”

Moynihan said he was thrilled with the price, feeling anything over $300,000 in the current market was a gift.

“I have mixed emotions about selling him,” he said. “I really believe he’s going to be a very good horse, but at the same time you have to take a profit when it’s there, and when you make a 100-percent profit it’s not a bad deal, especially when you’re buying at that level.”

Following his career

Naturally, I followed the colt closely, feeling as if I, in some way, had a vested interest in him, having picked him out and gotten to know him on a personal level.

Fast forward to June 1997. As lead writer for DRF covering the Belmont Stakes, I like most everyone was all prepared to witness the first Triple Crown sweep in 19 years after Silver Charm gamely captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. So, here I was at Belmont ready to witness history being made by a horse to whom I had become extremely close and writing about it. But there was a slight twist. Actually it wasn’t slight at all. One of the colts out to stop Silver Charm was my little Deputy Minister yearling, now named Touch Gold.

I had followed him as he demolished the speedy and classy Smoke Glacken by 8 1/2 lengths in Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes under Gary Stevens. There was brief talk about running him back in the Kentucky Derby, and when it was decided he wasn’t ready, the happiest person was Stevens, who was also the regular rider of Silver Charm. Stevens knew how good Touch Gold was and wanted no part of running against him in the Derby.

To this day, many believe Touch Gold was the best horse in the Preakness after he nearly went down at the start, his nose actually kicking up a cloud of dirt. How he stayed on his feet was truly remarkable. Then after dropping to the back of the pack, he got stopped three times in the race, including twice in the stretch when Free House came in and forced Chris McCarron to take up sharply, almost going into the rail. Despite all that, Touch Gold still was able to finish fourth, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths. His performance was even more remarkable when it was discovered he had grabbed his quarter severely, suffering a nasty quarter crack.

At Belmont Park, I watched each day as quarter crack specialist Ian McKinlay worked feverishly on the foot, trying to get Touch Gold to the Belmont Stakes. McKinlay said it was the worst quarter crack he had ever seen, with 2 1/2 inches of colt’s hoof having been ripped off, exposing raw flesh. The laminae had been exposed and McKinlay had to toughen up the tissue so an artificial acrylic wall could be put on. After 10 days of down time for the healing process to be completed, the horse needed to be able to train and the quarter crack had to be stabilized. Once the hoof got tough enough, McKinlay would wire it all together before the race.

“It’s not the patch that’s going to get him to the Belmont; it’s his toughness,” McKinlay said. “This horse is a monster. He’s so smart that when he wants to get away from you he’ll just drop down to his knees. He knows every trick in the book and you have to keep him busy with carrots.”

We all know what happened. Touch Gold set the early pace, dropped back to fourth, and somehow swung to the outside and ran down Silver Charm to deny the colt the Triple Crown, winning by three-quarters of a length, much to shock of Gary Stevens, who thought Touch Gold was finished after being passed by three horses down the backstretch.

When Stronach ran into Bob Lewis after the race he said, “In a way I’m sorry.”

Lewis reassured him. “No, don’t feel that way at all. It was a wonderful day for racing. It just shows what a tough job it is to win this. Someone has to run second, and we had a couple of wins. You’re a champion in every way.”

At the barn, Trudy McCaffery, co-owner of third-place finisher Free House, came over to congratulate fellow Californian Hofmans and to see how Touch Gold was doing. As she lavished affection on the colt, the tears began to flow, just as they did after seeing her own horse and recognizing the gallant effort he put in. She had nothing but praise and admiration for Touch Gold and what he had to endure.

A short while later, McKinlay showed up to check on the damage. He began by sanding and filing the hoof and then removed the patch with a drill. What he saw convinced him even more what a tough horse Touch Gold was.

“What we healed up he’s basically peeled right off,” he said. “It’s raw under there now. The tissue that we got tough enough to hold the glue, he jarred and busted it loose. He’s a very tough horse, believe me. He’s got so much heart. This is an amazing horse.”

An amazing horse. He was talking about my horse…well, sort of. There I’d been standing in the winner’s circle, trying to look as solemn as possible, along with most everyone else, while on the inside I was feeling as proud as a parent who had just seen their child accomplish something special. I could only think back to when Touch Gold was nothing more than a page in a sales catalog and a nondescript-looking yearling on the farm, and now he’s winning the Belmont Stakes and thwarting the Triple Crown attempt of one of the most popular horses in recent years.

No he wasn’t mine and I didn’t risk any money to buy him as a weanling as Moynihan did. But at least for a brief moment I got to experience what it would feel like if I had.

It is now 25 years later and Silver Charm and Touch Gold are in neighboring paddocks at Old Friends, living out their final years. I still feel as close to them now as I did back then.

Please be sure to view our Silver Charm link featuring original items from the Bob and Beverly Lewis Estate that will be available for purchase or auction.


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226 Responses to “Gold and Silver Anniversary of ’97 Belmont Stakes”

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  2. TommyMc says:

    One of the owners of Flightline mentioned The Whitney at Saratoga and The Pacific Classic at Del Mar as the next possible races for the horse. The Whitney at a mile and an eighth would make sense to me. Flightline could run into Life Is Good at Saratoga. Would they want to go from the Met Mile to the mile and a quarter Pacific Classic? With none of the 3-year olds distinguishing themselves so far, a Horse of the Year award could be in Flightline’s sights if they choose the right races.

  3. EddieF says:

    Looking at the past performances of the 1997 Kentucky Derby contestants, I’m astonished by two things: 1) that the field was one of the most impressive in modern Derby history and 2) that Silver Charm went off at odds of 4-1 while Free House was at 10-1.

    The ’97 field included

    Captain Bodgit (3-1 favorite) – had won the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial by comfortable margins
    Silver Charm (4-1) – had won the San Vicente and finished 2nd to Free House by close margins in the San Felipe and SA Derby
    Crypto Star (9-2) – had won the La Derby and Arkansas Derby by close margins
    Pulpit (5-1) – had won the FOY, finished 2nd in the Florida Derby, and won the Blue Grass by a comfortable margin
    Free House (10-1) – had won the San Felipe and the SA Derby by close margins

    All five colts earned BSFs between 105 and 110 in their final preps. In the end, Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit battled to the finish line with Silver Charm prevailing by a head. Free House, who along with Pulpit prompted the early pace, weakened and finished 3rd by 3.5 lengths. The bettors were smart.

    • Matthew W says:

      Free House had a hard campaign, returned to win the Big Cap wire to wire, turning back multiple challenges….also had a tour de force win in the Pacific Classic over Gentlemen….had many battles with Silver Charm, trainedby Paco Gonzales when mentioning the best Cal breds Free House gets overlooked some he was a top horse..

      • Matthew W says:

        The 1997 Derby was a cold day….I remember it looked like Captain Bodjit was going to win…but Silver Charm dug in, likely was toughened by his battles with Free House!

        • Matthew W says:

          One more thing about Free House….his big Cap had no breathers, took multiple challenges, including Silver Charm…..when he passed so young it broke Trudy McCaffery heart…..

          • Nick says:

            Free house and silver charm are next to each other on Arcadia’s horse racing walk of fame like the stars in Hollywood they’re all on the walk of fame free house silver charm silky Sullivan seabiscuit etc there’s one incredible name I had never heard of on this Santa Anita walk of fame a cheap claimer named malicious who made 185! Starts in the 1930s and who’s popularity is said was to have rivaled seabiscuit at the time. Steve have you ever heard of Malicious ? If not he’s an amazing read on Wikipedia

  4. Blake says:

    Was just at Old Friends last weekend. If you haven’t been take a trip out there. It’s about a 2hour tour of the farm walking and seeing some retired horses like Silver Charm, Touch Gold, Sarvana, Sun King, Ring Weekend, Barbaro’s brother Nicanor, Little Mike, Game on Dude and many more. A couple interesting notes…..Nicanor and Ring weekend share the same paddock with Nicanor being the dominate one. Game on Dude and Little Mike share a paddock with Little Mike being the dominant one. Little Mike was not named for his size is he is pretty good sized horse. Also Birdstone is right across from Bellamy Road and every time Bellamy Road came by Birdstone went nuts. Also, Bellamy Road is a huge horse! Go check it out!

  5. David D says:

    The female sergeant who sang our national anthem at Belmont yesterday did a fine job. No fancy vocal display, just spot-on singing. If only my horses had done that well.

    On the other hand, the guy who sang “New York, New York” was not as good as guys at your local karaoke bar. Which is pretty much how my horses ran. I couldn’t tell if this man had been on THE VOICE or if his nickname was “The Voice.” The announcers seemed to assume we knew who he was.

    • Jiffy says:

      I was pleased that they had a real person instead of a tape. But I still miss “The Sidewalks of New York.”