It was just his second time at the Preakness, a race the future Hall of Fame trainer would later come to own, so pardon Bob Baffert if he was a little confused by the idiosyncrasies that come with being the second-oldest racetrack in the United States.
In one of the most memorable finishes in the history of Pimlico Race Course, which ran its first races in the fall of 1870, three horses hit the wire together in the 122nd Preakness Stakes. Based at nearby Bowie Race Track, local favorite Captain Bodgit was on the outside with West Coast homebred Free House on the rail.
Between them was Baffert’s Silver Charm, a $16,500 yearling owned by the late Bob and Beverly Lewis that ran second to Free House in a pair of California prep races before edging Captain Bodgit two weeks prior in the Kentucky Derby. Ridden by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, Silver Charm was no better than third choice in the Preakness.
“I was actually watching the wrong line,” Baffert said. “Bob Lewis kept telling me, ‘Oh, no, we won Robert.’ He always called me Robert. I was like, ‘No, just relax. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves. I think we got beat.’ I’ll never forget, he turns around and Nick Zito is standing behind us. He said, ‘Nick, will you tell him?’ and Nick goes, ‘No, you won.’ Then they put it up.
“If you watch the replay, you can see that I didn’t think I won. I kept watching Bob and Bob was like, ‘We won it, Robert!’ They’ve got a little skinny pole before the wire, something weird, and I was looking at that. He was beat the jump before. Then when I watched the replay I realized I was watching the wrong pole.”
The official margin was a head over Free House, with Captain Bodgit another head back. Touch Gold, who spent his 2-year-old season in Canada and would spoil Silver Charm’s bid for Triple Crown immortality in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later, finished fourth after going to his knees out of the starting gate.
“I was watching the replay when I came home with my son Taylor. He’s 34 now so that would have made him  then. He’s watching with me and he says, ‘Hey, Dad, you’re lucky that the five horse didn’t win.’ Touch Gold stumbled really bad, then got blocked and he said, ‘I think you’re lucky you won the race.’ I remember him saying that,” Baffert said. “It was one of the greatest Preaknesses I’ve ever been involved in.”
Such an assessment is heady praise coming from Baffert, winner of a record-tying seven Preaknesses including Triple Crown champions American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. Silver Charm was his first and, since the passing of 1991 hero Hansel in 2017, the oldest living Preakness winner.
“Silver Charm was the kind of horse that would give you whatever he needed. He never gave you more,” Baffert said. “I remember Gary Stevens said he was beat. He could not get by Free House and then, when he felt that horse coming on the outside, that’s when he ran. If Captain Bodgit’s not there, he would have run second. As soon as he felt Bodgit on the outside, that’s when Silver Charm took off and that’s what won the race.
“Silver Charm was so exciting. He just made it really exciting. He ran great in all three of the [Triple Crown] races. Silver Charm was just a quiet, cool horse and he walked up there and never turned a hair, never got hot. He was just a very noble horse. That was just him.”
Baffert, who has long praised the Preakness as his favorite Triple Crown event, had one other anxious moment before Silver Charm’s dramatic finish, coming in the week leading up to the race.
“I remember those two weeks there, just enjoying it and being there,” he said. “I remember breezing him. My rider and I had a radio that took batteries and I was so nervous when I went to breeze him, I brought the radios out and I was so nervous that I had left them on and they were dead. I’m like, ‘Oh my God. How am I going to work this horse? I can’t control the work.’ He didn’t go very fast. He went in like 49 or 50 [seconds] and I wanted him to have a decent work. Then I was worried he didn’t get a good work.”
In 24 starts, Silver Charm hit the board 21 times with 12 wins – 11 of them in graded-stakes, three of those Grade 1 including the 1998 Dubai World Cup – and $6,944,369 in purse earnings. The champion 3-year-old male of 1997 was elected to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2007, predating his trainer by two years.
Silver Charm was pinhooked for $100,000 as a 2-year-old in training by Randy Hartley and Dean DeRenzo, who had purchased the son of Silver Buck out of the Poker mare Bonnie’s Poker as a yearling eight months earlier, each time at Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. auctions.
Second in his career debut, Silver Charm broke his maiden second time out and captured the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity to cap a juvenile season that led the Lewises to entertain offers to sell their rising star.
“When he won the Del Mar Futurity, they almost sold him. They turned it down,” Baffert said. “Coolmore wanted to buy the horse and they sent a guy and they vetted him and looked at him. That’s when they came out with the way to measure their heart and lungs, and he failed the heart and lung test, thank God. Bob Lewis later on said, ‘Robert, if we had sold that horse and he had won the Derby and Preakness, I think I would have gotten out of the business. I wouldn’t have been able to handle that.’ It would have been tough.”
Though Baffert was the affable point man for Silver Charm, he said that having the Lewises as owners made the blue-collar horse even more likeable and relatable to both casual and hardcore fans.
“What really made Silver Charm fun was that Bob and Beverly Lewis were a lot of fun. They just really enjoyed it. I remember he bet on Silver Charm in the Derby $5,000 to win for everybody involved – for the groom and the assistants and stuff like that. He did that,” Baffert said. “He should have been a politician. He would have made a great president. He was liked by everybody.
“He was sharp. He was a businessman, but he was a salesman. He was a great salesman, and he remembered everybody’s name. He was just so well-liked. Everybody rooted for him. There’s nothing like having a great horse and a great owner and they root for them. He was the only guy who kept winning a lot of races and they kept rooting for him. A lot of times people say, ‘I’m so tired of Bob Baffert,’ but thank God for Bob Lewis. Everybody liked Silver Charm because of Bob Lewis. That makes a difference.”
Following his racing career, Silver Charm entered stud in 2000 at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky. before being relocated to Japan in 2005. He stood at Japan Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association’s Stallion Station until 2014, when he was retired to Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky. in a cooperative effort between the JBBA, Lewis family and Three Chimneys.
“I’ve been in love with this horse since 1997, and I’d never set eyes on him in person until he showed up here. Now he’s in my backyard, just a stone’s throw from Touch Gold. It’s unbelievable,” Michael Blowen said. Spurred by the news of 1987 Horse of the Year Ferdinand’s death in a Japanese slaughterhouse, Blowen founded Old Friends in 2003.
Old Friends has grown from one horse and a leased paddock to more than 200 retired and rescued horses spread over 236 acres, as well as a satellite facility at Cabin Creek Farm in Greenfield Center, N.Y., near Saratoga Race Course.
“I remember that December 1st in 2014. That’s when he showed up here,” Blowen said. “But a few months earlier I got a call from Sandy Hatfield over at Three Chimneys. She knew that he was one of my favorites and she said, “How would you like an old gray stallion at your farm?’ and I knew who she was talking about.
“As a personality, usually if you fall in love with someone or something it never quite lives up to your imaginary expectations. There’s always some fly in the ointment. But, with him it’s exactly the opposite. He’s the kindest, most self-possessed, easygoing Thoroughbred stallion we have ever had here, by far.”
Silver Charm’s popularity on the racetrack has carried over to retirement, where fans flock year after year to catch a glimpse of him in person.
“He’s the king. We’ve got a lot of good horses here, but he’s like Elvis,” Blowen said. “Silver Charm is by far the biggest draw we have, even though we have some amazing animals here. We’re so lucky to have these athletes here, but he is by far the most popular. And everybody comes with stories. My wife is actually collecting the stories that people tell when they come in and see him.”
Baffert is a regular visitor to Silver Charm, typically combining his annual visits with trips to Kentucky for the Derby or its Thoroughbred auctions.
“I see him every year. And every time I see him I get emotional, because I think of Bob Lewis and the family and everybody, my parents. It was just a lot of fun,” Baffert said. “He’s a must-see. People love seeing him. He still has a lot of personality. When you go to the fence, he’ll jog down there. He loves attention. That’s one of those things about good horses, they love the attention. He loves it.”
Blowen said fans that happen to be on hand during Baffert’s visits get an unexpected bonus.
“He usually comes the Thursday before the Derby with his family. When he had Justify and American Pharoah, he still came. People are here on buses and stuff and I’ll go, ‘This guy here, he’ll give you the tour,’ and Bob gives the tour,” he said. “When Bob comes, it’s really something.
“Silver Charm, he’s got the charisma. He’s got the kavorka, as Kramer used to say in Seinfeld. He really does. He knows who he is. He doesn’t like his head petted, and I tell people when they come on the tour that you can feed him carrots, you can get your picture taken, he loves selfies. He’ll put his head on your shoulder. He knows what the deal is, and he loves the adulation.”
Silver Charm had to have a couple of his teeth removed recently, so his carrots need to be hand cut daily. It’s a mundane task that Blowen approaches with equal parts pride and excitement.
“It’s the thrill of a lifetime, because every morning I get to go out and give him his chopped-up carrots. It’s just him and me,” Blowen said. “Then later in the day if no one else is around, and of course with the [corona]virus not many people are around, I’ll go out in the paddock and actually play with him. We play hide and seek, and he lets me build up a lead when we race. It’s almost like he’s laughing. The snort that he has is almost like a laugh. I can hear him come pounding after me and go right by me and then circle me. He likes to play and he’s so intelligent.
“He does everything correctly. It’s just hard to imagine that he can still run as fast as he runs. He obviously suffers fools gladly, because I’m clearly in that category, so he’s even kind to people that don’t know what they’re doing and just want to have fun. You could lead him around with dental floss. If he were my son or something I’d feel embarrassed bragging about him like this, but it’s all true.”
Blowen feels that Silver Charm is more than just a popular draw for fans, also drawing positive public attention to the fate of Thoroughbreds after their racing careers end.
“Silver Charm, he’s just special,” he said. “People that come here that are thinking about retiring stallions to us, they can see how good he looks at his age now and how well these horses are taken care of, so he’s become a tremendous ambassador – not only for the horses at Old Friends, but I think for all off-the-track Thoroughbreds. People can come here and say, ‘It would be great to have one of these in our yard. They’re a lot of fun to play with. They’re better than cats, better than dogs. They’re a lot of fun, and most of them appreciate what you do for them.”
Though he enjoyed moderate success after first making the transitioning from Quarter Horses, Baffert said Silver Charm will always hold a special place as the horse that helped make him a player on the Thoroughbred stage.
“[Silver Charm] is one of the greatest [horses I’ve had]. He was a [$100,000] purchase, he didn’t have the greatest pedigree, but he was a great horse that really had a lot of fans. They just liked his grit and determination,” Baffert said. “That horse brought us so much excitement.
“When he won the Dubai World Cup, Sheikh Mohammed and his brother Sheikh Hamdan, they went down and they all had to go pet him on the neck. They all wanted to touch him. It was so cool. I was like, ‘Look at them,’ and he just beat their horse. They didn’t want a picture with him, they just wanted to touch him. They wanted to feel greatness.”