The Day Two Grays Brought Down the House

With three key preps for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) on Saturday, April 9, it seems indulgent and a little distracting to take time for a trip down Memory Lane. But here goes anyway, because this is the 25th anniversary of one of the most exciting 3-year-old races this reporter has ever witnessed, a slam-bang affair between two colts who were destined to make lasting imprints on the lore of the game .

In a perfect world, Saturday’s results would mark the beginning of a fascinating rivalry between Morello and Mo Donegal coming out of the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino (G2), or between Smile Happy and Zandon once the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G1) is in the books, or between Forbidden Kingdom and Messier after the dust clears from the 85th running of the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby (G1).

But it won’t happen. We know it won’t happen for all the reasons working against the idea that there could be two horses from the same foal crop collide through a series of high-profile races over an extended period of time. The careers of top colts are brief and designed to reap the greatest possible rewards with the least possible risk. Racetrack managements play along, thinning the competition with competing events. Stallion offers lurk in the wings with their siren songs.

Free House and Silver Charm were different, just as the racing world of 1997 was far different from the one in play today. Their clash in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 5 of that year was the third of their eight encounters over three seasons. In those eight events, all graded stakes, the two colts finished 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-3, 2-3, 1-2, and 1-3. Silver Charm ended up with a 5-3 edge, but as Sheriff John T. Chance (aka John Wayne) said in “Rio Bravo” when asked to compare the deadly skills of two gunfighters: “I’d hate to live on the difference .”

Silver Charm, a Florida-bred by Silver Buck, was promising enough to fetch $85,000 as a 2-year-old in a private sale to Robert and Beverly Lewis. At the time, they were on a high with Serena’s Song, their Eclipse Award champion filly, who retired at the end of 1996 as the all-time leading money-winning female. Wayne Lukas trained Serena’s Song, but Silver Charm came their way through Bob Baffert, who to that point had enjoyed modest success with Lewis horses.

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Photo: Skip Dickstein

Free House and trainer Paco Gonzalez

Compared to Silver Charm, Free House was a roll of the dice. He came from the first California crop of Smokester, a sprinter, and was the first foal of Fountain Lake, by Santa Anita Handicap (G1) winner Vigors. His breeders and owners were John Toffan, whose fortune came from precious minerals in Canada, and his partner, Trudy McCaffery, flying silver and gold colors that already had been carried by major stakes winners Bien Bien, Pacific Squall, and Del Mar Dennis. Juan “Paco” Gonzalez was their trainer.

The scenario for the 1997 Santa Anita Derby was teased the year before when Silver Charm won the Del Mar Futurity (G2) in his third start and went to the sidelines, leaving Free House to win the Norfolk Stakes (G2) in his third start. They met for the first time in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita on Feb. 8, 1997, in which the returning Silver Charm and Chris McCarron defeated Free House and Eddie Delahoussaye by a length and three-quarters. Five weeks later, in the San Felipe Stakes (G2), Free House and David Flores beat Silver Charm and McCarron by three-quarters of a length.

ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” was on hand for the Santa Anita Derby, with Al Michaels, Charlsie Cantey, and Dave Johnson along for the ride. The sight of the two gray colts going postward along with the filly Sharp Cat made for great TV, but it was even better in person as part of a crowd of 36,814. Free House was light on his feet, almost perky, while Silver Charm was a bit of a lug, rarely roused. As for Sharp Cat, she was giving off Winning Colors vibes for Lukas and was favored at 2-to-1.

Jockey switches had been big news as the Santa Anita Derby approached. Flores decided to ride Isitingood for Baffert in the Oaklawn Handicap (G1), putting Kent Desormeaux, Free House’s regular rider at age 2, back on board. Then, when McCarron opted to ride Hello for Ron McAnally, Gary Stevens found himself aboard Silver Charm.

“Bob told me, ‘Whatever you do don’t let that filly get away from you,'” Stevens said this week. “He wanted me to put it to her. So I did, and we put up some unbelievable fractions.”

Sharp Cat and Silver Charm smoked through a half in :45.15 and three-quarters in 1:09.15, with Free House trailing in their wake.

“The thing is, Silver Charm didn’t necessarily want to be ridden that way, which we found out later,” Stevens said. “I wasted a lot of energy in the Santa Anita Derby, when all I needed to do was wait ’til the real racing started and then go with him. He was so competitive, all he needed was a target and a reason to beat another horse to that mirror on the wire.”

Free House (left) defeats Silver Charm to win the 1997 Santa Anita Derby
Photo: Stidham and Associates

Free House (left) defeats Silver Charm to win the 1997 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park

Free House passed both leaders at the eighth pole and looked as if he was home and dry. But used as he was to finish Sharp Cat, Silver Charm still mustered a final shove to rally back and come within a short head of Free House at the line. As they galloped out together, their bond in a blooming rivalry was vividly apparent. These guys were the real deal.

“I was smiling after the race, even though we got beat,” Stevens said. “I knew we’d be going to Kentucky with a dead fit horse. I told Bob, ‘We might have lost the battle, but we just won the war.'”

As every young racing fan knows, Silver Charm went 1-1-2 in the 1997 Triple Crown, while Free House was 3-2-3, missing in the Preakness (G1) by just a head. As 4-year-olds they met only once, when Silver Charm beat Free House in the Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap (G2) at Santa Anita, then as 5-year-olds they collided in the 1999 Santa Anita Handicap, with Free House defeating third-place Silver Charm by a length. Of the 35,341 North American Thoroughbred foals of 1994, only two of them were graded stakes winners at 2, 3, 4, and 5—Free House and Silver Charm.

Free House went to stud at Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall, Calif. He was fun to visit, just down the road, and brought back the kind of memories that brighten any day. On July 19, 2004, having completed his fifth breeding season, he spooked and flipped on his wash rack, fracturing his skull. He could not be saved.

Silver Charm, on the other hand, is alive and well and just celebrated his 28th birthday as the marquee attraction at Old Friends Equine. He is a member of the Hall of Fame, as well as the oldest living winner of the Kentucky Derby, and there is little doubt that Free House and the 1997 Santa Anita Derby went a long way toward making all that happen.

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