GEORGETOWN, Ky. — On the track, Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm was known for his photo finishes.
Twenty-five years later, he’s a master of selfies.
The gray stallion, who won the 1997 Run for the Roses, knows how to smile at the camera when tour groups come to see him at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms in Georgetown just as he knew how to pace himself on the track. He was never the kind of racehorse who darted ahead of the throng, but he also rarely let a competitor pass him.
And in honor of the 25th anniversary of winning the Kentucky Derby, I spent some time with Silver Charm earlier this year to see how his golden years were treating him. The 28-year-old thoroughbred is the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner. In 1999, BloodHorse Magazine listed the top 100 horses of the 20th century, and he’s the last living member of the class.
When I went to Silver Charm’s birthday party in early March he was holding a firm spot as the third eldest Derby winner. But with the recent passing of Grindstone and Go for Gin, who won the 1996 and 1994 Kentucky Derbies respectively, Silver Charm jumped ahead to the most senior champion in a matter of weeks.
Michael Blowen, who founded Old Friends, says the best way to equate a horse’s age to human years is to multiply it by three and add eight, which puts our buddy Silver Charm at 92 years old. Even though Blowen says Silver Charm is in just as good of health as he was when he arrived at the farm in 2015, the 25th anniversary of his win is as good of a time as any to celebrate his career and spend a little quality time with him.
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Silver Charm’s breeding wasn’t anything extraordinary, but among his 24 starts, he won 12 times, took second seven times, and third twice. He conquered in the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and he just barely missed a Triple Crown within three-quarters of a length when he took second place in the Belmont Stakes. He was trained by the infamous Bob Baffert and owned by Robert and Beverly Lewis, who adored him so much they left him a trust fund of sorts. That cash brought him home from Japan, where he went to stud, and it’s provided $10,000 a year for his well-being at Old Friends since he returned to the United States.
During his racing career, he garnered nearly $7 million, but now in his retirement, he’s more concerned with the 22-pounds of finely cut carrots he gums each week with his four remaining teeth than just about anything else.
The first thing to know about Silver Charm — beyond his highly impressive racing record — is that he enjoys his routine.
Each day he’s let out of his stall and into his paddock at 7 am sharp. That’s where he spends most of his waking hours, leisurely munching on grass. If you call out to him and he recognizes your voice, the champion might come up and greet you at the fence.
Don’t try to pet his nose, though, being touched is one of his big pet peeves.
I made that mistake on the chilly March day I decided to visit with him. As he started approaching the fence, I reached out to pet him and he stopped just short of letting me.
Nope. That’s not what he wanted.
Then he turned around, went back to his grass, and ignored me, until a few moments later when Blowen came riding up in a golf cart.
“What’s Antonio got for you,” Blowen shouted, as one of the workers dumped a bucket full of carrots into a small trough on the side of the fence.
Silver Charm didn’t need to be told twice.
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The champion sprinted toward the fence, and I watched him plunge his mouth into a messy goodness of chopped carrots, molasses, and some kind of feed.
He’s got his priorities, Blowen told me, laughing.
Carrots and grass are high on that list.
He enjoys greeting the tour groups at 10 am, 11 am, and 1 pm, and even in his retirement, he still puts on a show.
“He knows selfies,” Blowen said. “He knows where the camera is. He knows how to pose. It’s amazing to watch. It really is, truly, amazing to watch how he understands how to do that stuff.”
In general, though, Silver Charm doesn’t do much of anything. The Kentucky Derby winner is happiest when he’s left alone or when he’s around people he recognizes. In his younger days Blowen, who’s 75 now, would hop the fence, and Silver Charm would race him.
No surprise, the Kentucky Derby winner always won.
“Other than that, the more you leave these horses alone, the happier they are,” Blowen said of the many thoroughbreds in his care at Old Friends.
He’s grown to trust the people at the farm, and he knows that each day they’ll let him back into his stall at 4 pm At night, the lights from the nearby highway irate him, some, Blowen said. So Silver Charm is much happier inside his stall during the evening.
Actually, he insisted on it.
Just before 4 pm he heads to the gate, turns his head toward the barn and waits for someone to tuck him in for the night.
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Silver Charm gives roughly a five-minute grace period before he lets the whole farm know about it. If too much time passes, he’ll take his hoof and bang it against the railing like he’s banging a tin cup against the bars of an old jail cell.
“He’s very good at communicating things in a very simple way,” Blowen told me.
That’s part of what made him such an incredible racehorse and really, part of the reason Blowen was drawn to him in the first place.
He’s not just a fast horse. Silver Charm’s intelligence is unparalleled. He knows when to rest and he knows how to go with the flow.
Then Blowen told me a story about when Silver Charm raced in the Dubai World Cup in 1998. The Derby champion had traveled more than 7,000 miles to compete — but in the hours before the race, he appeared to be fast asleep.
The handlers thought he was disorientated. They thought there was no way he was going to win.
What Silver Charm was actually doing, though, was resting and conserving his energy, and yes, he did bring the world cup home.
Blowen wears that intelligence goes deeper than merely looking after himself. He insists Silver Charm knows the difference between being called “the greatest horse in the history of the universe” and “the greatest horse in the history of the world.”
He’ll trot right up at being the king of the universe.
The world alone, however, just isn’t good enough for him.
When it comes down to it, though, what Blowen actually admires about Silver Charm more than anything is his attitude.
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When Silver Charm arrived at Old Friends in 2015, he walked off the trailer calmly and coolly. He never panicked. He just went with the change as though he’d always been here.
This Kentucky Derby champion doesn’t let much bother him, Blowen said. He rolls with changes, and that’s part of what made him such a successful racehorse in his prime.
It’s helped him ease into his quiet retirement and even his 7 am to 4 pm routine at Old Friends Farm. It’s part of what’s made the twilight of his life so enjoyable.
“The final furlong, it’s the most exciting part of the race,” Blowen said. “They turn their head and there’s the finish line. They can see it and that’s when the race gets exciting. That’s when everything starts to happen. That’s what’s happening to me and that’s what’s happening to him.”
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you’ve got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-582-4053. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.