Ninety minutes after the breathtaking running of the 122nd Preakness Stakes, as twilight began to fade at Pimlico race course, just about everyone milling around the stakes barn was still having a difficult time getting a firm grip on his emotions. Outside the stall of Free House, Trudy McCaffery, who with her companion, John Toffan, owns the big gray colt, dabbed her eyes with a white handkerchief. A groom was walking Free House round and round the barn, cooling him out, and every time he came into view, Trudy would begin crying again. She would stop the groom, pat Free House's neck, kiss his nose, whisper sweet nothings to him. At one point she turned and said, to nobody in particular, "He ran his eyeballs out.... It was a head bob.... It could have gone either way."
She wouldn't have gotten an argument from Bob Baffert, the white-maned free spirit who trains Silver Charm for Bob and Beverly Lewis. For the last quarter mile of the 1[3/16]-mile classic, Free House and Silver Charm ran a head-to-head duel that forced each to reach deep. It was a stride-for-stride, Baltimore alley fight of a race that brought to mind Affirmed edging Alydar in 1978 and Sunday Silence holding off Easy Goer in 1989. But this time there was more. As the dueling grays approached the finish line, Captain Bodgit came flying down the middle of the racetrack, bearing down on the leaders.
Only two weeks after his trademark late rush had come just a head short of catching Silver Charm in the Kentucky Derby, the dark bay Captain was charging again, thrilling those in the crowd of 88,594 who had made him a slight favorite. For most of the race he had been so far behind—12 lengths after half a mile, just over seven after a mile—that trainer Gary Capuano thought "we were going to be a badly beaten third or fourth at best." But he hit the top of the stretch rolling, and now he was closing the gap with every stride.
As the three horses flashed past the wire in a tangle of slashing whips, straining necks and pounding hooves, nobody except Bob Lewis seemed sure of the outcome. "We did it, we did it!" he shouted in his basso profundo. But Baffert only said, "We did?" Since last year's Kentucky Derby, when the Baffert-trained Cavonnier lost to Grindstone by a nose, Baffert no longer trusts his eyes. "I couldn't give a good hoot and holler, because I just wasn't sure," he said.
Once the result was official, Baffert made up for his initial reserve. He bolted up the track to greet Silver Charm and jockey Gary Stevens. He put the Preakness trophy atop his head and did a little boogaloo on the victory stand. He showed up for his news conference dancing on his toes, shadowboxing and chanting, "Hey, hey, hey." But when asked to review the race, Baffert turned serious and spent almost as much time praising Free House and Captain Bodgit as he did Silver Charm. "These are the three greatest 3-year-olds I've ever seen in my life," Baffert said.
The winner's margin over Free House was officially a head, but it was really a matter of who won the bob. Captain Bodgit was another head back in third. More incredible, finishing fourth was Touch Gold, who had raced only twice previously as a 3-year-old, skipped the Derby and promptly found himself in a ton of trouble in this race, only to recover and lose by just a length and a half—thereby announcing himself as a force to be reckoned with at the Belmont on June 7.
The day was breezy, bright and cool—perfect weather for a racing epic. When the gate sprang open, the long shot Cryp Too bolted to the lead, hell-bent for his place in oblivion. (He finished next-to-last in the 10-horse field.) Meanwhile, Touch Gold, who had rolled to an 8�-length victory in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 20, stumbled leaving the gate and dropped to his knees so severely that his nose hit the ground. Chris McCarron got his colt back into the hunt so efficiently that turning for home, Touch Gold was moving for the lead on the inside of the front-running Free House. But Kent Desormeaux moved Free House inside and closed that hole, causing Touch Gold to bang the rail.
With that rival out of the way, Desormeaux turned his attention to Silver Charm, who was at Free House's throat. That was no surprise; in two California preps for the Derby (the San Felipe on March 16 and the Santa Anita Derby on April 5), Silver Charm had made runs at Free House that fell barely short. And now ranging up outside Silver Charm, though Desormeaux couldn't see him, was Captain Bodgit. Inside the 16th pole, Desormeaux decided to hand-ride Free House to the wire, while Stevens was hitting Silver Charm with repeated righthanded licks. They moved together, and, in the final strides, Free House cocked his head to check out Silver Charm. "He was looking for his pal," said McCaffery, and Baffert agreed. "Silver Charm likes to hang with a horse," Baffert said. "He must think Free House is a cuz or something. But he moved again when Captain Bodgit began to move up."
The day of the race, according to Baffert, Silver Charm had been rather docile until Captain Bodgit arrived from the Bowie Training Center, where he had been stabled since arriving from Kentucky. When Silver Charm caught sight of Captain Bodgit, he became so restless that he had to be tied to the sides of his stall. "I don't think he likes Captain Bodgit," Baffert said. "Maybe the Captain said something to tick him off."
In the race itself, Silver Charm again responded to the sight of Captain Bodgit, this time with a surge. "That may have won the race for him," said Baffert. The winning time was 1:54[4/5], and all three top finishers earned a speed figure of 118, the highest of any recent Preakness.