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Heading for home as they swept off the final turn at Belmont Park last Saturday afternoon, jockey Gary Stevens sensed that the moment had come—the Triple Crown was his for the taking—and all he had to do was ask his horse for one last surge of speed. So, folded over Silver Charm's back, Stevens pumped his hands in rhythm with the horse's stride, asking the iron gray one more time for what he had given so often. Stevens had ridden the colt to victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and what he felt in that instant was electric.
"I got the most explosive move from Silver Charm that I'd gotten from him in any of his races," Stevens says.
The quarter pole flashed past. Silver Charm was sprinting through the top of the stretch, racing through one of the fastest final quarters in the history of the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes. Free House, the Charm's foil in the Preakness and the Derby, was on his right, just a head behind, but Stevens knew he had the measure of that colt; all he had to do was hold off any late charger down the lane. As they bounded to the eighth pole, 220 yards from the wire, Silver Charm began to pull away from Free House, inching to leads of a neck, then half a length.
Nineteen years had passed since Affirmed, in 1978, became the 11th and last horse to win the Triple Crown, and now all that remained between Silver Charm and history was an empty, 200-yard stretch of sunlit dirt. Off to Stevens's right, as Free House began to fade, the rafters of Belmont Park were rocking. A crowd of 70,682, the largest to see a race in New York since Seattle Slew completed his Triple Crown sweep in 1977 and the third largest ever, was on its feet and roaring. Stevens felt a rush like no other in his life. "Inside of me it flared," Stevens said. "We're gonna do it.... We're gonna win the Triple Crown!"
Alas, well to Free House's right—unseen by either Stevens or his mount—jockey Chris McCarron and his handsome bay colt, Touch Gold, were charging down the middle of the track. By the eighth pole McCarron was slashing away with his stick in a desperate attempt to run down the leader. "I was in the garden spot," McCarron said. "I had swung out, and we were in the clear."
The scene at that moment, with Stevens hunched over Silver Charm, with the wide-eyed Free House yielding grudgingly and with McCarron bouncing and thrusting his shoulders forward on Touch Gold, is worthy of a place in any history of the Triple Crown. Since Affirmed's triumphs over Alydar, four horses had won the Derby and the Preakness but lost the Belmont—Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987) and Sunday Silence (1989)—but none of their romantic quests touched the nonracing public as deeply as Silver Charm's this spring. Unfashionably bred, Silver Charm commanded only $85,000 as a 2-year-old in training when Bob and Beverly Lewis bought him from trainer Bob Baffert in the spring of 1996; he was about as close to common folk as Derby-Preakness winners get these days.
But it was more than his price and pedigree, of course, that appealed to the crowds that clicked through turnstiles for the Belmont. By then Silver Charm had revealed himself to be not only a colt of exceptional physical gifts, combining speed and stamina, but also an alley fighter. He won the 1¼-mile Derby by a mere head, after beating back Captain Bodgit's late charge. Two weeks later, in the Preakness, he leaned into the bit and nipped Free House by the bob of his head. Baffert, whose silver-white thatch had made him as instantly recognizable as his roan colt, says he sensed how popular Silver Charm had become when on the night before the Belmont he took his family to Yankee Stadium to see a baseball game. As they made their way to their seats by the Yankees' dugout, along aisle after aisle fans called out his name, clamored for his autograph and shouted encouragement: "Bob Baffert! Silver Charm, right? Is he gonna do it? Is he gonna win the Belmont?"
"Yeah, he's gonna do it," Baffert called back.
At one point Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer came out of the dugout and, cupping his hands around his mouth, asked Baffert, "Who can I use in the exacta?" To which Baffert responded, "Free House." The trainer was overwhelmed. "That's when I first realized that Silver Charm had gotten to people," Baffert said. This in a sport whose attendance has been falling dramatically, from 55.4 million in 1980 to 35.7 million in 1995.
In the days leading up to the Belmont, dozens of reporters and TV camera crews camped out at Barn 9, the temporary home of the colt, and the engaging Baffert exuded confidence. "He will win the Triple Crown," he said more than once. Stevens tightened the screw further. "I guarantee it," he announced three days before the race.