"Who's the greatest horse in the history of the universe?"
For Michael Blowen, this shouted, rhetorical query isn't a solicitation to debate. It's merely a sincere and heartfelt ploy to attract the attention of an aging gray stallion grazing in his paddock away from the fence. An invitation for him to come over, receive a healthy snack, and a visitor. The device eventually works, and 23-year-old Silver Charm dutifully jogs over and munches on carrots offered from Blowen's hand, as well as his mouth.
A former movie critic for the Boston Globe, Blowen is a man in love with what he does, and in love with Silver Charm. The 1997 Kentucky Derby winner counts among the famous and not-as-famous Thoroughbreds currently in residence at the Old Friends Retirement Farm, which Blowen founded near Georgetown, Kentucky, in 2003. Twenty years on from his game Derby victory and near sweep of the Triple Crown, Silver Charm is still a captivating figure, especially to Blowen.
"I'm always partial to some of the California horses who got short shrift," said Blowen, explaining why Silver Charm is his all-time favorite. "I like [trainer] Bob [Baffert]. I liked his name. It's like 'Why do you fall in love with your wife?' It's magic. Same thing with this horse, it's hard to explain.
"He came here on December 1, 2014," said Blowen, who admits to having only watched Silver Charm race on television. "People always say 'What's the best day of your life?' You say it's the day I got married. Then you say the day your kids were born, then you have grandkids. I used to say that, but now my family barely fills out the superfecta now," he says with a smile.
Baffert, who suffered a gut-wrenching loss in the 1996 Derby when Cavonnier was beat the dirtiest of noses, was quickly back in the picture the following spring. A Florida-bred with a stamina-laden, if not commercial, pedigree, Silver Charm arrived at Churchill Downs as one of the Derby favorites despite narrow losses to Free House in his final two preps at Santa Anita.
"I pointed him toward the Derby," Baffert told the Baltimore Sun at the time. "I really drilled on him."
That steely toughness shone through the Churchill stretch as Silver Charm repelled a determined bid from favorite Captain Bodgit to win by a head under Gary Stevens, with Free House third. Two weeks later, in the Preakness, Silver Charm again out-gamed Free House and Captain Bodgit, with two heads separating the trio at the finish after a ding-dong stretch battle.
Silver Charm's bid for the Triple Crown, in the Belmont Stakes, at the time was the first in eight years. Most observers were aglow at the depth of the 1997 crop of three-year-olds, with many calling it the best since 1989, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer historically dueled throughout the classics. All these years later, Silver Charm's reputation endures, in part due to the quality of competition he regularly faced and his consistency in proving best among them.
One time Silver Charm fell short of proving best was in the Belmont, when Touch Gold, who had made a terrific recovery to finish fourth in the Preakness following a stumbling start, craftily made a wide stretch bid under Chris McCarron, ostensibly to avoid having the gray bulldog look him in the eye. The strategy worked, and the winning margin was a mere three-quarters of a length.
Voted champion three-year-old of 1997, Silver Charm won seven more stakes, including the Dubai World Cup, bankrolled nearly $7 million, and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame. After a brief stay at Three Chimneys Farm, Silver Charm was sold for stud duty to the Japan Racing Association in 2004 with the provision that majority owners Bob and Beverly Lewis be given the right of first refusal to purchase him if he were ever sold.
"I remember getting a call from Sandy Hatfield at Three Chimneys in October 2014," Blowen said. "'How'd you like an old gray stallion at your farm?' I knew who she was talking about. I couldn't say anything. I'm a blabbermouth, I can't keep secrets. I'd actually go to the other end of the farm, jump up and down, and come back.
"We have such a good relationship with Japan. They tell us every October who's going to be retired [from stud duty]. Then we raise the money."
Blowen said the Robert and Beverly Lewis Foundation paid the entire $70,000 needed for Silver Charm to come home.
"He flew from Japan to Anchorage and then to Chicago, where he was in quarantine three days," Blowen said. "He got off the trailer here like he came from across the street. Nothing. He's totally stress free. He doesn't have an anxious moment. You could lead him back to the barn with dental floss.
"Since he's my favorite horse, and ever since we started bringing horses home from Japan, he and Charismatic had been on the top of my list," Blowen said.
Charismatic, also owned by the Lewises, captured the 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He resided at Old Friends only briefly, arriving last December before dying prematurely only a couple months later due to the effects of a broken pelvis.
Even after Charismatic's untimely death, Silver Charm is not the only Derby winner roaming the Old Friends paddocks. War Emblem, who provided Baffert with the third of his four Derby wins, in 2002, was another repatriated from Japan. While War Emblem's disposition requires that he enjoy resting on his laurels behind a double fence, Silver Charm is a relative puppy dog.
"My expectations were really high and he's totally exceeded them," Blowen said. "He's gentle, he's kind and he's smart. Great with visitors. The fact he's in my yard totally freaks me out. The idea he's in a paddock next to Touch Gold also freaks me out."
Yes, Silver Charm's nemesis resides nearby. Blowen's carrot stop at Touch Gold's paddock also required a shout-out of encouragement for him to gallop over from its far side.
"Touch Gold, I got carrots! Come on! It's the Belmont Stakes!"
With that final command, Touch Gold picked up the pace and arrived full of run for his treat. Blowen laughed at the response.
It was unclear whether Silver Charm was similarly amused.
(Photos by Vance Hanson)