ELMONT, N.Y. — ELMONT, N.Y. -- After Silver Charm's third race, a come-from-behind victory in the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity last September, lightning struck in Bob Baffert's head.
He picked up the telephone and called the colt's owner, Bob Lewis. According to the two men, the conversation went like this:
"Bob, I think we not only have a good horse here, we very possibly have a great horse," Baffert said. "It's going to take a lot of patience, and we might miss some big opportunities along the way, but -- with your permission and understanding -- I'd like to map out a plan that would take us to Louisville on the first Saturday in May."
"Good gosh, Bob," Lewis replied, laughing, "you're setting your sights on the Kentucky Derby? Didn't you have enough of that last year? [Baffert's Cavonnier lost by a nose.] But, of course, Bob, if that's what you'd like to do, Beverly and I are behind you all the way."
Eight months later, despite sickness and a streak of laziness that nearly derailed the Triple Crown express, Silver Charm won the Kentucky Derby.
Then he won the Preakness. And tomorrow, in the 129th running of the Belmont Stakes, he can secure his place in racing history as the 12th winner of the Triple Crown.
"We deserve all this," said Baffert, laughing, referring to everyone associated with Silver Charm, "because this horse drove us nuts all winter."
In winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Silver Charm displayed the talent, determination and fight necessary to propel an athlete to the pinnacle of his sport. But during the winter in California, as Baffert attempted to mold a champion out of an undisciplined but promising youngster, the gray colt displayed his darker side.
"He was like a big overgrown kid who wouldn't do anything," Baffert said. "He wouldn't gallop strong. He was a lazy son of a gun."
Silver Charm didn't race from September until February. He got sick, forcing Baffert and the Lewises to cancel plans for sending him to Woodbine in Canada for the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But even after Silver Charm returned to training -- a series of walks, jogs, gallops and sprints every morning -- he continued to frustrate his trainer.
That's why Baffert was shocked when, on Feb. 8 in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita Park, Silver Charm broke through the starting gate and had to be reloaded -- but won by 1 3/4 lengths in stakes record time.
"If he'd run third I'd have been happy," Baffert said. "He was behind in his training. And then when he broke through the gate, I thought, 'OK, there's my excuse.'
"But when he hit the wire, and I saw that time, I thought, 'Wow, man, he is really something. That even impressed me.' "
Baffert was beginning to understand that Silver Charm thrived in the competitive environment of a race -- winning despite not being totally fit -- but needed stronger conditioning if he was ever to reach his potential.
So after Silver Charm's next race, a second to another gray horse named Free House in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, Baffert summoned Gary Stevens. A jockey soon to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Stevens is known for his ability to ride a horse in the morning per trainers' instructions.
Baffert said he told Stevens: "I want you to make him work. Wake him up. Shake him up. Don't feel sorry for him, or he'll take advantage of you. And don't worry about hurting him. If he can't take it, he can't take it. But he's got to work."
Stevens recalled the instructions this way: "Bob told me to cock my stick and, literally, whip his ---. 'Let him know you're serious.' I hit him about four times, and he just exploded underneath me."
After that, Stevens became Silver Charm's jockey.
Their first race, the 1 1/8 -mile Santa Anita Derby on April 5, was one of those races where the patience and understanding of the Lewises would be tested. Despite the race's $1 million purse, Baffert told Stevens: "If we win, fine. But put him out there early, get a hard race into him. Make him extend himself, and then we'll know where we stand."
The Kentucky Derby was a month away. Baffert knew this would be Silver Charm's final Derby prep, while the other top contenders -- such as Pulpit and Captain Bodgit -- would run their final preps three weeks before the Derby.
After Silver Charm finished a gutsy second in the Santa Anita Derby -- matching strides early with the speedy Sharp Cat and then nearly holding off the late charge of Free House -- Baffert said, "That was a very expensive schooling we gave that horse. But we're on track for the Kentucky Derby."
Baffert placed Silver Charm on a rigorous five-day work schedule. Every five days his exercise rider put them through a "serious drill," as Baffert described it.
"I usually don't do that," Baffert said. "But I wanted him to keep in mind that every time he went out to the track he had to do something. That was the only way we were going to win the Kentucky Derby."
At Churchill Downs, Silver Charm was the rage. He seemed to uncoil when he stepped onto the track. He trained powerfully. And he ran his race beautifully, winning by a couple of feet over the late-striding Captain Bodgit.
"I trained him for the Derby like it was the last race of his life; I really drilled him for the Derby," Baffert said. "So I backed off a little for the Preakness. He was fit. If he was lucky enough to win the Preakness, I wanted something left in the tank for the Belmont."
At Pimlico, Silver Charm edged Free House by a head (and Free House nipped Captain Bodgit by a head). Silver Charm won on guts and class, Baffert said. Now, after prescribing two tune-up workouts during the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, Baffert said his nine-month training job with Silver Charm is complete.
"I have put him in a position to win," Baffert said. "That's all I can do. Now it's up to the racing gods."
What: 129th Belmont Stakes, third leg of horse racing's Triple Crown
When: Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
Distance: 1 1/2 miles
TV: Chs. 2, 7
Pub Date: 6/06/97