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Nothing Easy About Traveling Road to Owning Silver Charm

Horse racing: A sale didn't go through, so Baffert had money and there was this crooked-legged colt and . . .


BALTIMORE — The buying of Silver Charm is a tale of more than two cities. Long before the metallic-gray colt won the Kentucky Derby and became the favorite for Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico, a number of things had to happen.

In Lexington, Ky., on April 16, 1996, trainer Bob Baffert bought an unraced 2-year-old colt, a son of 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall, for $80,000. "But the horse didn't 'vet out,' " said Baffert, who returned the horse and got his money back.

A week later, in Central Florida, the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. was holding the biggest sale of 2-year-olds in the world. The catalog listed 987 horses, and one of them was Silver Charm, a Silver Buck-Bonnie's Poker colt who had been sold the year before by his breeder, Mary Lou Wootton of East Hampton, N.Y., to C.J. Gray of Winnipeg, Canada, for $16,500.

At Ocala, Silver Charm was wheeled back, a popular ploy known as pinhooking in the buying-and-selling game. The average price of a horse sold at Ocala would be about $15,000, but Silver Charm, who had breezed impressively in a pre-auction workout, was going to bring much more.

Gary Capuano, the Bowie, Md., trainer who has Captain Bodgit, the second-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, said that Silver Charm was the only horse he liked in the sale. Capuano was in Ocala bidding for one of his clients, Raymond Burnette, a Virginia automobile dealer.

"My limit was supposed to be $50,000," Capuano said. "I think I went to $65,000, maybe $66,000. But the other bidders kept going, so I dropped out."

Greg Otteson, acting for his brother-in-law, California trainer Darrell Vienna, was one of the stayers, bidding $80,000.

"We got the feeling, though, that the horse wasn't really for sale," Vienna said Wednesday. "You can usually tell by the rhythm of the bidding. There was something about this rhythm that told you that this horse wasn't really on the market."

The bidding stopped at $100,000, and the sales ticket was signed by C.J. Gray, who already owned Silver Charm. This seemed to confirm Vienna's suspicion about the bidding. When horsemen buy back their horses--there were 307 of these at the Ocala sale--they anticipate selling their stock privately for more. A buyback normally costs the consignor--in this case, Gray--a 5% commission, which goes to the sales company.

After the buyback of Silver Charm, word circulated at Ocala that the colt could be bought for $85,000. Silver Charm "toed out"--his front legs weren't straight--and that flaw kept his price reasonable. Otteson, Vienna's man, believed they were going to close the deal, and a veterinarian was about to examine their potential purchase.

"But something happened that was difficult to understand," Vienna said. "We were told that the horse was already sold, for $85,000."

J.B. and Kevin McKathan, who break young horses for Baffert at the family farm in Ocala, had been asked by him to send videotapes of Silver Charm's workout and his movements around the barn. Baffert, the trainer with the $80,000 surplus from Keeneland, said he might buy Silver Charm if he liked the tapes. He did, and the deal was made, for $85,000.

"We had trouble getting Bob to look at the tapes," J.B. McKathan said, "and we were worried about the deal slipping away. Bob was busy back at Churchill Downs, getting Cavonnier ready for the Derby. He was on the move, and at one point he got stuck in Utah because of a storm that affected the airlines. But we knew that when he finally saw the tapes, he'd be buying the horse."

There was another horse--a filly--Baffert liked in the Ocala sale, but he settled on Silver Charm. The filly was bought by California trainer Mike Mollica, for Bob and Beverly Lewis.

Mollica flew his filly back to California; Baffert put Silver Charm on a van for a four- or five-day trip to the West Coast. Asked Wednesday why he would do that, Baffert sounded like a football coach when he said: "It builds character."

In 1991, Baffert had won the California Cup Juvenile with Ebonair, the first horse he bought for the Lewises. He also won stakes races for them with Criollito, Cavonnier's traveling mate last year along the Triple Crown trail. While Silver Charm was en route to California, Baffert called Bob Lewis, the wealthy beer distributor from Newport Beach, and pitched him the colt. It took Lewis only minutes to take Silver Charm.

"Of course, it would have been nice if I had bought him," Darrell Vienna said. "But I'm happy for the Lewises, because they're good people. I've been behind Baffert on a lot of horses, which is still encouraging, because he buys nice horses."

The McKathans, who are in the their early 30s, presumably received a commission for setting up the Silver Charm deal, and there was a bonus for them on Kentucky Derby day.

"We have a mare at the farm named Heather's Flite," J.B. McKathan said. "The day of the Derby, we found out that she's in foal to Silver Buck, Silver Charm's sire."

The two Bobs--Baffert and Lewis--may already be at the front of the line to buy that offspring.

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