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Gold Better Than Silver | COMMENTARY / BILL DWYRE

The Favorite Lost, but the Sport Is a Winner

June 08, 1997|BILL DWYRE

ELMONT, N.Y. — As it turned out, horse racing didn't need the big Hollywood ending after all. Redford didn't need to carry the starlet over the threshold. Nobody had to make Eastwood's day.

By three-quarters of a length, Silver Charm, the sport's new leading man, missed delivering the first Triple Crown in 19 years. By that margin, less than a fifth of a second or about a blink of an eye, the grand finale, a victory in the Belmont Stakes, evaded a sport that thought it needed it so desperately.

But it didn't, thanks to a set of circumstances and a collection of people who turned this potentially sad moment into a happy, if not glorious, day.

When Silver Charm was beaten to the wire by the horse that, on this day, simply had better metal, horse racing did not need to mourn. The loss, of additional history and a $5-million payoff, was substantially overshadowed by large gains in public interest and increased credibility for the sport.

Touch Gold won the race, and did so with one of the nicest backdoor plays ever seen east of Pauley Pavilion. Chris McCarron, with John Wooden-like craftiness, let Free House make the first run at Silver Charm at the quarter pole and take his eye away. And before the feisty gray horse of owners Bob and Beverly Lewis and trainer Bob Baffert could turn his head back, McCarron sent Touch Gold cutting hard to the wire on the outside.

Silver Charm didn't win the battle, but he already may have won the war for his sport. A crowd of 70,680 turned out. That's 70,680 New Yorkers, perhaps the toughest to sell in sports. That crowd was the third-largest in the history of this 129-year-old race, topped only by the 82,694 in 1971, when Canonero II raced, and 1977, when Seattle Slew raced.

"When we were galloping back, I expected booing," said Silver Charm's jockey, Gary Stevens. "You know, you hear these things about New York fans. That was tearing me up inside, because Silver Charm wouldn't have deserved that. Instead, people were cheering and applauding for him. That says a lot about New York fans and what this horse has done for the world of thoroughbred racing."

Baffert, a refreshing and entertaining new face in the world of sports, said, "This was a great race, because Silver Charm showed up. If he had gone out and lagged and finished fifth or sixth, that would have been a disaster. But these people came for a show, and they got it."

Baffert took his children and some of their cousins to the Yankee game Friday night, and got a taste there of what Silver Charm had become.

"I walked in and headed to my seats," he said, "and every row, all the way down, they were stopping me, cheering, asking me if Silver Charm could do it. All the way down, it was 'Go get 'em, Bob.' "

The quotable, affable Baffert is only part of the equation that has made the Silver Charm story so, well, charming. Besides jockey Stevens, always a class act, the Lewises, of Pomona business and Newport Beach residence fame, have managed to say and do all the right things from the moment Silver Charm hit the wire a head in front in the Kentucky Derby.

When you lose $5 million by the blink of an eye, as the Lewises did, anger and bitterness can come easily. But afterward, they met the press and, once again said all the right things.

"This was a magnificent opportunity," Bob Lewis said, "but we just weren't quite there. But how can you feel all that downhearted when you have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and finished second in the Belmont?"

And Beverly said, "We didn't win today, but we have enjoyed every minute of this."

Later, Stevens summed up what he and Baffert felt about their owners.

"Bob and I talked just before the race," he said. "He told me the horse was ready to run, and we just looked at each other and said we'd just let him run and win this thing for the Lewises."

Lest this sound like some sort of overdone love-in, or the creation of some public relations spin-control genius, it was not. These were nice people, owning, training and riding a great horse. And despite the obvious disappointment, no amount of lost history or lost money would spoil the fun, or the warm feeling they got from all of this.

Baffert, perhaps 10 minutes after losing the Triple Crown, introduced Stevens to the press as the "guy who cost my kids their college education." Stevens grinned, and only Beverly Lewis, having a tough time adjusting totally to Baffert's wacko sarcasm, cringed a bit before smiling.

In the end, because of great racing talent--"This is the best three-year-old crop I've ever seen," Stevens said--and some classy people, racing had a winning day.

For those in the sport who wanted to see a perfect game pitched, who felt that only that would start the sport back toward new interest levels, think again. This one was a one-hitter, before a packed house and a huge TV audience in the seventh game of the World Series.

Except in Hollywood, it doesn't get much better than that.

* A RACING OMEN

A four-leaf clover might have been what changed Touch Gold's luck. C14

* CHANGING FORTUNES

Until Saturday, jockey Chris McCarron hadn't had the best of luck in the Belmont. C14

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