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MIKE DOWNEY

Return Has Only a Silver Lining

Even Defeat Can't Spoil Charmed Tale

December 27, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

In the paddock early in the afternoon, Silver Charm's extended family was enjoying a beautiful Christmas day-after. The atmosphere at Santa Anita was agreeably chilly and smog-free. Hundreds among the 39,480 who came to the track for opening day craned their necks, eager for a better look at the horse that had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

The colt's owners couldn't have been happier. They love the big fella. (Their season's-greetings card came signed by: "Bob Lewis. Beverly Lewis. Silver Charm.") It was great to have the 3-year-old back in action, a hundred pounds heavier, a couple of inches taller and a lot stronger than he was June 7, the day of Silver Charm's last race, when he lost the Belmont.

"Hey, would you look at this!" Bob Lewis said to his wife, reading a statement released by the Thoroughbred Racing Assns.

It began: "Bob and Beverly Lewis, known for their strong emotional support and personal commitment to thoroughbred racing, were named Friday as the 1997 recipients of the Eclipse Award of Merit."

No one deserved it more. The award recognized the Lewises' many charitable acts. There is a cancer-care center in Pomona they founded. There is a hot-air balloon, one that gives free rides to handicapped kids, they helped fund. There is a California medical rehabilitation center, of which they are trustees.

"We had heard this could happen," Beverly Lewis said, reading the award's announcement. "How wonderful."

"Here," Bob said to a man who had handed him the release. "Have a pin."

It was a lapel pin--a jockey in green silks with yellow hoops and sleeves. It was the exact outfit the couple's granddaughter, Chloe, wore for a photo in another family Christmas card.

An inscription on the pin read: "Silver Charm, 1997."

This was the year the Lewises celebrated their 50 years as husband and wife, and celebrated the success of Silver Charm, a horse they bought for $85,000. A year ago, a man offered $1.6 million for him. Bob and Beverly said thanks, but no. A few months later, Silver Charm came down the stretch at Belmont in first place, a 16th of a mile away from winning the Triple Crown.

More than a million horses had been in foal since 1978, when Affirmed won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and none had done it since. Silver Charm came, oh, so close.

They gave their horse the rest of the year off. Opening day at Santa Anita was to be the triumphant return of Silver Charm . . . and it was, except for the hitch that he wasn't triumphant.

He went off at odds of 3-10, as if no other horse in the race had more than three legs. Railbirds came to see him and to bet him. Santa Anita's attendance was 28% better than it was on opening day in 1996. A total of $18,081,169.20 was wagered, an opening-day record here. And a chunk of that money was bet on Silver Charm.

Everything went beautifully for Bob and Beverly, the owners. Everything went beautifully for Bob Baffert, the trainer, who admired the "courage" shown by Silver Charm in the stretch, with the race clearly lost. Everything went beautifully for Gary Stevens, the jockey, who rode four winners Friday, as well as Silver Charm.

If only he had won.

"Just like the Belmont," someone said to Baffert.

"No, this wasn't the Belmont, believe me," he replied.

That one cost Silver Charm's "family" a bonus of $5 million and a place in history. This one was just another race. Silver Charm will stick around for the San Fernando Stakes on Jan. 17, the Strub Stakes on Feb. 7, and the Santa Anita Handicap on March 7. This, this was simply a test run.

"I'm just glad that he's back," Baffert said. "It's going to take him a few races. That's the way it is. This is a career just beginning, not a career ending."

OK, so he didn't win. That's the last time Silver Charm asks Santa Anita for anything at Christmas.

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