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Rivalry Off and Running Again

Oak Tree: Silver Charm and Free House meet for first time since 1997 Belmont on Saturday at Santa Anita.


They haven't raised the decibels to the Affirmed-Alydar level yet, but the Silver Charm-Free House rivalry is getting there. Their seventh showdown comes Saturday, in the $500,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita, and just to make sure the gray 4-year-olds haven't lost track, the post-position draw has them next to each other in the starting gate.

"This is good for racing, that these two will hook up again," said Bob Baffert, who trains Silver Charm. "I'd rather watch a race like this than bet a $2-million pick six."

Last year, in the Santa Anita warmups for the Kentucky Derby and then in the rest of the Triple Crown series, Silver Charm and Free House couldn't avoid each another. But the Goodwood, at 1 1/8 miles, will be the first time they've squared off in more than a year, since the 1997 Belmont Stakes.

"I was afraid it wouldn't happen again," said Trudy McCaffery, who bred and races Free House with John Toffan. "It's great for us and great for racing."

The score is three wins for Silver Charm and two for Free House, with neither horse winning last year's Belmont, when Touch Gold squelched Silver Charm's $5-million bid for a Triple Crown sweep. Silver Charm finished second in New York, and Free House was third.

In the Triple Crown series, 301,257 saw Silver Charm and Free House battle at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park. Counting those races and the three at Santa Anita, these colts have run seven miles, with Silver Charm holding a net advantage of 6 1/4 lengths. Here's a rundown on the rivalry:

Feb. 8, 1997--San Vicente Stakes: The favorite was Funontherun, who ran third. Silver Charm hadn't run in five months, since winning the 1996 Del Mar Futurity, and Free House had been badly beaten in three consecutive starts. Silver Charm popped his stall door while waiting for the start and his co-owner, Bob Lewis, said: "My heart dropped to my shoes." Ridden by Chris McCarron, Silver Charm beat Free House by 1 3/4 lengths, running a 1:21 seven furlongs that tied Ancient Title's 1973 stakes record. The tote board lit up with a generous $7.20 win payoff and Baffert said: "You won't be seeing that again."

March 16, 1997--San Felipe Stakes: Silver Charm was favored this time, but it was his first race around two turns, and Free House, at 10-1 under David Flores, won by three-quarters of a length. As always, Free House made it interesting. "When he makes the lead, he wants to stop," trainer Paco Gonzalez said.

April 5, 1997--Santa Anita Derby: Once more, Free House played his waiting game with the lead, but he and jockey Kent Desormeaux beat Silver Charm and Gary Stevens by a head, with Gonzalez's colt running 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 3/5, fourth fastest time in stakes history. "This is why I call him 'Rubberneck,' " Toffan said. This was Desormeaux's assessment: "He's a multitalented horse, but he gets bored." Sharp Cat, the brilliant filly who was favored at 2-1, and Silver Charm were never separated by more than half a length as they ran the fastest opening mile for the stake. Despite the defeat, Baffert was jubilant. "That's the only time I ever high-fived it after losing a photo," he said recently. "Because I knew that we could win the Kentucky Derby off that race."

May 3, 1997--Kentucky Derby: Silver Charm did win the Derby, all right, but this time Free House was third, beaten by 3 1/2 lengths, and it was Captain Bodgit that frightened Baffert at the wire. The margin was a head. Free House, with Flores aboard again, had gone after the front-running Pulpit early. "The last thing I expected was to be close to the lead," Gonzalez said. "When he gets the lead, he stops. He thinks he's home." The second choice at 4-1, behind Captain Bodgit, Silver Charm was ridden confidently by Stevens, who had been elected into the Racing Hall of Fame days before. "I thought we could take Pulpit and Free House any time we wanted to," Stevens said.

May 17, 1997--Preakness: Gonzalez blistered his brother, exercise rider Sal Gonzalez Sr., for letting Free House blaze a half-mile in :45 3/5 four days before the race. "He was going so easy, I thought it might have been :48," Sal Gonzalez said. Captain Bodgit was favored again, Free House was the second choice and Silver Charm was sent off at 3-1. Those three accounted for the closest Preakness finish in 65 years. No one knew for sure whether Silver Charm or Free House got the head bob at the wire, and Captain Bodgit, from the outside, was only another head back. "We did it!" Bob Lewis shouted prematurely from his box seat. "I don't know," Baffert said. Desormeaux, who had regained the mount on Free House, thought he was a winner 70 yards from the line. "Silver Charm must think Free House is a relative," Baffert said. "He wants to hang around him, he doesn't want to pass. I think when my horse heard that other horse [Captain Bodgit] coming from the outside, that's what made him dig in."

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