For 18 years, I was the Communications and Marketing Director at Three Chimneys and had the honor of helping welcome 1997 Kentucky Derby Silver Charm to his new home in July of 1999. I was so “taken” with him and the experience that I sat down late in the day after he arrived and wrote the following. This week marks the first Kentucky Derby since his return to the United States from Japan, his trainer (Bob Baffert) has the two favorites for this year’s race (American Pharoah and Dortmund), and Charm’s reunion with Gary Stevens will be part of the Derby coverage, so Lyra thought you’d enjoy the following….
It’s exciting anytime a new stallion arrives at the farm… a new career for him, a new patriarch for us. The Sallee Van pulls up, the big door is opened, the ramp extended and the new kid on the block takes his first tentative or, sometimes, aggressive steps on to Three Chimneys soil.
But this time was different. I wasn’t a part of Three Chimneys when Seattle Slew arrived, so nothing had prepared me for this day.
We didn’t have much time to ready a red carpet for Silver Charm. We only learned late Sunday afternoon that he would be arriving between 1:30 and 2:00 the next afternoon – Monday of the July Sales. The other members of the Three Chimneys team covered for me at the sales and I went to the office Monday morning to fax notice to the local media that the Third Leading Moneywinner in history would be arriving in Midway in less than five hours.
For good measure, I sent the notice to friends of the farm I knew we would love to share this exciting moment with. There wasn’t time for many phone calls, but one went out to Tony Leonard since it would not, after all, be an event without Tony! And we passed the word around the farm that “Charm” was on his way to take his place at the Stallion Barn.
It seemed awfully quiet. At 1:00, two photographers had arrived. At 1:15 another photographer drifted in and a television crew had pulled up, and I made my way to the Stallion Barn. At 1:20, here came four cars full of Three Chimneys employees, six or seven clients who were in town for the sales and there was another television crew that included Camp Three Chimneys alumnus Dick Gabriel. Gee, it was great to see so many familiar faces.
At almost exactly 1:30, I saw Robert and Blythe (Clay) and Bob and Beverly Lewis, their son Jeffrey and his wife Marjorie walking down the sidewalk toward the stallion barn and several more cars with friends and employees had arrived. Just as the Lewises had almost made their way through the Stallion Barn to the courtyard where Silver Charm would arrive, I looked toward Big Sink Pike and there was the van! It had just turned off Old Frankfort and at that moment, I heard a horse call out and realized that was Silver Charm himself. It all seemed like magic, the timing of it all.
I felt like a little kid – or maybe an oversized Tatu on Fantasy Island — but I couldn’t help myself and I practically skipped toward Bob Lewis and Robert, not thinking about the possible rudeness of interrupting their conversation, and just blurted out, “The van’s on Big Sink and I heard Silver Charm!”
More people were arriving by the second, but I didn’t really notice who because my eyes were fixed on the van. Marj Lewis and I shared some thoughts, but I can’t really remember now what we said. I did notice that Jeff was taking pictures, and that made me feel a little bit better…If this event was important enough to them to be taking pictures, maybe I would be forgiven my overwhelming excitement that was probably making me babble idiotically.
The van pulled up to the large loading area and we lined the fence, each wanting a first look. Sure enough, the door opened, the ramp was extended and off came Silver Charm, accompanied by Tom Wade. Notice I don’t say “led by”, or “held by”. Silver Charm’s steps were neither tentative (needing “leading”) nor blusteringly aggressive (requiring “restraint” by Tom). No, they were confident, sure and evenly matched to Tom’s…and so they remained the entire time Charm passed until he entered his new stall.
At the very moment Charm took his first step from the van, Bob Lewis’ cell phone rang. It was Bob Baffert, calling to see if Silver Charm had arrived. Gee, I wished I could be taking credit for some fantastic choreography, but it was all just “meant to be”, I suppose.
We were all sort of hushed and almost whispering to each other as we watched Charm, and you could clearly hear Bob Lewis’ wonderful, mellifluous voice proudly describing for Baffert how Silver Charm “just got here, Bob, and he looks marvelous….he just walked off the van he has his head held high and is so proud….now he’s coming toward us…he’s very calm and everything is going great…gosh, he just looks marvelous” – echoing the sentiments of every single person watching.
Tom and Charm proceeded away from us to reach the courtyard entrance, and then back toward us, down the crushed red gravel walkway toward the Stallion Barn – maybe we did have a red carpet, after all! – lined by people two and three deep.
The crowd had magically swelled to more than 60 – maybe as many as 80 people. I never did get a chance to count. There were at least 15 media representatives, some 20 or more industry friends, every single farm employee who could get away from their tasks for a few minutes – and even six or seven children whose parents had brought them so they could say they were there when Silver Charm arrived at Three Chimneys Farm.
The pair moved as if they had been rehearsing this for days, instead of having just “met” two hours earlier before boarding the van for the trip from Churchill Downs to Three Chimneys. When they reached the Stallion Barn, they turned and posed for the crowd and Charm – head still high and ears pricked forward – surveyed his new home and all the expectant faces and cameras pointed his way.
After a minute or so, Tom and Charm calmly made a circle and returned to pose/survey the crowd. It all most closely resembled a runway model making her requisite “stops” to display herself to the admiring audience. If he hadn’t had those darn leg wraps on, Tony Leonard could have gone ahead and gotten a conformation photo – so perfectly did Charm stand.
The Lewises, by then, had made their way through the crowd to Charm, and Tom spoke his only words before the crowd. He said, to Bob Lewis, “He (meaning Charm) gives me goose bumps.” That gave me goose bumps!
Tom, I should explain, has been Seattle Slew’s groom for 20+ years, sharing the spotlight with the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history. He is a man of few words and one certainly not easily impressed by celebrity — whether equine or human.
The pair stood, and then they took a few steps forward to stand on the grass. Tom let Charm drop his head for a nibble of the good green stuff and then they returned to satisfying the cameras and their public for a good five or six minutes, with those occasional elegant circles so that we might all be reminded of how effortlessly the grey horse covers ground.
Bob Lewis attempted to greet his old friend with a pat, but Charm wasn’t quite ready to share the stage just yet and bobbed his head away. A turn or two later, Charm’s sense of propriety had been satisfied and he posed most cooperatively with Robert and Blythe and Bob and Beverly Lewis. When that duty was discharged, Tom and Charm made their way to the Stallion Barn, and to Charm’s new home, in the stall closest to Seattle Slew’s.
We all crowded into the barn to see how he would react to his new surroundings. One question in people’s minds was, “How would Seattle Slew react to the new kid?” Slew reacted as he often does, when not the center of attention, by turning his back and surveying his kingdom outside one of his two full length doors. I almost laughed aloud a bit later when Charm unwittingly adopted the exact same stance when he momentarily tired of all the people looking at him!
But overall, Charm continued to conduct himself with the utmost of courtesy and professionalism. I began to wonder if he had “read the book” on how one would like a horse to act. When I expressed that sentiment to someone later, they said, “No, he wrote the book!”
We all began to relax, and started speaking in more normal tones. I wasn’t saying much, but instead was taking in all the comments around me. “He’s beautiful….he’s so intelligent…he’s much bigger than I thought he was…man, is he an eyeful….look how well balanced he is…he’s much better looking than I ever realized….he’s so smart the way he’s handling all this newness…look at that head.” The words of Bob Lewis just kept echoing in my ears, “He looks marvelous.” And Tom was right, Charm does give one goosebumps.
Wes Lanter brought out the huge (6 by 4 foot) “Good Bye Card” signed by fans at Churchill Downs on Silver Charm Day three weeks earlier. We all enjoyed the sentiments the people had expressed. I thought of those people and wished they could be where I was at that moment, and see how happy Silver Charm was and what a wonderful life he was going to be leading, and how he would always enjoy being the center of their attention. One had only to look at Seattle Slew, some 20 feet away, and see that “Once a Legend, always a Legend.”
The crowd finally drifted away, and “only” 14 or so of us were left: the Three Chimneys stallion crew of five, the Lewis family, Three Chimneys broodmare manager Gary Bush, Sylvia Folk (the person who would make all those breeding appointments that Charm didn’t even realize he has to look forward to!) and myself – and the two people who were waiting patiently to discharge their duties, our blacksmith Bill Wilburn and veterinarian Jim Morehead.
Wes and Tom went in Charm’s stall to remove the leg wraps from his hind legs. Bill checked the shoes and they led Charm out of the stall to remove his hind shoes. Bill picked up one hind leg and started about his task and we all kept up a steady stream of chatter and commentary.
Bill finally looked up from his work and said, “Are you sure this horse just came from Churchill? No racetrack horse stands this well.” And sure enough, Silver Charm was the perfect gentleman, even though he was standing right in front of Capote’s stall, and Capote was not being so gallant – i.e., he was the screaming idiot some stallions can be when a new boy shows up on the block.
When Bill had the shoes removed, Tom led Charm forward about 20 feet, and one of the stallion men took Capote from his stall and turned him out. Silver Charm never turned a hair as the rude spectator passed by him.
So Wes went ahead and got out the measuring stick to silence our incessant speculation of, “How tall is he?” Wes got a perfect measure of the perfectly behaved horse (if you’ve never seen a horse be measured that is not cooperating, picture a fidgety 3-year-old child being fitted for shoes and you have an approximate idea!) and walked it around for all to see – yes, 16.2 and a “little bit”.
Charm was returned to his stall and he stood cooperatively as Dr. Morehead checked his heart rate and gave him his routine “arrival” examination. That completed, we all reluctantly left Charm to some well-earned peace and quiet.
From time to time in the little bit of the afternoon that remained, I went to the back porch of the office. From there I could see one of the full length outside doors of Silver Charm’s stall. The other stallions had been turned out and Charm was by himself in the barn. Sometimes I would see only the swish of that silvery tail as he stood munching hay. Once in awhile I would see him stroll by the door as he moved from one side of the stall to the other.
I thought of all the goosebumps he had given me that afternoon. …Of all the thrills he had given so many thousands of fans over a 24 race career that netted $6,944,369. …Of all the heart-stopping moments he had given the Lewises and Bob Baffert. …Of the thrilling, exhilarating times when he prevailed when he seemed beaten – and of the times his propensity for close finishes had gone the “wrong” way and deprived the magnificent grey horse of the title of the “Richest Horse in Thoroughbred Racing.” But, on balance, how could one complain?
Yes, indeed….in so many ways….Silver Charm wrote the book.
In 2004, Silver Charm was sold to stand in Japan, with a buy-back clause in the contract so that he could return to the United States upon retirement. We are happy to say the Lewis Family paid for his return to the U.S. this winter, and he now resides at Old Friends Equine, which is open to the public and one of the many area attractions near Rosecrest.
His jockey, Gary Stevens, visited Charm last month and we’re told the reunion will be part of a pre-Kentucky Derby feature this Saturday.
We’re so very glad he’s back in the U.S.