There are numerous reasons to explain why a long list of outstanding horses were thwarted in their bid to become a Triple Crown Champion.
Some are predictable; others are surprising.
Premature moves, suicidal paces, injuries, medications, exhaustion and bad trips have all played a role in the Triple Crown drought that stood at 37 years until AMERICAN PHAROAH completed the sweep in 2015.
There was also one odd but utterly revealing reason that spoke volumes about the tenacity and competitiveness of a colt who fell less than a length shy of racing immortality.
The year was 1997, and SILVER CHARM came into the Belmont Stakes seeking to add the final jewel in the Triple Crown to his previous Wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and complete the sweep for the first time since AFFIRMED in 1978.
At the eighth pole, SILVER CHARM led by a half-length over FREE HOUSE, the horse he had beaten by a head three weeks earlier in the Preakness.
But on that June afternoon, after prevailing in stirring stretch duels in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he could not repulse a final surge outside of him by TOUCH GOLD in the center of the track.
“He just never saw that horse,” said trainer Bob Baffert in the minutes after the race. “When he got by FREE HOUSE, he thought he was done. … That’s the only way you can beat SILVER CHARM, if he doesn’t see you coming.”
In the 1997 Derby both SILVER CHARM and FREE HOUSE faced the heavily favored CAPTAIN BODGIT.
In the final furlong of the 123rd edition of the Run For The Roses, FREE HOUSE tired and it came down to a furious battle to the finish line between SILVER CHARM and CAPTAIN BODGIT.
It was jockey Gary Stevens and the tenacious gray runner by a head for Baffert’s first Triple Crown Victory.
Two weeks later in the Preakness, those three engaged in an even more spectacular duel that SILVER CHARM Won by a head over FREE HOUSE, with CAPTAIN BODGIT another head back in 3rd.
Now only the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes stood between SILVER CHARM and racing immortality. FREE HOUSE returned to face him, but a tendon injury ended the career of CAPTAIN BODGIT after the Preakness.
Also running in the small field of seven was TOUCH GOLD, who went to his knees at the start of the Preakness, yet still managed to finish 4th, less than two lengths behind SILVER CHARM.
With a crowd of 70,682 on hand – at the time the third largest in the race’s history – the Belmont unfolded in a strange manner. TOUCH GOLD rushed out and led for the first half-mile. But on the final turn, it was SILVER CHARM and FREE HOUSE who were slugging it out for the lead.
When SILVER CHARM edged away from FREE HOUSE in mid-stretch, a deafening roar shook the grandstand at Belmont in anticipation of a historic Triumph.
But in that final furlong, everlasting fame slipped away. TOUCH GOLD, who had dropped back to fourth after a mile, found another gear and came charging at SILVER CHARM in the middle of the track with a move that caught both horse and rider by surprise.
When Stevens realized what was happening, it was too late for SILVER CHARM to respond with his customary ferociousness. TOUCH GOLD surged past SILVER CHARM in the final 50 yards to Win by three-quarters of a length.
Years later, Gary Stevens still feels the pain of such a jarring turn of events.
“The disappointment I felt two strides from the Finish Line was the most disappointing moment of my life,” he told the Associated Press in 2012. “And there’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about that.”