Remembering the 1997 San Vicente – the beginning of a terrific rivalry

Profile Picture: James Scully

February 11th, 2016

Monday’s San Vicente (G2) at Santa Anita will have serious Kentucky Derby implications due to the presence of Nyquist and Exaggerator. The 7-furlong event isn’t part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series – the qualifying races are all held at a mile or longer – but we can expect to see Nyquist and Exaggerator play a significant role in upcoming scoring preps.

Champion 2-year-old Nyquist makes his first appearance since capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), overcoming a wide trip to improve his mark to 5-for-5. The Uncle Mo colt has the same connections of 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another – owner Reddam Racing, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez.

Exaggerator stamped himself as one to watch when capturing his stakes debut, the Saratoga Special (G2) last August. The Curlin colt missed some training time afterward, returning with a runner-up in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), and finished a close fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before concluding his 2-year-old season with a commendable tally in the Delta Jackpot (G3). Three-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux rides for his brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux.

Kentucky Derby winners Swaps (1955), Lucky Debonair (1965) and Majestic Prince (1969) all prepped in the San Vicente, but the race hasn’t been relevant to the Triple Crown since 1997. That’s when a pair of up-and-coming titans, Silver Charm and Free House, met for the first time.

What a rivalry it turned out to be.

After breaking his maiden the second time out in late August, Silver Charm captured the Del Mar Futurity (G2) but the gray son of Silver Buck headed to the sidelines afterward, returning from a five-month layoff in the San Vicente.

Free House, a California-bred gray by Smokester, also won his stakes bow, the Norfolk (G2) in early October, but he recorded three straight unplaced finishes in the California Cup Juvenile, Hollywood Futurity (G1) and Golden Gate Derby before entering the San Vicente.

Silver Charm, who was coupled with Esteemed Friend, left the San Vicente starting gate as the 5-2 second choice for Bob Baffert. The Paco Gonzalez-trained Free House was overlooked at 13-1.

Silver Charm settled into a perfect stalking trip along the inside down the backstretch and cut the corner into contention leaving the far turn.

Free House broke a step slowly and after rushing forward, appeared to idle while being caught wide entering the stretch.

Silver Charm took a commanding lead in midstretch and rolled to a 1 ¾-length decision, but Free House regained his momentum late and closed well to be a clear second. Thoroughbred racing fans had no idea what was coming next.

Free House showed more speed than his foe in the San Felipe (G2) five weeks later, holding a rallying Silver Charm safe by three-quarters of a length on the wire. They switched roles once again in a thrilling rendition of the Santa Anita Derby (G1) – Silver Charm was on the lead from the start and battled determinedly with Free House through the stretch before being overhauled in the final jumps by a head.

Free House contested the pace in the Kentucky Derby before weakening to third, with Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit delivering a spine-tingling finish, and the Preakness turned out to be one for the ages, with Free House taking a one-length lead into the stretch before hooking up in a three-horse cavalry charge to the wire, with Silver Charm getting up by a head over Free House, who was in turn a head better than Captain Bodgit.

The protagonists were once again in a prime position to strike in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes, but Touch Gold came charging late to ruin Silver Charm’s Triple Crown bid. Free House finished another length back of Silver Charm in third.

Beginning in early February with the San Vicente, Silver Charm and Free House squared off against each other in six straight starts, with the scorecard favoring Silver Charm 4-2.

The duo met twice more after the Triple Crown, with Silver Charm winning the 1998 Goodwood (G2) and Free House taking the 1999 Santa Anita H. (G1).

They retired with more than $10 million in earnings between them.

Nyquist and Exaggerator will be meeting for the second time in Monday’s San Vicente and we can only hope there will be many more to come.

Silver Charm-Free House photo from the 1997 Preakness courtesy of Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun