For my money, the best rivalry in horse racing over the last quarter century was waged between a pair of California grays. Silver Charm got the better of the rivalry, but Free House certainly had his moments.
Each was a fantastic and durable runner that excelled not only in California, but all over the nation, and in the case of Silver Charm, overseas, as well. While many faithfully followed the exploits of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I was drawn to Free House. Perhaps it was his near white coat, or his long legs, or maybe even his big expressive eyes, but I was hooked. He became one of my all-time favorite horses. With that said, you can understand why I cherish the memory of the 1999 Santa Anita Handicap. Before that eighth and final meeting of the rivalry could happen, though, the two stars had to meet for a first time.
Although both won important races as juveniles, it was not until early in their sophomore seasons when the two would first meet. In fact, that match-up in the San Vicente, was the first of six consecutive races the two would contest together in a span of only four months. That type of intense rivalry, at the highest level of racing, is something that I can only hope will happen again someday.
Free House, trained by Paco Gonzalez and owned by John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, ran second to Silver Charm in that edition of the San Vicente, but he would soon gain a measure of revenge when he turned the tables on his new rival in the San Felipe Stakes. Their third meeting in a Kentucky Derby prep came in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Silver Charm ran a bang-up race on the front end, but could not hold off the determined run of Free House. Heading to Louisville, the rivalry saw Free House with a 2-1 edge.
Of course, we all know what happened from there, as Silver Charm won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in tenacious style. Free House, meanwhile, ran a very good race, holding on for a clear third against a loaded 1997 Kentucky Derby field. When they met two weeks later, the result was one of the best races this lifetime fan has ever seen.
I must admit, while most cheered on the continued Triple Crown quest of Silver Charm, the narrowest of defeats for my personal favorite in the Preakness stung quite a bit. He ran too good to lose that afternoon at Pimlico, but then again, so did the winner, not to mention Captain Bodgit and Touch Gold.
Silver Charm would take his third straight over Free House when he surged away from him in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes. Full glory would not be his, though, as for the only time in the rivalry, neither Silver Charm nor Free House won the race, due to a spirited late rush by Touch Gold.
After one of the more memorable Triple Crown sequences of my lifetime, the two outstanding rivals would go their successful and separate ways for the most part, with only two more meetings over the next two years.
Their paths crossed again in the fall of 1998, when my guy was second behind an impressive victory of Silver Charm in the Goodwood. That was it for the rivalry in their four-year-old seasons, but Free House would get one more chance the following year.
It was the Big Cap, and it was vintage Free House. It was also the final act of one of the greatest rivalries of modern racing. Like Captain Bodgit and Touch Gold of that great Triple Crown series, this Santa Anita Handicap also brought in another very talented horse to the Silver Charm and Free House show, in the form of Event of the Year. The three would treat fans to a most memorable edition of the Big Cap.
Chris McCarron let Free House do his thing on the lead, and he proved impossible to catch, despite constant pressure. As longshot Dr Fong finally dropped away, Event Of The Year fired his best shot, but it wasn't good enough. Silver Charm's relentless late rally would also fall short this time. Free House was as game as could be in winning by a half-length. It was one of his biggest career victories in his second to last career race. Enjoy.