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THE GREATNESS OF SILVER CHARM CAN LIFT THE ENTIRE SPORT OF RACING

It was many decades and many dollars ago, but the Happy Handicapper can still remember the first horse race he ever saw on television.

It was sometime in the early 1950s. He was at a neighbor's house playing electric trains with a friend when the dad turned on the round-screen, black-and-white Zenith set and started yelling and screaming and snapping his fingers.

He can't recall the name of the race but he never forgot the name of the winner. It was Native Dancer.

Back then, before horse racing became almost electronically invisible, Native Dancer was -- as Newsweek magazine put it -- a "matinee idol." He probably did as much to sell TV sets as Milton Berle and Lucille Ball.

Not only did Native Dancer win almost every time (21 of 22), but he had the good looks. As a gray, he was easy to see and fun to follow when he came flying from behind.

Flash forward to 4 p.m. today when the Fox Network kicks off its new racing series with the $500,000 Donn Handicap from Gulfstream. (Post time is 4:39 p.m.).

A lot of progress has been made in 40-plus years. The races are in color now, with split screens, microphoned jockeys, instant replays and other technological wonders. But in the end, everybody will be cheering for the big gray horse. This time, his name is Silver Charm.

With the retirement of most of the horses (except Victory Gallop) that he faced in last November's Breeders' Cup Classic, Silver Charm emerges as the perfect made-for-TV hero the racing industry needs in its quest to put the game back on the radar screens of America's sports fans.

Now a 5-year-old, at the age when many race horses reach their physical peak, Silver Charm is in a perfect position to become the sport's biggest celebrity since Secretariat.

He's got everything a potential TV star could want. Good looks, a handsome jockey (Gary Stevens), a chatty trainer (Bob Baffert), personable owners (Robert and Beverly Lewis), and an easily understood goal to shoot for. With career earnings of $6,633,006, Silver Charm is just $3,366,910 short of passing Cigar as the sport's top money winner.

(In case you were wondering, although Silver Charm is the same color as Native Dancer, the horses are not related. As far as the H.H. can figure, their only common ancestor is Fair Play, a foal of 1905 who is most famous for being the sire of Man O'War.)

Silver Charm also could do a lot to help attract new owners into the racing game. Where else can an $85,000 investment (the price the Lewises paid for him as a 2-year-old) yield such a return?

Silver Charm has started 20 times and won 12. The Happy Handicapper has been fortunate enough to see (and bet on him) four times -- two wins and two seconds -- in person. They've all been quite a show, especially in the final furlong.

The first three times came in the 1997 Triple Crown.

In the Kentucky Derby, Silver Charm worked his way through the pack, took the lead in midstretch and held off the fast-closing Captain Bodgit by a head to win $700,000.

In the Preakness, Silver Charm battled Free House down the stretch and just caught him in the final strides for another $488,150. In the Belmont Stakes, Silver Charm beat Free House in the stretch but couldn't hold off Touch Gold, who rallied very wide and won by three-quarters of a length. Silver Charm salvaged $144,200 from that one.

Happy Handicapper's last live sighting of Silver Charm came in November's Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Silver Charm caught front-running Coronado's Quest at the eighth pole and looked like a clear winner before Awesome Again came flying and beat him by a length.

Second place in the richest race ever still was worth $1,024,000, Silver Charm's second-biggest payday after the $2.4 million he earned for winning the Dubai World Cup last March.

Silver Charm has raced twice, winning both, since then. He finished the 1998 campaign (in which he earned $4,696,506) with the Clark Handicap at Churchill and opened 1999 with the San Pascual Handicap at Santa Anita.

According to Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey, when Silver Charm came back to the winner's circle after his last race, Baffert -- who had been worried after the jockey let him fall some eight lengths off the leaders on the backstretch -- yelled to Stevens: "Who do you think you're on, Secretariat?"

Stevens reply?

"He might be better."

Now wouldn't that be something to see?

CHAMPIONS ON FOX SERIES

Date Race Track Time
Jan. 30 Donn Handicap Gulfstream 4 p.m.
March 6 Santa Anita H. Santa Anita 5 p.m.
April 3 Oaklawn H. Oaklawn Park 6 p.m.
May 29 Metropolitan Mile Belmont Park 5 p.m.
May 29 Massachusetts H. Suffolk Downs 5 p.m.
June 12 Stephen Foster H. Churchill Downs 5 p.m.
June 27 Hollywood Gold Cup Hollywood Park 5 p.m.
July 5 Suburban H. Belmont Park 4 p.m.
July 5 Iselin H. Monmouth Park 4 p.m.
Aug. 1 Whitney H. Saratoga 5 p.m.
Aug. 29 Pacific Classic Del Mar 3 p.m.

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