In my past blogs, I have written about a couple of my favorite spectator sports, the NFL, and professional wrestling. I have even blogged about my favorite rock band, KISS. I love the action, the excitement, and even the drama.
Trust me. The off the field stuff in the NFL rivals what the so called Creative Team in WWE puts out on both Raw and Smackdown. Drama over the QB controversies, trades, trash talking by players and coaches, and even post game handshakes just give me enough entertainment to enjoy that I almost don’t even NEED to turn on Raw, and put up with Johnny Laryngitis. Trust me. I had more fun watch Gene Simmons and his girlfriend of 28 years, Shannon Tweed getting married, then I did watching poor Jim Ross getting humiliated for the 1000th time.
All this being said, I have yet to blog about my all time favorite sport. It is the sport known as the “Sport of Kings.” I am talking about thoroughbred racing. I am a horse lover. I have been a fan of the sport since I was about 8. The first sports hero, or any hero I ever had was a racehorse named Seattle Slew who won horse racing’s Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes) in 1977, and was undefeated to boot. Just loved him as he was bought for 17,000 by this couple and their partners from Seattle. Back then, 17 grand was very small for a yearling. Seattle Slew went on to be one of the greatest horses ever, both on the track, and at stud.. My all time favorite racehorse is a horse that came along as a three year old the following year in 1978, a horse named Alydar. Unfortunately for him, a horse named Affirmed was born in the same year (1975), and the two met 10 times between their two year old and three year old campaigns, including all three Triple Crown races. Affirmed won 7 , including the Triple Crown, and Alydar won 3. Alydar became the first and only horse, so far, to have finished 2nd in all 3 Triple Crown races. Their head and head battle in the 1978 Belmont is legendary. Since 1978, no horse since Affirmed has yet won horse racing’s Triple Crown.
This leads me to the subject of this blog. Yesterday, ESPN FILMS debuted their new film, an hour long documentary called “Charismatic, ” directed by Steve Michaels. Michaels is the son of sportscaster Al Michaels (known famously for the “Do you believe in miracles??” “Yes!” lines at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics when the US Hockey Team beat Russia.). The story covers the comeback of the late jockey, Chris Antley who spent 1998 in drug rehab, and a horse named Charismatic, who despite being trained by one of the best trainers in the business, D. Wayne Lukas, and owned by the late Bob and Beverly Lukas who were two of the most prominent owners in racing at that time was
described as fat and lazy. The horse was so mediocre on the track, that a couple of months before the 1999 Derby, he was put in claiming races. Former Jockey great and friend Gary Stevens, and two of Lukas’ assistants at the time, and Antley’s dad, and his then agent tell the story of the unlikely pairing of jockey and horse, and how Antley and Charismatic took the racing world by storm and won the 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to lose the Belmont where Charismatic broke down, and Antley saved the horse’s life.
I thought the documentary was very well done, and very touching. I nearly cried a few times. It starts where former jockey Gary Stevens talks about Chris Antley’s demons getting to him as he became a very successful jockey. A narrator also highlights some of Chris Antley’s big races, one being his first Derby win on Strike the Gold in 1991 (my personal favorite Derby). The pressures of being in the racing business is brought up, and it is very tough for a young jockey like Antley who showed brilliance as a rider. Unfortunately, according to his parents, and Stevens, Antley caved into his demons. First Antley was suspended, but then folks didn’t trust him, and he wound up in rehab. His mom said he wanted to stay there as he felt he wasn’t being judged.
His dad discusses how when Antley came out that Antley’s weight ballooned to 147 pounds. Despite his mom’s trepidation, Antley lost the weight, and went back to races. In the meantime, the documentary covers Charismatic’s issues. The film goes into how good a horseman Wayne Lukas was via interviews with his assistants. The films goes into how the horse was fat and lazy and didn’t show much, until Charismatic ran in claiming races. Charismatic’s run in the Santa Anita is shown, and his win in the Lexington is show with the great Jerry Bailey up. The film then discusses how a lot of people thought the horse was a fluke, and how he had different riders on him, and only won 3 of 14 starts. The documentary revealed that people didn’t think Lukas could get a top jockey like Chris McCarron to commit to the horse.
In the meantime, Chris Antley was building up his business. He was getting former clients to trust him again, and his former clients were trusting that he would show up for his mounts. The film talks about his desire to be in the Kentucky as he said that in his last experience, he was “messed up.” Antley was approached to ride Charismatic and jumped at the chance. Gary Stevens reveals that Antley took the red eye from California to ride in the Derby. Antley told Stevens he was going to win. Stevens said “Yeah right. Good luck.”
Well, when the gates opened on that first Saturday in May of 1999, and the horses got to the top of that long stretch at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY, Charismatic made his one big move from mid pack, and had a slight neck and neck battle with Cat Thief (also trained by Lukas), and wound up (holding off a hard charging Menefee) with the blanket of roses. Charismatic’s odds were 30-1. Two weeks later in the Preakness, there were still non believers as Charismatic went off at odds of 8-1. Well, the horse won the Preakness even easier than he won the Derby. The horse and his jockey had developed a following,and it was on to the Belmont.
The document did a good job covering the high pressure atmosphere that Antley faced going into the Belmont Stakes. The race is run at Belmont Park, in Elmont, NY out on Long Island. New York is a very tough place as far as being a celebrity, or being an athlete. If you ask a fan of any of the teams who play in that area be it the NY Yankees, the Mets, the Jets, the Giants, the NY Islanders, the Rangers, etc. If any of those teams LOSE, boy do the NY Media go bananas. Imagine how it must be for a jockey like Chris Antley who just came out of drug rehab the year prior who is going to ride a horse going for the Triple Crown. The three weeks of pressure had to be hard on him. Chris’ psyche was a concern for trainer Wayne Lukas who was concerned that Antley was not focused. Lukas was thinking of a jockey change, and asked the Lewises who owned Charismatic about the idea of a jockey change. Bob Lewis, ever the standup guy, wanted to stick with Antley. There was news going around that Antley was missing appearances, and may have relapsed. Antley denied he had relapsed and said he was sick and was taking cough syrup. Gary Stevens and Antley’s agent were thinking that it was possible that Antley had relapsed. Lukas got a report that the night before, Chris Antley had been partying. It was a concern to Lukas, but he didn’t make the jockey change.
Well, now we are at the Belmont Stakes. Champion trainer Bob Baffert had entered the top 3 year old filly that year, Silverbulletday in the race. When the gates opened, surprisingly, Silverbulletday went to the front, and took the lead. What was even more surprising, and to the dismay of Wayne Lukas, and his assistants, Chris Antley took up the chase. Charismatic’s usual style of running was settling around mid pack or so, and then he would make a huge run at the end. The pace got really fast, and in mid stretch, Charismatic took the lead for a brief moment, but two horses went by him, Lemon Drop Kid, and Vision and Verse. Lemon Drop Kid would wind up being the winner by a head over the long shot “Verse,” and Charismatic’s dream of a Triple Crown went down the tubes.
However, that was not the end. Charismatic had broken down around the 8th pole, and after the race, Chris Antley pulled him up right away. Dr. Larry Bramlage, a top veterinarian said that Antley had saved the horse. If Antley had not pulled the horse up when he did, the horse would have had to have been euthanized as a lot of times, the bone would have pierced the skin, and the vets would not have been able to get antibiotics to the area due to lack of circulation. However, according to the documentary, there were some, according to Lukas’ assistants who felt it was the way Antley rode the horse that caused Charismatic’s injury. Wayne Lukas to this day feels that Antley’s ride caused the horse to break down. The theory behind this is that instead of riding the horse the way the horse usually runs (stalking the pace and then making the big run at the end), Antley got the horse in a speed duel with Silverbulletday, and that caused the breakdown. After the race, Antley was very distraught. Eventually, he would continue to ride top horses such as River Keen per the documentary.
However, due to a knee injury, and his desire to be married and have a family, and some hard feelings about Charismatic, Chris Antley retired in March 2000. He and his wife (she appears in the documentary) have a daughter together. Sadly, according to his wife, his demons seem to take over. Tragically, on December 2, 2000, Chris Antley is found all bloodied up. The firemen tried to revive him, but it is no use. Antley was dead. At first, police thought it was a homicide, but further investigation revealed it was a drug overdose. Gary Stevens then talks about how he still misses him.
My thoughts: I thought this was a very well done documentary. Watching all the footage brought back a lot of memories, and a lot of sadness. I hate seeing a talented guy like Chris Antley throw his life away due to drugs. From watching the film, it is quite obvious that he was a young man who effected a lot of people. He seemed to be a fun guy. I guess the trappings of fame hits people differently. I know fellow horse fans who love Charismatic. From watching the documentary, one can see why. For me, this triple crown series is a bit more sad for me when I think about it. Eight days after Charismatic’s Preakness triumph, WWE wrestler Owen Hart died tragically in that accident at Over the Edge.
As for why Charismatic broke down, let me start with Wayne Lukas. I could write a blog about my disdain for Lukas. In a nutshell, I admit he is an awesome trainer. The guy has had a lot of success as a trainer. As the documentary said, he trained ten winners of Triple Crown races. He has trained a ton of champions. However, the guy is just one of the most arrogant people in the sport. I find him to be callous. He treats horse racing like a business. Quite a few of his horses break down on him. Let’s put it this way. If you look at his track record, there is a reason he rarely had a horse that he started training as a 2 year old, that raced past 3. I mean, for Wayne Lukas to put the blame for Charismatic’s breakdown on Antley is just ludicrous. I mean, the horse took a bad step. Period. The break down was going to happen. Should Chris have ridden the horse like the horse normally runs? Yes. However, Chris’ ignoring instructions had nothing to do with the break down. You should be thanking Chris, and not condemning the guy.
Overall, I totally recommend this documentary. Jockeys, heck, everyone who works in the racing industry, are under incredible stress and strain to perform at their best. They are very much like top NFL players, NBA players, etc in that they have to answer to tough bosses, and have to constantly perform at a high level. The film shows the ups and downs of the sport of racing. However, and this is what is at the heart of the film, the film shows that what is so wonderful about the Sport of Kings is that even the underdog can triumph, and touch people’s hearts.
Chris Antley aboard Strike the Gold in the 1991 Kentucky Derby (Pink silks)
Chris Antley aboard Charismatic in the 1999 Kentucky Derby (Green and Yellow Silks)
Chris Antley aboard Charismatic in the 1999 Preakness Derby (Green and Yellow Silks)
(at 6:45 mark)
Chris Antley aboard Charismatic in the 1999 Belmont Stakes (Green and Yellow Silks)
Dr. Larry Bramlage and Chris Antley discussing the Belmont Aftermath
Terri Bey currently blogs for CamelClutchBlog.com about Wrestling, NFL, and other sports/pop culture related subjects. Her work has appeared in BleacherReport and for F4WOnline.com. Terri can be found here at Facebook- http://www.facebook.com/TerriBey and at Twitter- http://www.twitter.com/missedgehead
ESPN Films 30 For 30: Charismatic DVD