Heaven and Hell

With ESPN’s impeccably researched documentary on the wild ride of Charismatic and Chris Antley, titled “Charismatic.” scheduled to air Oct. 18 on ESPN, here is a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most enthralling and bizarre Triple Crowns in history. When it was over it had left a trail of conflicting emotions – both scarred and uplifting.

The 1999 Triple Crown was made up of an odd cast of characters, proving that racing, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. There was Hall of Fame legend D. Wayne Lukas attempting to get a former claimer who had an aversion to winning to the Kentucky Derby. Somehow, a series of incidents brought troubled jockey Chris Antley into the picture. Antley had fallen victim to drugs and eventually a weight problem that forced him out of the sport for several years. This wasn’t Lukas’ type of horse or jockey. But despite the odd mixture of jubilation, reflection, tension, and indignation that accompanied this unholy alliance, here they were attempting to sweep the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t been accomplished in 21 years. Were the racing gods actually going to allow this mismatched trio into the pantheon of immortals?

On the surface, Antley appeared to be an amiable youngster who had proven his riding talents in the early ‘90s, winning the Kentucky Derby aboard Strike the Gold. But his eyes and facial expression appeared more of a façade, concealing some hidden demons. He always seemed to look through you and never at you and his words rolled off the tongue as if programmed by a computer.

This was a far cry from the innocent 14-year-old, who spent a good deal of his time fishing in the pond next to Elloree training center in South Carolina, owned by Franklin Smith, who took Antley in and introduced him to the world of horses and racing. Antley would ride his bike to the training center, where he walked hots and washed out the water buckets and feed tubs. As soon as Smith began putting him up on horses, he could see that the kid was a natural, with the rare ability to communicate with horses. He had come from a broken home and horses were his escape. After a few years, Smith sent Antley to his brother, Hamilton, who was a trainer on the Maryland circuit, and he quickly rose to the top of the jockey ranks. But with success came his descent into drugs. He ballooned to 120 pounds and began taking water pills to lose weight. As he put it, his body “became a sponge and slowly began to take the life away from me.”

But he was determined to change his life around and began exercising his way back to riding weight in an attempt to make a comeback.

Lukas was, well, Lukas; the most successful Thoroughbred trainer in history, with three Kentucky Derby victories already under his belt. Certainly, no one was confusing Charismatic, with only two claiming victories to his credit, to Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch, and Grindstone. But Lukas, who had the more talented Cat Thief heading for Louisville, was on a mission to unleash a hidden superstar from beneath the colt’s layers of baby fat.

Lukas, as always, remained cordial and cooperative with the media, with whom he enjoyed sparring. But a story in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1996 calling him more of a marketer than horseman hurt him. During that time, Lukas referred to the media as cockroaches.

The path that led Charismatic and Antley to the 1999 Kentucky Derby was strange to say the least. As mentioned earlier, Charismatic’s only two victories came in $62,500 claiming races, one of which was on a disqualification, and Lukas and owners Bob and Beverly Lewis were fortunate not to lose him.

When Lukas dropped Charismatic in for a claiming price for the second time on Feb. 11, Mike Mitchell, California’s corporate raider of claiming races was all prepared to pounce on him. Several days before, however, Lewis had given Mitchell four free tickets to a National Hot Rod Association drag race. One of the NHRA participants was sponsored by Budweiser, of which Lewis was a major distributor. Because of that favor, Mitchell said there was no way he could claim one of Lewis’ horses.

Also with his eye on Charismatic was Thoroughbred owner William Wolford, who had been following the colt from his handicapping base of operations in Las Vegas. When he saw the colt entered for a price, he called his Kentucky-based trainer Paul McGee to tell him he was interested in claiming him. As it turned out, though, Wolford’s owner’s license in California had not yet been processed because the person responsible was on vacation at the time, so he was not eligible to claim the horse.

Charismatic continued to improve, finishing second by a head in the El Camino Real Derby and fourth in the Santa Anita Derby before springing a 12-1 upset in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland two weeks before the Derby.

Lukas was hoping to get Laffit Pincay, who had ridden Charismatic in the Santa Anita Derby, to commit to him at Churchill Downs. Athough Pincay decided to pass on the Lexington Stakes to ride in California, Lukas told him he could still have the mount in the Derby.

“Don’t worry about the Lexington, I’ve got Jerry Bailey to ride him, and he’s committed to Wordly Manner for the Derby,” Lukas told Pincay. “We’ll just put Jerry on him and go from there.”

The day before the Lexington, however, Lukas read in the paper that Pincay had accepted the mount on Event of the Year in the Mervyn Leroy Handicap on Derby Day. Lukas immediately contacted Chris Antley and told him, “Watch this horse tomorrow, you’ll like what you see. I don’t want you to come just to ride a horse; I think he’s got a legitimate shot to win the Derby.”

Each afternoon at 3 o’clock on the Churchill backstretch, Lukas would take Charismatic to a small grassy area outside his barn, near the gap to the track, and graze the colt. And each day he could see him blossom and get stronger. One afternoon in particular, Charismatic grazed contentedly, searching out dandelions and ripping them out by the root, as the sun illuminated his chestnut coat, emphasizing his powerful muscle lines.

“Would you believe this horse just ran and almost broke the track record?” Lukas asked, as he rubbed his hand against the colt’s neck down to his shoulder. “Look at him; there are no stress lines at all. He carries his weight like Secretariat. I guarantee you if he were to win this thing, and I know he’s probably nobody’s pick, watch out in the next two, because he’s one of those horses who will come back in the Preakness with a vengeance.”

With Lukas’ confidence running high, he wasn’t about to back down from his nemesis Ronnie Ebanks, agent for Vicar’s jockey, Shane Sellers. Ebanks knew how to push Lukas’ buttons and knew the trainer would never turn his back on a wager if you challenged him. Vicar had won the Florida Derby and was one of the most consistent 3-year-olds in the country. By the time Ebanks was through getting Lukas’ goat by knocking Charismatic, he had coaxed Lukas into a $2,000 bet, Vicar vs. Charismatic, horse for horse.

The following morning, Ebanks stopped by Lukas’ barn to remind him of the sucker bet he had made.

“I’m sure you came to your senses this morning and realize you’re in a financially bad situation,” Ebanks said to Lukas.

“No, no,” Lukas replied. “I don’t catch a soft touch like you every day.”

Ebanks was not about to let up. “I led you right into my trap,” he said. “I got you fired up, and I know if you get fired up, that’s the best time to get you in a bad bet. Let’s get it straight. We’ve got a $2,000 bet, horse for horse, whoever finishes in front of the other. Vicar against…how do you say your horse’s name?”

“Don’t worry,” Lukas shot back. “It’ll be a household name by Saturday night.”

The Wednesday before the Derby, Lukas’ training chores had just ended when Louisville veterinarian Kurt Oliver and his 12-year-old daughter, Libby, paid him a visit.

“Libby thinks Wayne hung the moon and swung the stars, “Oliver said.

Libby had a knack for finding four-leaf clovers and immediately went searching for one behind Lukas’s barn. A few minutes later she came running back clutching one and handed it to Lukas. All she said was, “Good luck.”

Lukas, amazed at the find, tucked it away in his wallet. Just before bringing Charismatic and Cat Thief over for the Derby, Lukas received a visit from Overbrook Farm yearling manager Bruce Jenson, his wife Nancy, and their 9-year-old daughter Kenzie. In 1995, Kenzie, suffering from leukemia, had undergone a bone marrow transplant, spending two months in the hospital.

Before going to watch the race, Kenzie asked Lukas if there was something she could take with her and hold during the race to bring him good luck. He reached into his wallet and took out the four-leaf clover. He wrapped it in paper and stapled the ends, then gave it to Kenzie, who held it all during the race.

Charismatic, with Antley giving him a flawless ride, charged to victory over Menifee and Cat Thief at odds of 31-1.

Following the race, Kenzie returned to the barn, still clutching the four-leaf clover. Kurt Oliver went over to her, kneeled down, and said, “You hang on to that and kiss it every night. Libby is 12, but she’s the luckiest person I’ve ever seen.”

Lukas, who had been elected to the Hall of Fame several days earlier, then autographed the paper containing the four-leaf clover and presented Kenzie with a rose from the victory blanket.

Nancy Jenson said, “I’m just so glad Kenzie is here to see this. Imagine, one little girl picks up a four-leaf clover and passes it on, and another little girl carries it on over. For Wayne to go out and win the Derby and also finish third is very special.”

Charismatic, despite wearing rundown bandages, came out of the race with a burned heel on his right hind leg. “It’s only a little one, we can handle that,” Lukas said.

As the crowd began to file out of Churchill Downs, in a quiet corner of the backstretch, Ronnie Ebanks was getting into his car. Now $2,000 poorer, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “All I can do is pay him and say, ‘Hail to the king.’ He got me again.”

One thing Lukas wasn’t happy about was Antley, high in the saddle, turning toward the grandstand and holding up his index finger…before the wire. He said if Antley did that again he would cut off his finger and put it in a jar of formaldehyde. When Antley showed up at the stakes barn at Pimlico, he told Lukas, “I hope you got two jars of formaldehyde, so I can hold two fingers up this time.”

Charismatic, meanwhile, continued to flourish, and just as Lukas had predicted, he actually was stronger for the Preakness and this time dominated his field, opening up a three-length lead at the eighth pole. He kept a safe margin to the wire, defeating Menifee by 1 ½ lengths.

Antley was nowhere to be found at the post-race interview. He had promised his old mentor, Hamilton Smith, he would ride a horse for him the race following the Preakness and he kept his word. It was after he and Smith had parted company years earlier that Antley became involved with drugs.

“If it wasn’t for the drug abuse he’d be in the Hall of Fame,” Smith said. “He never smoked or drank when we were together, but after I left to go back home he got in with the wrong crowd.”

After getting beat a half-length on Smith’s horse following the Preakness, Antley, noticeably disappointed he had let his friend down, dismounted and said goodbye to Smith, then headed up the stairs to the jockey’s room. Smith grabbed his leg and said, “Good luck up in New York. Give ‘em hell, son.”

Antley finally made his way to the post-race interview, accompanied by his father, Les, and stepmother Annie. Les still seemed in a daze as he tried to soak in all that was happening in his son’s life. Here was Chris, after years of torturing his body, on the verge of sweeping the Triple Crown.

“I’m just so proud of him,” Les said. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to see him come back from where he’s been. We saw what he went through and we’re just glad we could be there for him. He was depressed and disappointed in himself. After his weight problem, all he wanted to do was get back riding, but no one ever dreamed something like this would ever happen.”

When Antley arrived back at the stakes barn, he whispered in Bob Lewis’ ear, hoping no one would hear: “It’s scary, but when I pulled him up after the wire he wasn’t even blowing.”

Once again, however, Charismatic had burned his heel in the race, but it was superficial and easily treated. Lukas was amazed how well the colt looked after so many hard races in a short period of time.

Lewis kept thinking of what Antley had whispered in his ear and his confidence soared. “It’s ridiculous, I suppose, to say this, but I really believe this is a horse who is going to make history,” he said. “He’s going to make some real history.”

As the Belmont approached, Lukas became more and more attached to Charismatic. “I’ve come to revere this colt,” he said. “He’s taken me to places I’ve never been and he’s become very special to me.”

Although Lukas had won every major stakes in America, captured dozens of Breeders’ Cup races, and won an amazing six consecutive Triple Crown races, he had never felt the excitement of being one race away from sweeping the Triple Crown.

The night of the media party, Antley had failed to hook up that afternoon and evening with Ed Fountaine of the New York Post, who had been working with the jockey on a daily diary. No one seemed to know where he was. Finally, it was learned he was back in his hotel suffering from a cold. Because of his past history, the often-used cold excuse set off a warning flare.

The morning of the Belmont, however, Antley showed up at Lukas’ barn at 5:15, just as the sun was beginning to peak through the trees. He was all smiles and beaming with confidence.

“What a beautiful day,” he said. “I bet you see the largest crowd ever.”

He took a long, hard look at Charismatic, who was out grazing, and said, “I look around and I want to take a deep sigh. I remember not too long ago getting up on a morning just like this in South Carolina, taking off running, wondering if I’ll ever make it back. It was like it was just yesterday. Whew, you talk about extremes. One thing about heaven and hell, I’ve been to both of them. If I was attempting to get the ultimate feeling inside, this would be it. This would be heaven.”

But that afternoon would be the beginning of Antley’s return to hell.

As Charismatic drove to the wire through the wall of noise created by the 85,818 fans in attendance, he took a bad step. Shortly after crossing the finish line in third, Antley pulled him up and jumped off. He fell backwards on the seat of his pants, then scrambled to his knees and ran his hand up and down the colt’s left foreleg. Because horses have a very high pain tolerance and normally go into shock after a catastrophic injury, Antley gently lifted the injured leg off the ground to prevent him from putting weight on it and held it until help arrived.

Charismatic had suffered a condylar fracture of the cannon bone and a vertical fracture of the lateral sesamoid. As the scene was being played out, it was as if the life had been sucked out of the once jubilant crowd. Charismatic was led into the ambulance where he was treated with the anti-inflammatory drugs Butazolidan and Banamine and a mild sedative. He was returned to his stall and walked in calmly, then immediately went to his feed tub and nibbled on a few leftover oats. Lukas’ wife, Laura, fed him hay from his hay rack. Equipped with a ski boot brace, he peered over his webbing, nodding his head continuously.

Assistant trainer Joanne McNamara and fellow exercise rider Teri Berwanger stood at the far end of the barn, unable to comprehend how this could happen.

“He was the soundest horse we had in the barn,” McNamara said. “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined something like this happening to this horse. You can’t believe how good he felt jogging this morning.”

The Lewises and their family arrived at the barn and were assured by Lukas the colt was doing as well as could be expected. When Antley showed up, Bob Lewis patted him on the shoulder and said, “Chris, good job of stopping him.”

Lewis began to well up with tears and told Antley, “After watching the film and seeing how you went down and tried to assist the horse and hold him up was just magnificent on your part, and I can’t begin to tell you how proud we are to have you in our association.”

Lewis couldn’t contain his tears any longer. He said to the normally emotional Antley, “You’re supposed to be the one with the tears, not me.” But Antley appeared to be more in shock than anything. His tears had flowed freely while being interviewed earlier on ABC.

At eight o’clock that night, long after everyone had left, over at the barn of the Belmont winner Lemon Drop Kid, Jose Santos Jr., son of winning jockey Jose Santos, had just finished giving Lemon Drop Kid a goodnight kiss on the forehead. The 4-year-old looked up at his mother and said all that needed to be said: “Mommy, guess what? Charismatic is hurt. Poor Charismatic.”

The following morning, Charismatic was resting comfortably as he prepared to undergo surgery later that morning. Lukas addressed a small gathering of reporters, then said, “Well, got to go to work and see if we can find another one.”

Unfortunately, the relationship between Lukas and Antley, which had begun to sour throughout the Triple Crown, hit rock bottom. Lukas said the rider never once called to see how Charismatic was doing and claimed his actions after the race, assisting the horse, were overblown. Whether it was Antley’s demons that Lukas could see beginning to resurface or other issues he had with him, he never spoke to him again. When Antley died, Lukas would not say anything good about him, feeling it would be hypocritical. When the producers of “Charismatic” contacted Lukas to be interviewed, he refused to participate.

The mystery behind Antley’s drug-related death in 2000, whether murder or accidental, was never resolved and became an ongoing story in the national tabloids. The Los Angeles County coroner ruled it an accidental overdose after the Pasadena police initially called it a homicide. Antley's wife, Natalie Jowett, was notified of the coroner's conclusion while she was in the hospital giving birth to the couple's child. The details of Antley’s death are delved into in detail in the ESPN documentary.

Charismatic recovered from his injury and was sent to Japan in 2002, where he currently stands at stud.at JBBA Shizunai farm for a stud fee $2,500. He covered 16 mares in 2010.

Lukas never did find another Charismatic. He did win two Breeders’ Cup races later that year, including the Classic with Cat Thief, and won the Belmont Stakes with longshot Commendable the following year. But he has trained only one other champion -- Folklore -- since, cutting back on his once expansive operation.

The 1999 Triple Crown campaign will be remembered for its three unlikely participants that joined together for a brief moment in time and came within one second and a near-fatal injury of achieving immortality.

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