Kentucky Derby (G1) winners carry a certain cachet, but the winner of the 1999 Run for the Roses was truly Charismatic. The memories of the coppery chestnut colt, who slipped from this earth Feb. 19 at Old Friends near Georgetown, Ky., are still fresh nearly two decades on. His arc—a scant two months that spring and summer—was brief, but it was oh so brilliant.
“The response to him has been greater than for any other horse we’ve ever had here,” Old Friends’ Michael Blowen told BloodHorse’s Erin Shea late last year upon Charismatic’s arrival. “I’m sure that’s true because of the story that goes with him—there’s not a point in his story that’s not interesting.”
A son of Summer Squall—Bali Babe, by Drone, Charismatic was bred and foaled in Woodford County, Ky., by Dr. Ben Roach, his son, Tom, and Lane’s End Farm’s William S. Farish. The property where Charismatic was raised is just a few furlongs north of downtown Midway, Ky.
Charismatic raced for Bob and Beverly Lewis, who just two years before Charismatic’s unlikely run at the Triple Crown, had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1) with Silver Charm. The Lewises—who reportedly paid $200,000 for Charismatic as a weanling—were lucky enough to strike the first two legs twice, and smart enough to employ both trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas.
“A lot of owners have a little success and think they know how to run the business themselves. He never made that mistake,” said Kentucky horseman Craig Bandoroff of Bob Lewis in 1999.
An iron horse by today’s standards, Charismatic made seven starts at 3 prior to the Derby, even dipping to the $62,500 claiming level in mid-February. After the Derby a laundry list of people came forward to swear they were going to claim the colt. However, none actually had dropped the slip.
Charismatic started twice in April before the Derby, finishing fourth in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) under Laffit Pincay Jr. and winning Keeneland’s Coolmore Lexington Stakes (G2) with Jerry Bailey two weeks out from the first Saturday in May. Neither Hall of Fame rider took the Derby mount.
After the Lexington, Lukas said: “I thought his best races were when he came back quickly. I’d considered running him in an allowance race earlier in the week. I think the two-week schedule is a plus.”
Two weeks to the day after the Lexington, Charismatic pulled off the surprise under the Twin Spires at 31-1, and he won again two weeks later in the Preakness at 8-1.
His pilot in the Triple Crown was the star-crossed Chris Antley. As talented a rider as any other Hall of Famer, Antley famously had run a 64-day streak with at least one winner in 1989 and had won the Derby in 1991 aboard Strike the Gold, but by 1997 was out of the game.
“I thought my life was over at 30,” Antley told BloodHorse’s Lenny Shulman in the book Ride of Their Lives. “I didn’t want to live anymore.”
Antley rose from the abyss to return to Santa Anita in early 1999. Through fate he was offered the mount on Charismatic, and he got aboard him for the first time in the paddock at Churchill Downs.
“I was numbed out,” Antley told Shulman of his second Derby score. “There was no crowd involved. It wasn’t like with Strike the Gold, where you felt lucky to win a great race. This was more spiritual. That whole journey…I wasn’t even in the game playing. And then there I was. I was so warm inside it made me cry.”
Antley’s compassion made the industry well-up five weeks later as he leapt off the injured Charismatic after the pair had crossed the finish line third in their Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes (G1).
Antley steadied the colt on the Belmont dirt, holding Charismatic’s leg until help arrived. The image is one of the most indelible scenes of our sport.
Charismatic’s light gleamed but briefly upon Antley, however, as the rider again fell from the spotlight. His death just 18 months after the Belmont was ruled accidental and self-inflicted, caused by a lethal combination of four drugs.
Charismatic’s career at stud was stunted, serving just three seasons at Lane’s End before being sold to Japan. Never far from thought, Charismatic was triumphantly returned late last year with help from many in the industry.
Charismatic’s passing comes not more than a handful of miles from his place of birth. A life well-lived often comes full circle