Charismatic claims Derby

Antley, Lukas ride 31-1 shot to victory in rough, crowded field

Baffert's entries shut out

Claim-race horse gives trainer 4th Derby win

May 02, 1999|By TOM KEYSER | TOM KEYSER,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The jockey spoke of miracles. The trainer talked of chance. And there you have the story of not only the 125th Kentucky Derby yesterday at Churchill Downs but also every other Kentucky Derby run before.

Dismissed at 31-1, Charismatic survived what jockeys called the roughest race they'd ever ridden to win the Derby by a neck, holding off a charging Menifee at the wire. Charismatic's jockey, Chris Antley, was about the only rider who could say he'd had a good trip.

Gary Stevens was typical. He rode General Challenge, one of Bob Baffert's three horses. Stevens struggled to keep his mount from falling in this 19-horse stampede.

"This was my worst trip ever in horse racing," Stevens said. "You had people running over each other trying to get position. It just turned into a disaster."

General Challenge finished 11th. Baffert's other two, Prime Timber and Excellent Meeting, managed fourth and fifth. The white-haired trainer from California failed in his quest to become the first trainer to win three consecutive Kentucky Derbies.

D. Wayne Lukas, however, jumped back aboard the Triple Crown express, winning his first Derby since Grindstone in 1996. It was his fourth overall. He joined H. J. Thompson, who trained early in the century, as the second-winningest Derby trainer. Ben Jones is tops with six.

"I'd be foolish to stand here and tell you that I thought he was going to win," Lukas said of Charismatic, the only horse in the field who'd run in a lowly claiming race. "There's a song that says, `It's a chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance.' We took some chances with him."

And Antley, the winning jockey, choked back emotion as he described his resurgence from drug abuse and excessive weight.

"Miracles can come true," said Antley, who began his career in Maryland in 1983. "It happened to me today."

And it happened in front of the second-largest Derby crowd in history -- 151,051 -- on a brilliant summer-like day.

All week trainers had fretted over a full field of 20 horses, none of whom had enough blazing early speed to string the field out and provide gaps for maneuvering. When Aljabr, one of the Dubai horses, was scratched Friday because of lameness, it did little to ease tensions.

When the gate sprung open at 5: 29 p.m., 19 horses and jockeys set their sights on the first turn more than a quarter-mile away.

Valhol, the Arkansas Derby winner, led the pack, but not hardly fast enough. As a result, dirt and horseflesh collided at the turn as jockeys tried to steer clear of trouble and frantic horses must have feared for their safety.

"I almost got dropped out there," said Corey Nakatani, Desert Hero's jockey.

"I tried to pick a spot to go through, and the hole closed," said Alex Solis, who rode K One King. "Then I did it again, and the same thing happened."

Charismatic avoided trouble by swinging five-wide around the first turn, and then raced wide in mid-pack down the backstretch. Still wide around the far turn, he began passing horses as most eyes focused on the pair that had overtaken Valhol: Cat Thief and Worldly Manner.

Cat Thief, also trained by Lukas, and Worldly Manner, whom the sheiks of Dubai purchased last year for $5 million, battled down the stretch in what appeared to be a two-horse finale.

But Charismatic continued his assault. He caught the leaders midway down the stretch, then barely held off Menifee, who had finally broken through a wall of horses. Cat Thief held on for third.

Charismatic's time of 2 minutes, 3 1/5 seconds was the slowest for the 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 25 years. The Derby record is 1: 59 2/5 seconds, set by Secretariat in 1973.

The bettors spotted no Secretariat in this field, making the Excellent Meeting-General Challenge entry a very tepid 9-2 favorite. They apparently missed the fact that Lukas had two horses in the race. They noticed Cat Thief, one of seven horses with odds from 9-2 to 8-1.

But they ignored Charismatic, who had won only three of 14 races and even competed in a claiming race in February at Santa Anita Park. In a claiming race, every horse is for sale for the claiming price, in this case $62,500. No one bought.

In recent weeks, however, Charismatic had blossomed. He earned his way into the Derby with a 2 1/2-length victory two weeks ago in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

"I probably misread this horse early in his career as badly as any horse I've ever trained, and I've trained a lot of them," said Lukas, who will be inducted this summer into racing's Hall of Fame.

He said Charismatic, a son of 1990 Derby runner-up Summer Squall, kept gaining weight. So Lukas worked him "hard and fast and long" in the mornings.

But Lukas finally figured out that the horse wanted to race, and that's the way he would stay fit. Lukas found out he had "a big fat horse who wanted to run every two weeks."

Since Christmas, Charismatic has raced eight times. The Lexington was the only race he'd won.

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