Drag racing the hot ticket that fueled Charismatic win

May 12, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Horses of all kinds have won the Kentucky Derby over the years. Fillies, geldings and maidens. Grays, bays and chestnuts. But Charismatic, the winner of the 125th Derby 11 days ago, is the first whose win was made possible by drag racing.

That's right, drag racing -- the sport of king-sized carburetors, not the sport of kings.

What's it doing in, of all things, a Derby story? Did Charismatic train for the big race by sprinting down an oily concrete strip with a parachute tied to his tail?

Uh, not exactly.

But if not for one man's love of fast cars, the colt never would have been at Churchill Downs in the first place.

Not comprehending? Don't worry. It's one of those stories that emphasizes just how impossible racing is to figure.

Mike Mitchell, a well-known California horse trainer specializing in claiming horses -- those for sale when they race -- is the main character in our tale. He almost bought Charismatic after the colt ran in a claiming race at Santa Anita on Feb. 11. Every horse in the race was available for $62,500.

"I thought he was worth the money," Mitchell said yesterday from his West Coast barn. "They have some nice grass races for 3-year-olds out here. I thought maybe he was the kind of horse that could run in those."

Charismatic was no one's idea of a Derby horse at the time. That's why his owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, had entered him in a claiming race. They were ready to unload him.

Purchased as a yearling for $200,000, the colt had won only one of nine starts, and the one win was in another claiming race. He was a good-looking horse with good-looking bloodlines, but he was a bust.

"We'd been paying feed bills for a while," Bob Lewis said. "Once in a while in this business, you have to cut the bleeding and say, `Hey, maybe this is one we ought to give up on.' "

That's where Mitchell comes in. His eyes lighted up when he saw Charismatic entered in the claiming race.

"He was my kind of horse," Mitchell said. "I loved his looks. I knew I could find an owner [to buy him for $62,500]."

Why didn't he claim the colt after watching Charismatic run well in the race and win by disqualification?

"I have to be honest," Mitchell said. "Mr. Lewis gets me tickets to the drag racing championships here. He and his wife are terrific people. I felt bad claiming their horse."

Lewis owns a Budweiser distributorship, and Bud is a major drag racing sponsor. Lewis has a booth at the drag track and gives Mitchell his tickets once a year.

"It's a nice way to watch the [drag] races," Mitchell said. "I was involved in them years ago and I still like to go."

When Mitchell claimed one of the Lewises' horses three years ago, shortly after hitting them up for tickets, Bob Baffert accosted him the next morning.

"Baffert undressed me," Mitchell said. "He said, `How can you take their tickets and then go and claim their horse?' He was kidding, but I started feeling bad about it."

Three years later, his guilt kept him from claiming a horse that went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

His phone has barely stopped ringing since Lewis told reporters the story after the Derby.

"I've gotten so much attention, I feel like I won the Derby myself," Mitchell said.

Not that he would have taken the colt on the Triple Crown trail, as trainer D. Wayne Lukas did.

"That's one thing I want everyone to know," Mitchell said. "I never would have shipped the horse to Kentucky. I saw him as a nice horse that was probably worth the [price] and could race around here. That's it. I never would have taken the shot that Wayne did. He deserves a lot of credit for that."

Lukas shipped Charismatic to the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland Race Course on April 18, even though the colt had never won more than a claiming race. Charismatic won the Lexington in a romp, moved on to Churchill Downs and won the Derby at 31-1 odds.

"It wasn't like I was shocked," Mitchell said. "The move I didn't think should be made was taking him to the Lexington [Stakes] in the first place. I didn't think he was good enough for that. But once he ran awesome there, he deserved to be in the Derby."

Especially a Derby with 19 horses.

The best horse doesn't always win in those conditions," Mitchell said. "It was a good shot to take. And it paid off."

Mitchell and the Lewises laughed about the whole scenario last week at Santa Anita.

"When I was looking to claim the horse, the last thing I was thinking was that he was a Derby horse, much less the winner," Mitchell said. "There was no way anyone could think that. I was just looking to get a horse that might be worth $80,000 instead of $62,500."

He laughed.

"I'm sure glad I didn't buy him," he said. "He wound up being in the right place at the right time. I was so happy for the Lewises."

The Lewises were happy, too, as you'd be if you'd unwittingly traded drag racing tickets for a Kentucky Derby winner. Now there's a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

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