Suddenly a real presence, Charismatic turns on charm

124th Preakness

May 16, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

He left the starting gate as one of the most disrespected Kentucky Derby winners in history, and he crossed the finish line as a short-odds bet to deliver racing's first Triple Crown in 21 years.

That's a real good day.

A horse can't have a better one than Charismatic did yesterday at Pimlico.

Bettors made him the fifth choice in the Preakness at 8-1 odds, wagering more money on four horses he beat in the Derby two weeks ago. Not since 1953 had a Derby winner gone off at odds that high in the Preakness.

Quite simply, no one was buying his Derby victory as anything more than a fluke.

It's amazing how profoundly things can change in two minutes.

After a dominating victory in which he crossed the finish line unchallenged, Charismatic looks like a better bet to win the Triple Crown than any of the six horses that have gone for it in the Belmont since Affirmed's Triple Crown in 1978.

Not that Charismatic is better than Spectacular Bid, Silver Charm or any of the horses that narrowly missed winning the Crown. To the contrary, Charismatic still has modest career numbers -- five wins in 16 starts -- after winning the Derby and Preakness. He's hardly intimidating.

But his timing is fabulous; he has picked the perfect window to find himself and take off.

He's also a great-grandson of Secretariat, so he's a natural for the Belmont.

And, well, there aren't a lot of viable challengers left.

"I would never make such a rash statement as he's going to win the Triple Crown, but I think there's a distinct possibility," said Charismatic's co-owner, Bob Lewis.

The biggest reason is the horse's rapid improvement, which defies all logic. Never has a 3-year-old gone from a claiming race to the verge of a Triple Crown in three months.

"He's just blossomed," Lewis said.

That was even more apparent yesterday than in the Derby two weeks ago. Charismatic made a strong, sweeping move in the final half-mile of both races, but he was challenged all the way to the finish line at Churchill Downs, and he just blew the field away yesterday.

"I think he made a bigger move here," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

That doesn't mean he's certain to make another big move in the Belmont in three weeks. There's always a chance he has peaked.

But listen to this: Lukas thought the horse was suited to the Belmont long before the Triple Crown season started.

"Wayne told me, `I don't know if he's a Derby horse or a Preakness horse, but he's a Belmont horse; he likes to run all day,' " Lewis said.

The Belmont, run at the rare distance of 1 1/2 miles, is a whopping five-sixteenths of a mile longer than the Preakness.

"Earlier this week, Wayne said he thought the biggest hurdle [of the three races] was this one, the shortest," Lewis said. "You can draw from that whatever you care to take from it."

We can draw from it that these folks think they have an excellent chance of winning.

"He has four strong influences of Secretariat," Lukas said of Charismatic's pedigree chart. "I think the gene pool is starting to kick on this rascal. The [Belmont] distance should suit him fine."

Who is going to beat him? There's the biggest question, and it might not have an answer.

The biggest threat on talent alone is Silverbulletday, the fabulous filly who almost ran yesterday. But if Bob Baffert, her trainer, was loath to ask her to break from the No. 14 post in the Preakness, he isn't about to ask her to run 1 1/2 miles. And he's right, that's way too far for a filly.

Besides, Baffert also trains extensively for Bob and Beverly Lewis, and he isn't about to send out a top horse to try to deny his clients a Triple Crown.

Of the remaining challengers, only Menifee, who has now finished second in the Derby and Preakness, looks serious. Charismatic has polished off the rest.

And while Menifee has run two honest races, he doesn't resemble prior Crown-killers, such as Easy Goer, Bet Twice and Victory Gallop. Charismatic passed him easily yesterday.

Not that Lukas is ready to predict a victory, as Baffert did before Real Quiet lost in the Belmont a year ago.

"There'll be some new faces, new surface, new turns, new distance," Lukas said. "It'll be tough."

No doubt. And who knows what might happen in the three weeks leading up to the race?

(After watching a fan stagger onto the track and try to slug a horse during an earlier race yesterday, it's safe to say anything might happen. There were 1,000 security guards on the grounds, Pimlico CEO Joe De Francis said, yet none was awake enough or in position to stop the fan after he cleared five fences or rails -- that's right, five -- to get from the infield to the dirt track. Another embarrassment for Pimlico on an otherwise fine day.)

In any case, it's certain Charismatic will never again face the outright scorn he faced yesterday, when bettors put down more money on horses that wound up finishing second, seventh, 12th and 13th.

He responded to that with the equine version of an in-your-face rejection, a victory that left his superiority unquestioned. And now, as he surely would say to us all if he could, he's 150 seconds from history, and we're not.

Is third time the charm?

This is the third consecutive year the same horse has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and the third time in history that has happened.

Year Horse Belmont

1935 Omaha Won

1936 Bold Venture DNS

1937 War Admiral Won

1977 Seattle Slew Won

1978 Affirmed Won

1979 Spectacular Bid 3rd

1997 Silver Charm 2nd

1998 Real Quiet 2nd

1999 Charismatic

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