Only rare horses need apply as Triple Crown champions

Charismatic is latest to face supreme test of talent, patience, luck

June 03, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. -- On a hot and steamy morning at historic Belmont Park, Charismatic walked off a large, shiny van and stepped onto New York soil yesterday for the first time in his life.

A striking chestnut one victory from history's embrace, Charismatic entered the unknown attempting to do the near-impossible. On Saturday, in the 131st Belmont Stakes here at Belmont Park, Charismatic will try to sweep the Triple Crown, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont the same year.

"This is one of the greatest things in sports, the Triple Crown," said Alex Hassinger Jr., the trainer of Patience Game, one of the dozen Belmont entrants.

It is so great because it is so rare. Only 11 horses have done it, none since Affirmed in 1978.

Winning all three races in a span of five weeks at tracks in three states requires a horse with not only talent and good health, but also resilience and good luck. He must, for starters, be blessed with calm and competent handlers; trainers and jockeys have cost even the greatest horses victories.

And then, the horse must not bruise his foot on a pebble. He must not cough, wear down or unduly fidget. Most important, he must constantly adapt to a litany of strange and intimidating situations despite his immaturity at this stage as a 3-year-old -- he is roughly the equivalent of a college student -- and his instinct to flee from the unfamiliar.

"Horses don't handle change; they never have," said D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Charismatic. "They handle regimentation, being in the same spot doing the same thing at the same time every day. The other thing they don't handle is tension and excitement."

The Triple Crown trail is fraught with nothing if not change, tension and excitement.

Charismatic has ridden in vans and flown in planes. Since April 3, he has raced at four tracks in front of thousands of screaming spectators and lived in four barns under the care of varying sets of faces and hands. The Belmont will be his fifth race in nine weeks.

"He's from the old school," Lukas said. "He's got that rare constitution for this."

Top horses raced that often decades ago, but rarely today. Also, Charismatic relishes training in the mornings, galloping as far as two miles under restraint from his exercise rider, Joanne McNamara.

"It takes him awhile just to get rolling, but once he does he gets into it, he thrives on it," McNamara said.

Charismatic responds to his rider and reacts calmly around the barn.

"He's not a horse that gets nervous or frets," McNamara said. "He's one of those happy horses that likes to be out and about."

A horse with the temperament of Charismatic -- a horse intent on the Triple Crown -- must possess the ability and strength to overcome this grueling stretch of races.

A trainer of horses for four decades, Lukas has won 12 Triple Crown races, but never all three the same year. Although this is the first time he has had a chance to win a Triple Crown, he has participated in enough Triple Crown races to know their pitfalls.

"There's the mental adjustment and the physical demands, and then there's the unknown," Lukas said. "You run three races at distances you've never had the chance to test your horse at.

"You go cold into the Derby, cold into the Preakness and cold into the Belmont. And it's three entirely different surfaces, too."

In the Kentucky Derby, horses race 1 1/4 miles. Until then, they have never raced farther than 1 1/8 miles. In the Preakness two weeks later, they cut back slightly to 1 3/16 miles. And in the Belmont three weeks after that, they stretch out to 1 1/2 miles, a distance most will never attempt again.

"In America, we just don't train for this distance," Lukas said. "It is the test of champions."

Trainer Bob Baffert, who fell just short of winning a Triple Crown the previous two years with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, described the Belmont this way: "They all stagger home. You just hope your horse outstaggers the rest of them."

As if the challenge is not great enough already, the longest distance comes at the end of the grind.

"After the Derby and the Preakness," Lukas said, "you're just thankful for every day of the three weeks going into the Belmont. You're just trying to get their energy back and get them where you had them.

"That's true in all sports. Look at the NBA players, and you can see it. When they introduce them before games, zero in on their faces. Their eyes are all sunk in their heads. They're tired. But they get up, and they get up, and they get up."

And that's what Charismatic, perhaps that rare colt, must do one more time if he's to join racing's elite: Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed.

The Belmont

What: 131st Belmont Stakes, the third leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

When: Saturday Post time: 5: 27 p.m.

Distance: 1 1/2 miles

Purse: $1 million

Favorite: Charismatic (2-1), winner of Kentucky Derby and Preakness

TV: Chs. 2, 7

The field:

PP ----- Horse ------------------ Odds

1. ------- Teletable ------------- 99-1

2. ------- Vision and Verse -- 20-1

3. ------- Silverbulletday ------ 4-1

4. ------- Charismatic ----------- 2-1

5. ------- Pineaff ------------------ 30-1

6. ------- Lemon Drop Kid ---- 20-1

7. ------- Patience Game ----- 20-1

8. ------- Adonis ------------------ 20-1

9. ------- Prime Directive ------ 30-1

10. ----- Menifee ----------------- 7-2

11. ----- Stephen Got Even -- 10-1

12. ----- Best of Luck ----------- 6-1

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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