Charismatic's triple threat

Colt's quest for Crown sets a dramatic stage for Belmont

June 05, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. -- When Silver Charm chugged toward the finish line two years ago in quest of the elusive Triple Crown -- only to lose in the final desperate strides -- the sporting world looked up and said: It can't get any better than that.

It did.

When Real Quiet staggered to the wire last year upon weary but determined legs, his lead diminishing in seeming slow motion -- and he lost the Triple Crown by a nose -- the sporting world looked up again and said: It can't get any better than that.

It has.

In the 131st Belmont Stakes today at majestic Belmont Park, a once-outcast colt named Charismatic will try to reverse two years of failure and win a Triple Crown for only the 12th time in history. His story, and that of his human connections, transcends sports.

"We've had a run that only happens in fairy tales," said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of the handsome chestnut colt, a near twin to his great-grandsire Secretariat.

The Belmont also will showcase the filly Silverbulletday, the winner of eight straight on her way perhaps to becoming one of the great fillies of all time. After tantalizing the public by almost running her in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, her trainer Bob Baffert decided finally to race her against colts in the Belmont for the first time.

"In the Belmont you've got two for the price of one," said Baffert, who lost Triple Crowns with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. "You've not only got the best 3-year-old colt. You've also got the best 3-year-old filly. As a fan I'm dying to see it."

So are thousands of others. If not for conflicting sporting events in New York (Mets vs. Yankees, Knicks in the playoffs), fans might set a Belmont record for attendance. In 1971, when Canonero II tried unsuccessfully for a Triple Crown, 82,694 packed Belmont Park.

Still, the most anticipated 2 1/2 minutes of the day will take place at Belmont Park under projected sunny skies with temperatures in the 70s. Eleven horses will attempt to block Charismatic's bid to become the first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978.

Since then six have won the first two jewels but stumbled in the Belmont: Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm and Real Quiet. Whether Charismatic escapes that fate will rest on his ability to sustain his startling transformation this spring.

In February his owners, Beverly and Bob Lewis, tried to unload Charismatic in a claiming race at Santa Anita Park. In a claiming race every horse is for sale for a predetermined price. Someone could have purchased Charismatic for $62,500.

At the time he had won only one of nine races. The Lewises had given up. But luckily for them, no one else wanted Charismatic either.

"We've been blessed with unbelievable good fortune," Bob Lewis said. "And it can happen to you. I think Charismatic really points that out. If you love this industry as we do, you can have a claimer today, and you might surprise yourself and be going for a Triple Crown tomorrow."

For the Lewises, the gracious first couple of racing, this will be the second time in three years they've perched on the brink of history. They also own Silver Charm.

For Chris Antley, the jockey of Charismatic, a Triple Crown would complete one of racing's remarkable comebacks. Lost to the sport for a year and a half because of depression and weight gain -- and earlier because of alcohol and drug abuse -- Antley returned to riding in February.

"I want so badly to do it for America," Antley said of winning the Triple Crown. "But more than that, I want to continue doing it for myself. It's been a long, hard struggle even to get back to racing.

"Maybe my story could be shared with people outside of racing. Maybe it would say to them that anything is possible if you put your heart and soul into it."

And for Lukas, the 63-year-old trainer of Charismatic, a Triple Crown would cap an incredible career that in most respects has surpassed every other trainer. Although Lukas has won 12 Triple Crown races, he has never won a Triple Crown.

With Charismatic, he could achieve it with a horse he admittedly misjudged early on. Until Lukas figured out -- by frequent trial and error -- that Charismatic thrives on long, hard gallops in the mornings and steady racing in the afternoons, the potential Triple Crown winner was an outcast.

"I think I did a helluva job," Lukas said of the training feat. "If that sounds boastful, so be it. But to get this horse to where he is I had to call on 40 years of experience and everything I know about horses."

For others in the Belmont, the race provides rich subplots -- none richer than Silverbulletday's. Only two fillies have ever won this race, and none since 1905.

Since 1926 when the Belmont has been run regularly at its current 1 1/2 miles, only six fillies have even attempted the distance. Two finished in the money: Genuine Risk second in 1980, My Flag third in 1996.

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