Antley knows there's a lot riding on him, too

June 05, 1999|By John Eisenberg

ELMONT, N.Y. -- With Charismatic bidding to become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 21 years today, where does the pressure lie in the Belmont Stakes?

Certainly not on the horse's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. All he can do is watch at this point. Same goes for the horse's owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis.

No, the pressure is all on the jockey, Chris Antley, who has battled problems with drugs, weight and depression in the past decade, and was out of racing as recently as four months ago.

Hey, no one said this was going to be easy.

If a horse has enough maturity and talent to win three races in five weeks, and if he has enough gas left for the final furlongs of the Belmont -- if he's good enough, in other words -- the jockey becomes the human variable that makes or breaks the Triple Crown bid.

That can be a good thing, or not such a good thing.

Spectacular Bid was a deserving Triple Crown horse who lost the 1979 Belmont when his jockey, Ronnie Franklin, asked him to run too soon. Bid tired and wound up third behind two inferior horses.

A similar problem may have foiled Real Quiet's bid a year ago, with Kent Desormeaux repeating Franklin's mistake in the Belmont. Real Quiet blew a lead down the stretch and lost by a nose.

It's up to Antley, 33, to have a cooler head in hot circumstances.

The pressure on him could fade if Charismatic proves clearly superior to the rest of the field today, or, on the other hand, if it turns out the colt just isn't good enough.

In those cases, there's nothing Antley could do to change the outcome.

Numerous Triple Crown bids have failed because the horse ultimately lacks the talent, or because his unalterable racing style is wrong for the Belmont -- those that tend to move early can't sustain a kick in the Belmont, run at the marathon distance of 1 1/2 miles.

Charismatic could be one of those that's just not good enough; his record of five wins in 16 starts certainly isn't up to Triple Crown standards, and, as superbly as he ran in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he did run in a claiming race just four months ago.

He also might be one of those with the wrong style for the Belmont; his strong, second-turn moves in the Derby and Preakness could leave him out of gas in the final furlongs of a longer race.

But let's face it, his challengers today are weak other than Silverbulletday and Menifee, and whatever he was before the Derby, he's a quality horse now, big and strong and, according to Lukas, capable of running all day.

He's also bred for the Belmont, as a great-grandson of Secretariat, who won here by 31 lengths.

There's every reason to believe Charismatic will be in the running today, at the very least. It'd be a surprise if he didn't mount a strong challenge.

Hello, Antley. That means it's up to you, guy.

"I want to make sure I'm focused when I reach the paddock [before the race]," he said earlier this week. "This is history. That's pretty scary."

His comeback from personal problems has become a feel-good story rivaling Charismatic's up-from-nowhere tale, but Desormeaux had a similar story last year and it crashed in the Belmont.

Of course, Desormeaux wasn't the first jockey confounded by the Belmont, which baffles riders because they race so seldom over the ultra-long distance.

How to conserve a horse, gauge the pace, make a move and follow rivals are just several of the common racing factors that are different in the Belmont.

"It's a race like no other," Lukas said.

"And they all stagger home in the end," said trainer Bob Baffert, who trains Silverbulletday.

Having a capable, experienced jockey such as Jerry Bailey or Pat Day obviously is an advantage in such circumstances.

Antley doesn't quite fall into that category even though he's a huge natural talent who has won tons of major races, including two Derbys.

But let's face it, he was out of the game for 18 months until just recently, and that and his various problems over the years have some observers wondering about his overall dependability and his ability to come through in these circumstances.

According to a Belmont diary Antley himself is writing in the New York Post, he left his wallet at a gas station late Wednesday night with his credit cards and two paychecks in it, then came down with a sudden cold Thursday afternoon and blew off a major radio interview.

None of that has anything to do with his ability to guide Charismatic to the finish line, and he was fine again yesterday, but it does make you wonder.

It's hard not to root for the guy, of course. He's an upbeat personality who is popular with his fellow jockeys, and he's had all sorts of problems, the kind that would bring down most folks. Now, suddenly, he's standing at the threshold of history.

Lukas called it a fairy tale, and he was barely exaggerating.

"I want so badly to do it for America," Antley said. "But more than that, I want to continue doing it for myself."

He'll have the chance, more than likely. But can he deliver?

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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