Fate cruel to a horse with so much heart

June 06, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

ELMONT, N.Y. -- The horse deserved better. So much better.

His jockey blew it. His trainer didn't help. His Triple Crown bid was foiled by tactical mistakes.

Then, worst of all, his powerful body failed him.

But none of that kept Charismatic from running with all his heart yesterday in the Belmont Stakes, running after the leaders down the stretch, running until he abruptly fractured two bones in his left front ankle, to the horror of a record crowd.

No horse deserves to be vanned off the track with such an injury, as Charismatic was after finishing third in the Belmont yesterday and failing to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner.

Fortunately, he'll have surgery, a life and a stud career, not the premature end that befalls so many horses injured on the track.

But even given that good news, he deserved so much more yesterday.

Maligned in victory as a former claiming horse unworthy of a Triple Crown legacy, he became a star in defeat -- a star abandoned by luck and the good judgment of others, but not by his own guts.

"He wanted to keep running out there, even though he was injured," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, one of the veterinarians who worked on the colt. "The top-class athletes, whether they're horses or people, they can play with pain."

Charismatic's injury probably occurred in the final yards of the race, Bramlage said, after the colt that would win, Lemon Drop Kid, had passed Charismatic, along with the eventual runner-up, Vision and Verse.

It's highly doubtful the injury cost Charismatic the Triple Crown.

He was cooked before he turned for home.

"I couldn't believe it," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Silverbulletday, the speedy filly that Charismatic pressed throughout the first mile of the 1 1/2-mile race.

Instead of dropping off the pace and biding his time until making a late charge -- the traditional way to win the Belmont -- Charismatic's jockey, Chris Antley, sent the colt to the front of the 12-horse pack, in pursuit of the front-running filly.

The two hooked up in what amounted to a duel lasting all the way up the backside. Their fates were sealed by the time they reached the second turn. Silverbulletday faded in the stretch and finished seventh, eased by her jockey, Jerry Bailey. Charismatic was easily passed.

"I can't believe [Charismatic] ran away with her [on the lead]," Bailey said. "You hate to go eyeball-to-eyeball early in a race. It's tough to go head-to-head that far."

Tough is a nice way to put it.

Stupid is more accurate.

"I thought [Antley] would be the last one up there pressing the pace," Baffert said.

Scotty Schulhofer, trainer of Lemon Drop Kid, agreed with Baffert.

"Was I surprised? Yes, I was very surprised," Schulhofer said. "But I was happy."

A lot happier than Antley, whose comeback saga ended with him joining the list of jockeys who failed to handle the Belmont, possibly costing his horse a Triple Crown.

Not that Antley felt he'd done anything wrong.

"I just let his stride dictate where he was going to race," the jockey said. "I looked up [early] and he had the filly in front of him as a target."

That it was the filly, winner of 11 of 12 career starts, was important. Antley and Charismatic's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had decided not to race from too far off the lead, and the filly was the one horse in the field capable of running away from everyone.

"We wanted to make sure we were in range," Lukas said.

Making sure, they lost their grip on a Triple Crown.

Antley, Lukas, everyone deserves some of the blame. Everyone except Charismatic, of course.

"He's an iron horse," said his co-owner Bob Lewis, "and he was running his heart out today. Then he just took a bad step."

To Antley's great credit, his quick reaction to the injury, just yards beyond the finish line, probably saved Charismatic's life. The jockey hopped off the horse and raised the injured ankle off the ground.

"He bobbled," Antley said. "It happened suddenly. I was holding his leg so he couldn't stand on it. I've had bad breaks before, and this was the best thing to do."

Lewis said, "We should be thankful Chris was the one on the horse. It was marvelous, the way he tried to ease the pain of that horse. Chris can't be given enough credit."

The emotion of the moment left Antley in tears on national television. Only later, after he'd composed himself and learned that Charismatic would live, could he smile.

"Baffert told me not to cry anymore," Antley said. "I'm a crying son of a gun."

Lewis said, "I'm kind of a weeping willow myself."

What the heck, you had ice in your veins if this didn't get to you.

Having entered the starting gate to the sound of a shattering roar from 85,818 fans, the biggest crowd in Belmont history, Charismatic exited in the back of an ambulance, peering out at the crowd, heartbreakingly, from a tiny window.

"On heart alone, this horse finished third in the Belmont," Lewis said. "He finished ahead of many other horses, and he did so in a determined and dominant fashion, and he did it despite the fact that he was apparently already injured."

Goodness, did he deserve better.

Pub Date: 6/07/99

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