Racing

Champion Thoroughbred Charismatic Dies at 21

Charismatic at Old Friends in 2016. Photo by Laura Battles

The image is seared in the minds of Thoroughbred racing fans. It’s the end of the 1999 Belmont Stakes and as Charismatic’s Triple Crown hopes fade to a third-place ending, jockey Chris “The Antman” Antley dismounting after the finish line. With the colt in obvious distress, Antley picks up and supports the left foreleg of his partner until help arrives. We’ll later learn that Charismatic had fractured his left foreleg cannon and sesamoid bones yards before the wire, and that Antley’s heroics may have prevented the career-ending injury from becoming a life-threatening one.

The life that Antley saved is gone. On Sunday, Old Friends announced that the 21-year-old pensioned stallion was found dead in his stall Sunday morning without any signs of distress. [Update: A hemorrhage caused by a pelvic fracture has been determined as the cause of death, Bloodhorse reported Monday night]

“Right now, everyone is pretty much inconsolable,” said Old Friends President Michael Blowen. “Charismatic’s sudden passing has been devastating to all who knew and loved him here on the farm. It’s heartwarming to see all the love his fans and the racing community had for him. We share their grief.” 

Charismatic was the 1999 Horse of the Year, earning over $2 million in a career shortened by the injury sustained in the Belmont. He had a brief stud career at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky before continuing as a stallion at Shizunai Station in Hokkaido, Japan. He was finally pensioned as an early holiday gift from Japan to Old Friends on Dec. 4, 2016, and arrived back in the Bluegrass shortly thereafter with great anticipation for many years of a well-earned retirement.

Notwithstanding his name, Charismatic had been nothing of the sort at first, but he thrived under the tutelage of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and the riding skill of Antley. The son of Summer Squall and Bali Baby (by Drone), owned by the late Bob Lewis and wife Beverly, had vied in claiming races only a few months before winning the G2 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

Then came the successful runs in the 1999 Kentucky Derby as a 31-1 longshot, and legitimized a couple weeks later in the Preakness. Running as the 3-2 favorite in the Belmont in an attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner in 21 years, Charismatic charmed the lead from the Bob Baffert-trained filly Silverbulletday, only to lose it to Lemon Drop Kid.

If Charismatic was a disrespected horse, Antley was an all-but-discredited jockey after collecting 469 wins in 1985 to become the nation’s leading rider. He was known to be a warm and engaging person who had a special way with children, but who also harbored dark inner demons that nearly destroyed his racing career.

A gritty would-be claimer saved him. Antley’s tarnished riding career had been reignited by Lukas’ trust, but more importantly by the horse he came to love. Together they collected wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before the heartbreaking finish at the Belmont which Antley explained near tears in a television interview after the race. “He tried hard, but he wasn’t able to give the people what they wanted today.” He could have said “We”, they were so much a pair.

Antley’s heroics would overshadow the Belmont loss and restore luster to a riding career that perhaps suffered from too much early success as well as to a sport fading from public interest after the golden decade of the 70s. Charismatic lost a Triple Crown and soon after the Belmont defeat, the racing world lost Antley as well.

Charismatic and Chris Antley were inextricably tied together by fate and the racing gods. Separated for nearly two decades, they now are together once again.

And Thoroughbred racing fans are all the sadder for it.

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