1999: Charismatic

Sunday, May 02, 1999
By Maryjean Wall, Herald-Leader Racing Writer
A forgotten horse, a trainer who’d been upstaged and a jockey trying to find his way back to the top combined for one of the biggest payoffs in Kentucky Derby history yesterday.
Charismatic paid $64.60 in a stunning upset while holding off Menifee by a neck, with Charismatic’s stablemate, Cat Thief, finishing third in a Derby run slowly in 2:032/5. The entry of General Challenge and Excellent Meeting became the 21st straight favorite to be defeated. The most recent favorite to win was Spectacular Bid in 1979.
Nearly as surprising as Charismatic’s upset was the return of trainer D. Wayne Lukas to the Derby winner’s circle, and the winning ride by Chris Antley whose career has been checkered with personal problems.
A Bob Baffert day it was not.
Lukas, whom Baffert had upstaged with his stranglehold on the Derby for the past two years, reclaimed his place in the spotlight .
As it turned out, the Derby week belonged to Lukas, for his triumph with Charismatic came four days after the announcement that he’d been voted into the Hall of Fame.
It was the fourth winning Derby for Lukas, taken on the 125th running of the race and before a crowd of 151,051, the second-largest in Derby history. The purse was a record $1,186,200, with a record $886,200 to the winner.
Charismatic’s owners Bob and Beverly Lewis also raced Silver Charm, the first of Baffert’s two successive Derby wins. They keep horses with both trainers.
“Nothing could possibly thrill Beverly and I more than to share this achievement as the owners and one of his clients as he wins the Kentucky Derby for the fourth time,” Bob Lewis said .
But Lewis also expressed his surprise at winning the Derby for the second time with a colt who ran three months ago in a race of much lesser quality, a $62,500 claiming race.
This made Charismatic the first in 29 years since Dust Commander to have run in a claiming race before winning the Derby. His time was the slowest on a fast track since Alysheba’s in 1987. And his $64.60 win mutuel was the biggest since 1940 when Gallahadian paid $70.40.
Charismatic actually ran twice in claiming races.
Lukas said he took a calculated gamble, dropping the well-bred son of Summer Squall to that level where he could have been bought by anyone who had wanted to put up the $62,500 claiming price.
He said he was trying to give Charismatic confidence by racing him against easier competition.
Charismatic was never considered a definite for the Derby until he earned enough money to get in the race by winning the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.
A week before that race, Lukas had made an off-handed remark about how Charismatic had taken to Churchill Downs. He seemed to love the surface here, and not all horses do.
His authoritative win in the Lexington Stakes gave Lukas even more confidence in the colt. But Charismatic remained the overlooked half of the duo Lukas saddled in the Derby. Most people liked Cat Thief, who wound up the fourth choice in the betting at $7.40 to $1.
And many also overlooked Lukas. The spotlight shone so brightly on Baffert throughout Derby Week that Lukas was almost an afterthought.
Baffert saddled three for the Derby, including a filly, toward his goal of winning a record three consecutive times in the race.
But Lukas remained steadfast in his own convictions.
“I hope the Derby winner is a white-footed horse with a gray-haired trainer,” Lukas quipped in the days before the race. And he didn’t mean the silver-haired Baffert.
The white-footed Charismatic who charged first to the finish brought a sense of satisfaction to the trainer and also to his jockey.
Antley had ridden only sparingly last year while battling weight problems. He said his return - and return to the top -was “like a new beginning.”
But he had to ride Charismatic hard to get there. The race, with its nearly full field of 19 starters, was one of the roughest in many years. Answer Lively, Ecton Park, Desert Hero, Adonis and Three Ring all got steadied, bumped or checked.
Antley was forced wide on Charismatic much of the time, but that helped him stay clear of trouble.
In fact traffic problems were partly responsible for keeping Baffert from his record three straight Derby wins. “I knew we were dead at the first turn,” he said. “General Challenge was being jerked all over the place.”
General Challenge’s jockey, Gary Stevens, called it “my worst trip ever in horse racing.
“The problem out there was primarily the pace,” Stevens said . “There just wasn’t any. You had people running over each other trying to get position.”
One of two fillies in the race, Three Ring, got bumped coming out of the starting gate - and then her saddle slipped. She finished last.
The other filly, Excellent Meeting, ran fifth after what jockey Kent Desormeaux called “a horrible trip.” She got pinched back leaving the gate, and then shuffled back.
Ecton Park’s jockey, Robbie Davis, called it “the worst race to ride in that I can recall. It was more like a bumper car race.” He finished 12th.
And Charismatic got caught five horses wide going into the first turn.
Antley got him angled into the middle of the pack in the backstretch, though he was still wide. And he was still four horses wide around the far turn.
Worldly Manner and Cat Thief vied for the lead around the final turn after Valhol had led down the backstretch. Charismatic, closing from third in the middle of the track, was poised for the race of his life at the top of the stretch. He took the lead from his stablemate, Cat Thief, with a sixteenth of a mile left to run while Worldly Manner faded to seventh.
But Menifee was closing so fast from farther out in the track that he nearly caught Charismatic in the final yards to the finish. Menifee might have gotten to the finish first, if he had not had so many problems getting through traffic.
“When I made it to the quarter pole, there was a horrible jam,” said his jockey, Pat Day.
He was three-quarters of a length in front of Cat Thief at the finish.
“I thought we were on our way to winning the Derby,” said Cat Thief’s jockey, Mike Smith. “but here came Charismatic.”

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