Charismatic

I have a friend from college who watches the Kentucky Derby live on television every year. Not just the couple minutes of race time, but the entire telecast with all the padded airtime, most of it while on the phone with her father discussing every shot. Since I went to college in the greater Chicago area, plenty of fraternity and sorority kids made the trip down to Churchill Downs in Louisville to get sloshed and generally pay no attention to the races while staggering about the infield, but I’m glad I know at least one person who actually cares about the races themselves.

Horse racing, specifically the Triple Crown races of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, now resides in a special category with boxing and the 100-meter dash as events that have been relegated to a lower tier of sports. They pop briefly into frame once every so often, and then the surge of popularity dissipates as quickly as it appeared. A once vibrant sport has been reduced in the public eye to three big races, with maybe the Breeder’s Cup as a fourth. From the looks of the interview clips before Charismatic aired, director Steven Michaels gave the impression that he cared about horse racing on the same level as my friend, in the sense of tradition, which is perhaps why this particular entry into the ESPN Films series felt so disappointing.

Nobody needs reminding that Affirmed was the last horse to win the Triple Crown back in 1978. Since then, horse racing has seen a cavalcade of challengers win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to fall short during the Belmont Stakes. It’s happened so many times now that it seems poetically destined to remain impossible, like the Cubs winning a World Series or Tiger Woods passing Jack Nicklaus for the most major championships in golf. Of all the near misses, the story of Charismatic and Chris Antley is the most compelling.  

Other horse racing tragedies come close. Hell, the Barbaro tragedy in the 2006 Preakness didn’t end for me until the horse died on my birthday the next year. But the 1999 Triple Crown season blended an underachieving horse with a recovering jockey, the perfect blend of animal and human interest, rising to a superb underdog story before everything came crashing down by the time of Antley’s death in 2000. This is not the story of Seabiscuit or Secretariat, with athletic perfection or Hoosiers-level underdog victory, but instead an attempt to depict opportunity unfulfilled, talent wasted, and massive bets ultimately lost.

The biggest problem is that Charismatic never really finds its main thrust, caught between showing the drama of the races, the training that led to Charismatic’s success, and the rise and fall of his jockey. Instead of choosing one angle, it flips around through all three. At first, it’s the story of Chris Antley, providing ample backstory of a promising young athlete in the sport who got derailed by substance abuse. He gets out of rehab overweight, and his parents consider pushing him towards another career, but Chris puts the effort in to making it back to the track. His goal is to get back to the point where he’s a working jockey, making steady money doing what he does best. What he never anticipated was that his hunger to return to horse racing and get back to the Derby would line up perfectly with the opportunity that would in turn cause his relapse and catastrophic spiral.

Charismatic was an underperforming horse that peaked at exactly the right time going into his 3-year-old season before the Triple Crown. The horse's unreliable performances led the owners and trainers to seek out someone like Antley, a jockey with proven talents, but a rocky track record who was looking to make a big comeback. That combination proved to be perfect in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Too bad it couldn't last through the Belmont.

Wayne Lukas, Charismatic’s trainer, has never spoken publicly about the 1999 season, the dramatic run to the Belmont, or his opinions on Chis Antley. Other assistant trainers speculate that Lukas blamed Antley for the loss at the Belmont, and continues to do so long after Antley’s death. Whatever the reason, that crucial missing interview cripples Charismatic, making it less than the whole picture of what happened during those months in the spring of 1999. It’s not enough to focus properly on all the details behind the scenes. What’s left is a documentary told mostly by outside observers instead of the people who actually lived the events. Antley’s other jockey friends, agents, and assistant trainers make up the bulk of the talking heads, but the trainer, the owners, and sadly, the jockey, all three major players in the beginning, middle, and end of Charismatic’s career, have no avenue to reflect.

One of the better elements of the ESPN Films series is how it contextualizes the events of the main documentary with other events in sports and current events at the time. I remember the Women’s World Cup victory that summer, and I especially remember the aftermath of Columbine since I was in grade school, but I hadn’t yet moved beyond the major sports and into watching one-time big events like the Kentucky Derby or Daytona 500. Within that context, horse racing was obviously still on a major decline, but doing far better than it is now 12 years later, even more obscure, with fewer near-misses at the Triple Crown collecting dust in the history books to weigh down interest.

Horse racing interests me on a historical level far more than it does as current sports entertainment. The actual story behind Charismatic feels unfulfilled. Whatever the reason for the loss in the Belmont, be it God’s will, an injured horse, bad jockey strategy, or any other excuse, there was a piece missing from the story. The same can be said for the documentary, which pulls it down below the stronger entires in the ESPN Films and 30 For 30 vault.

Stray observations:

  • The first time I remember watching the Kentucky Derby in full was the year Barbaro won and then suffered the catastrophic injury that would ultimately claim his life in the 2006 Preakness. The first time I watched the Daytona 500 was the year Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died on the final turn. I’ve been fine watching those events and others like them since, but something about how traumatic those tragic stories turned out has kept me paying attention whenever I can.
  • I’ve only ever seen horse racing live one time, at the Palio in Siena, Italy. It’s the horse race that gets some screen time in the beginning of Quantum Of Solace. It’s a stunning display. That city really cares about that race for many more reasons than the pride or money of our Triple Crown.
  •  I’ve never been to Churchill Downs. That remains on a sporting event bucket list with a lot of great football and baseball stadiums.