Note: This post was written on February 19, and the post title was inspired by a lyric from Paul Simon’s song “El Condor Pasa”
I vividly remember the first time I saw Charismatic in the flesh, though it was nearly 15 years ago. It was my first visit to Kentucky, to finally see as many of the horses as possible that I had watched race on TV.
Charismatic endeared himself to me in the spring of 1999 for the same reason he endeared himself to a multitude of people.
He was the classic underdog, a horse who had recently run for a claiming tag prior to his foray onto the Derby trail, a foray that led to him winning the Coolmore Lexington Stakes late in the Derby prep season.
His jockey was in the midst of a comeback when he got the mount on Charismatic, so the underdog horse and the “Comeback Kid” Chris Antley cemented their partnership with Derby and Preakness wins. The stage was set for the hoped-for dream ending in the Belmont Stakes.
For the handsome chestnut colt to win the Triple Crown for the first time in 21 years was not to be.
Instead, he and Antley left possibly an even more enduring mark in people’s minds and in the annals of horse racing. Anyone who followed Charismatic’s story knows all of these details, but it is part of his legacy and worth the re-telling.
When Charismatic sustained multiple fractures to a front leg during and shortly after the Belmont, the photo of Antley jumping off of his back to hold his injured leg off of the ground and stop Charismatic from running on it anymore remains vividly implanted in many racing fans’ minds.
Antley played a huge role in helping to save Charismatic’s life that day, and the colt went on to retire to stud.
While Charismatic helped get Antley back into racing after he took a hiatus from being a jockey, the return was sadly short-lived. Antley will always be remembered for his actions the day of the Belmont in 1999, as well for being a top-notch jockey. While he helped save the horse, ultimately he could not be saved from his personal turmoil. Antley’s life ended in late 2000, a loss that rippled deeply through the racing community and the lives of those who knew him personally. Yet his own talent and horses like Charismatic would always ensure him a lasting place in racing history.
Charismatic went on to begin his stud career at Lane’s End in 2000, the same farm where his sire Summer Squall stood.
That is where I met him for the first time. It was both a vivid memory and a bit like a dream, simultaneously.
It was vivid because I wanted to take in every impression of this horse who I rooted for to win the Triple Crown, and then just fervently hoped would live after his leg fractures. He had of course survived and that is part of why seeing him face-to-face also felt like a dream.
The other aspect that made that visit feel like a dream was finally getting to see all the farms, and all the horses that had only been images on a TV screen or known through articles until then. I began watching racing when I was about 9, and the chance to finally get to be in an epicenter of racing and breeding had been a long time coming.
What I sought from these visits and still seek when I go to farms was the connection with the horse, to get to know their personalities.
Getting to have that time to interact one-on-one with Charismatic was brief that day in 2002 but no less meaningful for its brevity. I got to feed him a peppermint that a groom gave me, and that was when the emotion at getting to see him and interact with him revealed itself. It was unexpected, but I suppose when a horse captivates you even through a TV screen and has you rooting for him the way I did for Charismatic, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. With slightly shaking hands I dropped one peppermint before I got to feed it to him, but when I did feed him the next one I was given, I remember how mannerly he was as he took it from my hand. There was a gentleness about him.
While the visit was short, the gentle way he took the peppermint remained a lingering memory of my visit to Kentucky. Lane’s End, I think, was the first farm I visited when I went to Kentucky that year, so Charismatic would have been one of the first horses I interacted with. That is probably another reason that first impression of being near him remains so vivid.
It seems like the little things sometimes are in fact the big things, as on the surface it was just feeding him a peppermint but underlying that was the connection I felt to Charismatic, a meaningful undertone to what was just a few moments in his life and mine.
As it turns out, I had visited him just in time, for he was sold to Japan for stud duty after his 2002 season at Lane’s End concluded.
I didn’t know if he’d return to the U.S. or even expect him to. When Silver Charm later went to Japan for stud duty too, I remember thinking maybe somehow I could go to Japan and visit them both one more time.
Thanks to Old Friends and a collaborative effort among the JBBA and the farms where both Charismatic and Silver Charm stood, as well as financial assistance from the Lewises and fans, seeing them again didn’t require a trip to Japan. Silver Charm, to my absolute delight – and Michael Blowen’s – retired to Old Friends first. After years of negotiations and waiting for his stud career to finish, Charismatic followed Silver Charm there in retirement in December 2016.
I eagerly followed Charismatic’s journey via Twitter, all through the long plane ride from Japan, to quarantine in Chicago, and finally to his van trip to Old Friends.
Charismatic was home – his long journey had ended and his full retirement had begun.
I waited just as eagerly for my chance to get reacquainted once he was out of quarantine at Old Friends. I first saw him there in December last year, shortly before the holidays. He was in a small paddock and still in quarantine. That didn’t allow for the opportunity to get reacquainted but I was just so glad to see him back that it didn’t matter.
In late January, I returned to see him out of quarantine, so I got to begin to know him again and feed him carrots. Our wonderful tour guide Lisa began the story that would be mentioned every time a group visited Charismatic. I took in every word, though I had already known about D. Wayne Lukas coming by the day after Charismatic arrived for a reunion with his champion, when he had commented that Charismatic looked so good he jokingly said he could still race him.
Charismatic did indeed look incredible, which was a testament to the care he received in Japan. The same had been evident with Silver Charm when he arrived from Japan.
That January day, Charismatic was in the barn and he was acting a little flighty. He was still getting used to visitors and his new routine. Yet even though he was adjusting to his new home and circumstances, he was still the same mannerly horse I remembered. He took the carrots from my palm as gently as he had taken a peppermint at Lane’s End all those years ago.
Not too long after that visit, he was given his own large paddock where Ogygian had once roamed. I wanted to have photos of him there as well, so I returned to see him on February 17.
He was in the barn again, but he had settled down since the previous month. It was apparent he was getting used to the Old Friends “carrots and visitors” routine and he didn’t toss his head or look a bit wild-eyed at the group of people clustered around his stall.
He stretched his head forward eagerly to take the carrots, yet for all his eagerness he was still as gentle about it as ever. I felt once more like taking in every bit of him, just as I had all those years ago at Lane’s End. I even looked over the leg he had fractured, since some of the visitors asked which leg it had been. It had appeared to be in impeccable shape in 2002 and this year, and x-rays taken when he arrived at Old Friends revealed the same.
And today, the racing world learned the incredibly sad news that Charismatic was found dead in his stall.
Who knew that the last time I saw him would be so reminiscent of the first?
I am glad he got to have time at Old Friends, to receive visitors, carrots, and affection, and to have a few months of retirement.
I am only sad that is was so brief, but initial accounts indicate he seemed to pass peacefully and that is a blessing.
His loss came sooner than anyone expected, and was shocking in its suddenness when he’d looked to be in such fine health and condition when I saw him, and when he was given a last bit of carrots the evening before he died.
I can only think what Old Friends farm manager said is true, something I had come to believe myself a while back… lottery time’s up and when it is your time it was your fate and nothing could have changed that even if it seemed easily preventable.
So Charismatic wasn’t claimed by a broken leg, a long grace period made possible by Antley’s quick actions and the work of vets. So he got to come home, to endear himself to more fans, and then to leave this life – it appears – as gently as he inhabited it, as gently as he took the treats from my hand.
I never got to know him well – his remaining time was revealed to be too short for that to happen – but I got to see that the acquaintance made with him years ago was starting to deepen.
Lisa, also our tour guide on my last visit with Charismatic, told us how Antley would never get to visit his former mount like several jockeys had been able to do. I shared my thought with her in January that in a sense Antley lives on through Charismatic, since Charismatic is part of his enduring legacy.
Now the comeback kid and the chestnut who blazed a trail through the classics in 1999 have both become memories – memories that for me and many others will endure as one of the most touching stories in racing.
Rest in peace, Charismatic. I miss your kind and gentle nature already.
A video I took of Charismatic in January: