Rushing to the eighth pole in the midstretch, Chris Antley was
caught in a kind of twilight zone, shifting between reality and
dream. With 220 yards to go in one of the roughest, woolliest
stampedes in the 125-year history of the Kentucky Derby, Antley,
who had steered Charismatic perfectly around and through 17
other screaming jockeys and colliding horses, was whipping the
chestnut onward and gaining on the colt's front-running
stablemate, Cat Thief, who was leading by half a length. As
Antley would say later, "I came to the eighth pole, and I
thought, Is this really happening?"
Up in the box seats the trainer of Charismatic and Cat Thief, D.
Wayne Lukas, was having his own out-of-body experience. Just
moments earlier, as the field had spun off the final turn and
Cat Thief surged to the lead, Lukas had yelled to that colt's
owner, close friend W.T. Young, "He hit the front! Here we go!"
Then, suddenly, he saw a lone horse bearing down on the outside.
In all the confusion, Lukas did not know who the colt was until
he caught sight of Antley's green-and-yellow silks--the ones
belonging to Bob and Beverly Lewis, the owners of the other
horse Lukas had in the race. "At that point I didn't know if I
should jump up and down, holler, throw my program or what,"
Lukas would recall. "I just said, 'It's going to happen!'"
There was Charismatic, a 31-1 shot who as recently as Feb. 11
was running for a $62,500 claiming tag. He was at Cat Thief's
throat and charging as the wire loomed 150 yards ahead. A third
horse, Menifee, came bounding from the pack in a final, furious
run. It was a dramatic climax to the century's last Kentucky
Derby, the country's oldest continually running sporting event.
On the Tuesday before the race the National Museum of Racing, in
Saratoga, N.Y., announced that Lukas had been voted into its
Hall of Fame. Among his 519 graded stakes winners were three
Derby victors, but he had not been a force in Triple Crown
events for the past two years and had withered in the shadow of
his archrival, Bob Baffert, who had won the Derby and the
Preakness both years, with Silver Charm in '97 and Real Quiet in
'98. Baffert had come to Louisville this year with three
powerful horses, led by General Challenge, and Lukas did not
appear to have the guns to stop him.
If Lukas was trying to engineer a comeback, however, it was
nothing compared to what Antley was attempting to pull off. Just
six months ago the 33-year-old rider was struggling with his
weight, just as he had struggled with a cocaine problem 10 years
earlier. In fact, after years of dieting and popping diuretics
and spending endless hours in the hotbox, the former national
riding champion, who won the Derby in 1991 on Strike the Gold,
weighed 147. He had not ridden since August 1997, when his
weight shot up, and he had suffered damnably last August and
September trying to come back at Hollywood Park and Del Mar but
failing to get any mounts because of his weight.
"I became a big boy," Antley says. "I tried every diet there
was, and it just wasn't coming off any more. I got to the point
where no diet would help. When I quit dieting and gave up, I got
big. Quick. I was embarrassed to go to the races. I didn't want
to go out in public because people would see how big I was and
how I had failed."
He left Del Mar in September, a beaten man, and returned home to
Columbia, S.C., to live with his father, Les, and stepmother,
Annie. The couple urged him to find another line of work. Antley
had hit bottom, "knowing that I would probably not be back," he
says. "I was in solitary confinement, staring at the walls. I
was depressed. I was lower than low. Out of it for a month and a
Antley had also gotten fat trading in the stock market, so money
was not an issue for him. He simply yearned to return to the
only world he had ever really known, the one of flashing silks
and flying horses and cheering crowds urging him home. So,
inexorably, he began another comeback attempt. He ran hundreds
of miles on Columbia roads, past grocery stores and gas
stations, so many miles that the locals took to calling him
Forrest Gump. He found a no-carb diet that suited him. By New
Year's Day he was down to 125 pounds and on his way to Santa
Anita. Two months later, trimmed to 120, he started getting
mounts again. One trainer who started using him was Lukas.
The Lewises had bought Charismatic privately in 1996 for
$200,000, but Lukas had a devil of a time figuring him out. "He
was so lethargic early on," the trainer said six days before the
Derby. "He really fooled me." Charismatic had won only once in
five starts when Lukas dropped him into that claimer at Santa
Anita. He finished second but was placed first on a
disqualification. "I went to really drilling him," Lukas said.
"He got stronger and stronger every day." The colt finished
second in an allowance race on Feb. 19 at Santa Anita, ran
second by a head in the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows on
March 6 and was fourth, 8 1/4 lengths back of General Challenge,
in the April 3 Santa Anita Derby.
Unfazed, Lukas kept the blade on the stone. In Charismatic's
final Derby prep, under Jerry Bailey, he won the April 18
Lexington Stakes at Keeneland by 2 1/2 lengths, smoking through
the 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 flat. Bailey already had a Derby horse
(Worldly Manner), as did most of the leading U.S. riders, so
Lukas gave the mount to Antley, who now weighed 118 pounds. That
crowing sound heard all week at Churchill Downs was Lukas
boasting about Charismatic. "I can't believe how good he's
gotten," the trainer said. "A complete turnaround in 60 days.
Believe me: He's a mile-and-a-quarter horse."
The way this Derby was run, it was a wonder that any of the
horses went the distance. They clipped heels and careened off
one another all the way around. "It was a disaster, the worst
I've ever seen," said Robbie Davis, the rider of Ecton Park.
"There was a lot of bumping and screaming and bouncing around.
Going into the first turn, there were four or five horses in
front that were just going sideways, getting slammed. It was
like a bumper-car race."
Three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens, on General Challenge, was
one of the riders who nearly went down as horses crushed him
inside and out nearing the clubhouse turn. "They pretty much
picked me up and carried me for about four strides," Stevens
said. "I don't know how my horse didn't fall. Probably the worst
trip I ever had."
Not so for Antley. Riding aggressively but staying cool and
smart, he kept Charismatic on the outside after breaking from
post 16, in the auxiliary starting gate. They lost ground but
stayed mostly clear all around the oval until they were in the
midst of a wild, whip-cracking finish, grabbing the lead from
Cat Thief in the deep stretch and powering past him to win by a
diminishing neck over the fast-closing Menifee, who swept past
Cat Thief for second.
It may have been more a rodeo than a horse race, but it was
Lukas's third Kentucky Derby win in five years (he saddled
Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Grindstone in 1996), and it made him
the trainer of the decade at the Downs. But in the end this was
Antley's Derby, and it came only four months after he had left
home, still overweight and with no discernible prospects, joking
with his father that he was coming back to win a second. "The
Derby?" Les exclaimed. Chris laughed, then replied,"Yeah, right."
The first Derby victory came when Antley was 25 and riding high
in the stirrups. This one he dug down and suffered for, and it
was sweeter to savor. By far.
said one of the jockeys. "It was like a bumper-car race."