Sixty yards past the finish line on the old dirt course at
Belmont Park, his eyes wide and his nostrils flaring and his
sides rising and falling like bellows, the chestnut colt named
Charismatic stood nervously in the beating sun, chewing on the
bit in his mouth as he shifted his weight awkwardly, in evident
pain. He was trying to keep his weight off his left front leg,
the limb that had just been fitted with a splint.
It was 5:37 p.m. last Saturday, and the final act in
Charismatic's pursuit of the Triple Crown was being played out
not in a jubilant winner's circle scene celebrating him as the
12th horse to win the Crown, but rather in a kind of funereal
sadness, with a record Belmont crowd of 85,818 standing and
watching in silence, stricken by the sight of the crippled
horse. It ended with Charismatic's diminutive groom, 27-year-old
Cesar Arredondo, who sends most of his wages home to his family
in Guatemala, holding Charismatic's reins and weeping quietly as
he patted the horse's nose. With fans clustered near the
clubhouse fence and one voice among them pleading, "Please be
careful with him!" With Charismatic's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas,
face ashen, taking the longest walk of his life, out of the
crowded clubhouse and up the racetrack to the horse's side and
asking, "What happened?" Finally, with Neil Cleary, the track's
examining veterinarian, approaching Lukas and pointing to the
splint and saying solemnly, "He has a condylar fracture of the
cannon bone, I think."
Less than 10 minutes earlier Charismatic had struggled home
third, behind Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse, in the 1
1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, bringing to a stunning close one of the
most popular and romantic quests for glory in the 80-year
history of the Triple Crown series. This, after all, was the
colt who had run for a $62,500 claiming tag as recently as Feb.
11, a fact that had served to move fans to embrace him as their
horse, as the colt who had emerged to triumph over failure. He
had come to New York following an unusually enervating
schedule--the Belmont would be his fifth race in 64 days,
including victories in the May 1 Kentucky Derby, where he
prevailed by a neck at a shocking 31-1, and two weeks later in
the Preakness Stakes, where he galloped home to win by a length
and a half at 8-1.
The only question was whether he could sustain his form for the
longest and most grueling of the three races. The habitually
optimistic Lukas appeared to have no serious doubts. On the
Wednesday afternoon before the race, Lukas was grazing
Charismatic in a paddock next to his barn. The sun was playing
on the colt's golden coat, as bright as a new penny, and he
appeared as he had all spring, strong and sound. "Does he look
like a horse who's had four races in 60 days?" Lukas asked
rhetorically. "He's doing better now than he was before the
Preakness; he has moved forward since then."
June 13, 1999
Not that any of this was scaring off the opposition. Eleven
horses showed up as spoilers, from the brilliant filly
Silverbulletday, to the underachieving Lemon Drop Kid, who had
not won a stakes race since the Belmont Futurity last Sept. 20.
After finishing fifth, beaten nearly six lengths, in the Blue
Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 10, Lemon Drop Kid had
suffered a brutal trip in that 19-horse rodeo at Churchill
Downs, finishing ninth. He had then struggled home third, on a
muddy track he did not like, in the May 23 Peter Pan Stakes at
Belmont. If his trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, fancied him well
enough--"He likes this track, and he's doing as good as a horse
can," Schulhofer said on Memorial Day--the Belmont players
kissed him off at 30-1.
Silver Charm ('97) and Real Quiet ('98) had won both the Derby
and the Preakness in the last two years, only to fail in the
Belmont, and there was a widely shared sense that this would be
the year--that somehow the fates would intervene and not deny
the sport a third straight time. What happened, of course, was
an ending far more twisted and melancholy than that of a horse
merely coming up a bit short in the Belmont. The pace was too
fast, with Charismatic prompting Silverbulletday through a mile
in 1:36 3/5 and setting up the race for any closer with a kick.
When Charismatic surged past the filly at the quarter pole, the
frantic, euphoric crowd sensed history being made and loosed a
roar that shot like a current through the stands, scattering
every pigeon in the rafters.
But hardly had Charismatic assumed command than Lemon Drop Kid
charged to his flanks and passed him as they raced to the eighth
pole. Chris Antley, on Charismatic, could feel his horse tiring.
Sixty yards from the finish, the stands went quiet as Vision and
Verse, a 55-1 shot, also rushed by. It was near the wire when
Antley felt his colt break down. "He bobbled," Antley said. "It
happened [all of a] sudden. I took hold of him and tried to keep
him off the bad leg."
Lemon Drop Kid beat Vision and Verse by a head, and after Antley
crossed the finish, he tried to pull Charismatic to a stop.
Sixty yards past the wire, the rider bailed out, falling as he
hit the ground. He scrambled to his feet, still holding the
reins, and went to the horse's side. Reaching down, he picked up
the injured leg, holding it off the ground so the colt could not
put weight on it. Veterinarians agreed that Antley, in pulling
up the horse as quickly as he did, jumping off and then holding
up the damaged leg, no doubt saved the colt from injuring
himself more severely, even fatally.
With the splint in place, Charismatic was led haltingly up the
ramp of an equine ambulance, where he began kicking violently at
the back door. At that point another Belmont veterinarian,
Celeste Kunz--with Lukas standing at the head of the
colt--injected his jugular with 10 cc of phenylbutazone and
banamine, both anti-inflammatory drugs; 1 cc of a sedative,
xylazine; and 2 cc of torbugesic, a powerful painkiller. The
kicking quickly subsided. To prevent the fracture from
worsening, Kunz then fitted the colt with a compression boot,
which looks and works like a ski boot, with buckles that tighten
it and compress its rubber liner to the shape of the leg.
Charismatic was extremely hot and sweating heavily, so Kunz
bathed him with rubbing alcohol to cool him off. After the
injection he was an easy patient.
"I feel terrible," Lukas told Kunz as she worked on the colt. "I
love this horse. He's a very special animal. What's the
"I'm optimistic," she replied. "There's no swelling in the area.
Anytime you have a fracture, it can slice through the soft
tissues, but that hasn't happened here."
X-rays revealed that Charismatic had suffered not only a
displaced lateral condylar fracture, with the break extending
about three inches--from the ankle halfway up the cannon
bone--but also a fractured sesamoid bone in the ankle joint. On
Sunday he underwent surgery to insert four screws in the cannon
bone. "He's through as a racehorse," said Larry Bramlage, an
equine surgeon on the scene. There's no telling exactly when the
injury occurred, but Bramlage said, "Bones crack a lot like
porcelain. They may get a little bit of a crack in the midst of
a race, and then all of a sudden it's like a coffee cup that
just splits apart."
While Schulhofer, jockey Jose Santos and the Lemon Drop Kid's
other connections were off to celebrate--"I don't think I've
ridden a horse so hard in my life," said his owner, Jeanne
Vance; "every stride, we were yelling at him"--the Charismatic
crowd and Lukas gathered gloomily around his barn. This was the
second time in three years that Bob and Beverly Lewis,
Charismatic's owners, had just missed pulling off the Triple.
(They also own Silver Charm.)
Lukas has been widely criticized for pushing horses too
hard--several of his major stakes winners, such as juvenile
champion Flanders, Preakness contender Union City and Preakness
winner Tank's Prospect, have broken down in competition--but he
can't be faulted for the injury to Charismatic. Not only was the
horse sound, but Lukas had also trained and managed him
brilliantly since that February claimer.
"That's the nature of this game," Lukas said. "What can I say? I
feel bad now, but I'll feel a heck of a lot worse in the next
week or two. So be it. We'll make the best of a very bad
For his part, Charismatic will soon be asked to make the most of
a very good one. His racing days may be over, but now he is
headed for the breeding shed.
When Charismatic surged past Silverbulletday, the crowd loosed a
roar that shot like a current through the stands.