In 1999, I was 12 years old. I’d been riding horses for four years. I wasn’t very good, but I was about to go to horse camp for the very first time in my life and from there, I was going to take home my first pony on lease. His name was Nemo and he’d teach me a lot. But when the 1999 Derby rolled around, I didn’t have a pony. I had weekly riding lessons, a shelf full of horse books, and a rain barrel full of dreams.
For the week before the Derby, I’d read the newspaper. I’d pour over all of the analysis, read the horses’ past race results, watch the Santa Anita Derby, the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, look at odds, consider jockeys. I’d watch the news and check the internet for workout times. I knew the different between breezing and galloping and times and who liked to come from behind and who didn’t like getting bumped around. I knew that a very good horse who hated being crowded pulling the inside post was screwed.
And then I’d make my decision.
And in 1999, I, like most people, overlooked a big red colt named Charismatic. It was an amazing field. Worldy Manner, who trained in Dubai! Two fillies (Excellent Meeting and Three Rings!)! Lemon Drop Kid! Answer Lively! Cat Thief! Menifee! Charismatic looked like an also ran before he loaded in the gate. He’d been in a claiming race as recently as three months prior to the Derby. That’s when you’re not pulling your weight, little racehorse.
And the jockey sitting on Charismatic? A recovering drug addict named Chris Antley who had been out of the big leagues for two years.
People said that Chris Antley had been a deeply insecure kid. He’d started riding to make money, and he didn’t fall in love with riding. He fell in love with horses. He was a jockey by 16, and the nation’s leading rider by the end of his teenage years.
But riding in the 80s and 90s wasn’t easy–and I don’t think it’s gotten much better. Chris dabbled in drugs to maintain his weight and energy. He struggled with depression and self-medicated to control that. He came and went unpredictably. But when he showed up, he was brilliant. Absurdly talented. He coaxed horses into the next gears. He knew how to talk to them.
His battle with drugs, his weight, and his mental health took their toll, pushing him out of the sport in 1997. He couldn’t get fit again. Couldn’t figure out how to do the only thing he thought he knew how to do. Then in the fall of 1998, he couldn’t stay away any longer. He put himself into high gear, and started riding again in February. The same month that a red colt who seemed to stall out was put in claiming races.
D. Wayne Lucas gave Chris a chance to ride this no name colt in the Derby. Chris took the ride, not only because he needed the chance, but because he thought it was a sign. The first six letters of Charismatic’s name were an anagram for Chris A.
Charismatic and Chris Antley won the Derby. And from the back of a big red colt who looked freakishly like his infamous grandsire Secretariat, Chris Antley looked over at Menifee’s jockey and held up one finger. Number one, it said. But what it really said was, I’m back.
Charismatic won the Preakness handily, as the race people say. Chris Antley kept him in the right position, flipped the switch, and Charismatic swapped leads and leapt to the front of the pack like it was nothing at all. Chris was flying on a natural high. Charismatic looked fit and sharp and at the top of his game, like he’d waited his entire life for these three races. Like sure, he hadn’t been the worst, but hey, he was just saving up for this. This was what he’d been bred to do.
Chris Antley was a superstar. The comeback kid on the comeback horse. Two unlikely stories. Two nobodies thrust into stardom.
Newspapers ran comparisons, color photographs of Charismatic next to Secretariat. Their running styles were similar, though Secretariat could sit way off the back of the pack and Chris Antley kept Charismatic ‘in touch’. Charismatic wasn’t going to win the Belmont by 31 lengths.
But we expected him to win.
He didn’t. He didn’t, and you know he didn’t, because today American Pharoah won and he was the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, since Affirmed in 1978.
The Belmont is long. It’s a mile and a half, the longest race for 3yr old horses in the United States. That backstretch is so long that when Secretariat won, the rest of the pack was still coming around the turn. And somewhere in that stretch, Charismatic broke his front leg. He kept running, even though Chris tried to pull him up, and he finished third on just three legs. after the finish line, Chris jumped off and tried to hold Charismatic still. Failing to do that, he held up the colt’s broken leg, cradling it to his chest in a picture seared onto my mind. An outrider reached him and helped Chris keep Charismatic safe while the track was cleared and the horse ambulance rolled up.
I was in my living room, crying. My mom was crying. My dad had his knuckles against his mouth.
Horses and broken legs don’t mix very well. The mood at Belmont was somber. Lemon Drop Kid’s connections were happy, but tempered. The announcers watched the ambulance load up a three legged horse. And then they tried to interview Chris Antley. I remember his incoherent sobbing talking, how he just wanted Charismatic to stop running, but Charismatic just wanted to run.
Charismatic, miraculously, lived. He healed well and now runs around a field in Japan where he stands at stud. He didn’t make history, but he lived, and that was enough.
A year and a half after the ill-fated Belmont Stakes, Chris Antley was dead from a drug overdose.
He saved the horse, but when his comeback horse’s career ended, for all intents and purposes, so did Chris’s career. He couldn’t keep away his lifelong demons anymore.
This year, Chris Antley was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. This year, we finally have a Triple Crown winner in American Pharoah for the first and possibly last time in my life. I thought today what Chris Antley would say about today’s race. I think of him often for someone who never met him. I think his story was incredibly influential on me and I’m not even really sure why. I am crying while I write this, and it’s been so many years.
I think he’d be grateful that everyone came home safely. I think he’d have been there, cheering. I think he’d be making fun of his longtime friend Gary Stevens. I think he’d be hoping that the Triple Crown winner would serve two purposes: one, reignite public interest in the sport. And two, because of that interest, that more effort would be put into legislation and regulations to protect horses and their riders.
This year, I imagine that Chris Antley would have a backyard full of broken down Thoroughbreds. I imagine he’d have gained weight, a healthy amount, and he’d be sober. I imagine that he’d spend most of his days shuttling his daughter, whom he never met, around to her school dances and to her horse shows. I imagine that when the sun set on his little farm in California, the light would turn all his horses red. And I imagine he’d smile.