The French call it “coup de foudre,” a bolt out of the blue, inspiring love at first sight. Words cannot explain it. Theories cannot predict it. It’s the kind of love that surpasses understanding, inspires courageous acts, and captures the human heart for eternity.
Charismatic, the chestnut son of Preakness winner Summer Squall, would, in the flash of an unprecedented, unexpected instant during that summer, capture our hearts forever.
The world was thirsty for leadership in 1999, and here in America, we were certainly hungry for love. As a society, we often look to our human athletes, both college and professional, for leadership examples – especially when we feel lost or in need of inspiration.
But it would be our thoroughbreds that year, jolting us from the complacency and doubt of our disappointments and hardships, electrifying us as if they, themselves were holding the paddles and pushing the button to get our hearts beating once again.
In 1999, our dominant sports heroes were retiring from competition across the board: Wayne Gretzky… John Elway… Michael Jordan. Our nation’s President would be eventually acquitted of impeachment, but not before an arduous and emotionally divisive trial that further fragmented our political and personal views. A professional wrestler was sworn in to political office for the first time, and the coveted symbol of our nation’s best representation of college football achievement—the Heisman Trophy—was auctioned off to help its one-time recipient pay for his murder trial debts. We were disconnected from our hearts and outwardly at war with our convictions.
Our rage, our floundering, our confusion seemed to cover us like a dark cloud. An aggravated Mother Nature seemed to be joining in the misery by hurling her wrath in each corner of the earth. Freezing us out in the Midwest and Canada amid epic snowstorms, yanking us up by the roots—and in some cases, the actual root cellar—with an F5 tornado in Oklahoma, and pummeling the people of Australia with the greatest natural disaster in their history with a $2 billion hail storm, it was a disastrous winter. More than 2,500 people injured, made homeless, or died from tragic winter weather conditions before Spring, even requiring that the Army dig us out from snow deeper than we’d seen in decades.
But the real page turner in our history book came from the shocking realization that not even our high schools were safe from harm. The tragic news of the violent Columbine massacre in Colorado starkly altered the lives of 37 families, and rippled fear and heartbreak into the hearts and minds of families throughout the world.
We were running for cover, and it was an equine athlete who would lead us back into our collective hearts.
A claimer, Charismatic was brought up through the ranks by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas. A descendant of the 1973 Triple Crown Champion and racing legend Secretariat, Charismatic would require six races to break his maiden—a Maiden Claiming race at that. After facing Allowance company and even another Claiming field, he would need his win in Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes, his last-chance opportunity, to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Charismatic was bred to compete. He had the bloodline of a legend pulsing through his veins, but at this time, his behavior did not reflect it. Even after winning his Derby prep race, it still wasn’t certain whether or not he wanted to be a top competitor. When he entered the Kentucky Derby, his odds at the betting window would clearly reflect his complacency.
Running mid-pack for most of the Derby, under the urging of his talented rider, Chris Antley, Charismatic found the desire to win and demonstrated a talent that he had previously kept to himself. He emerged the surprise winner of the 1999 Kentucky Derby and exploded onto the national stage. Charismatic dug in with such toughness, a new energy and excitement emerged along with him into the winner’s circle.
Two weeks later, he entered the starting gate of the Preakness Stakes, the Triple Crown’s second leg, a race won by both his father and great-grandfather. He crushed his rivals with patience, speed, and desire. Chris Antley felt such power and confidence in his horse; he flashed two fingers skyward, symbolizing ‘two down, one to go…’ just prior to crossing the finish line, igniting a galvanizing spark of hope in Thoroughbred fans everywhere.
A Triple Crown accomplishment was in reach and could be seen on the horizon.
Charismatic had found his stride. Against the odds, he had toughened up. In three seemingly long, long weeks, he would once again meet a challenge with his rivals and test his abilities running farther than he had ever run in his very young life. He would enter the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes – a race his great-grandfather won by 31 unprecedented lengths. As a three-year old, his growth and development were accelerating, and he was maturing right before our eyes. He was coming into the race with confidence after achieving three consecutive wins, and he carried himself with the presence of a prize fighter. He was already a winner.
Charismatic looked beautiful on Belmont Stakes Day, his chestnut coat as shiny as a bright, new penny. He embodied his name, seemingly garnering the attention and hope of humanity as he made his way to the starting gate. It was a tremendous race that would be remembered as one for the ages. Charismatic finished third to Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse.
And that’s when it happened… the coup de foudre… the bolt of lightning from out of the blue… sealing our fate forever.
After crossing the wire, Chris Antley leapt from the saddle to grab his Champion horse’s hoof, keeping him from applying any weight on it. The horse’s leg was broken.
Charismatic had found a desire to win that was so great; it surpassed his physical ability to match it. The Champion had so much heart; he outran his young body’s ability. His leg broke under the weight of his desire.
We were mesmerized.
Not just by Charismatic’s tremendous effort, or the efforts made by his colleagues in the race, but by the bond we witnessed between horse and rider, and the absolute understanding of the value of compassion. We knew, as Antley demonstrated for us, the animal’s life was more important than winning the race.
Widely recognized by experts and fans throughout the industry, Chris Antley’s intuitive, immediate support of Charismatic’s leg saved the horse’s life. And it saved ours in the process. Our hearts were engaged, and we were forever shaped for the better by witnessing this life-affirming, albeit tragic moment.
It was as if we were being encouraged to put ourselves out there, to strive past our fears, complacency, and even our believed capabilities. We could have faith that love would find a way to help us when we needed it most. Win or lose, we wouldn’t be left out in the cold to stumble and die.
In 17 starts, Charismatic amassed more than $2 million in race winnings. His influence on the racetrack was relatively brief, but like the flash of a lightning bolt, it was love at first sight.
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