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Comeback Kid
William Nack
May 10, 1999
Just six months after his career seemed doomed by a weight problem, Chris Antley rode Charismatic to an improbable victory in a rough-and-tumble Kentucky Derby
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May 10, 1999

Comeback Kid

Just six months after his career seemed doomed by a weight problem, Chris Antley rode Charismatic to an improbable victory in a rough-and-tumble Kentucky Derby

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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 WT. 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 half."

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� 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� 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."

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