Sixty yards past the finish line on the old dirt I 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�-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."
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 tins 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 prognosis?"