Racing: Reject has the Triple Crown in his sights

A horse named Charismatic with a history to match stands poised to join the greats.
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WHERE TO begin with the story of the horse who could join the immortals at Belmont Park tomorrow night? With his owners, who have been here before but tried to get rid of him less than four months ago? The jockey with a sideline in share-tipping and a history of substance abuse? Or maybe the trainer, the most successful that North America has ever seen? Perhaps it would be best to go right back to the beginning, when Bob and Beverley Lewis took delivery of their new $200,000 yearling, and were so taken by his presence that they called him Charismatic.

It was an inspired choice. That same aura will put thousands on to the gate in New York tomorrow, when Charismatic goes to post for the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the American Triple Crown. The first two legs, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore, have already fallen to the stocky little streetfighter who thrives on racing. Victory in the Belmont would make Charismatic only the 12th horse to complete the set, and the first since Affirmed, 21 years ago.

In each of the last two seasons, a horse has gone to Belmont with a chance of the Crown, only to finish second. Incredibly, one of them, Silver Charm, also raced for the Lewises, who are hardly owners in the Maktoum mould. The longest gap between Triple Crown winners was the 25 years which separated Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973), so another one is due. No one would have suspected Charismatic might be the one, though, when back in February, D Wayne Lukas, his trainer, put him into a claiming race at Santa Anita with a $62,500 price tag.

Anyone at the Californian track that day could have bought Charismatic for the equivalent of pounds 39,000. Bob Lewis has said since that "quite frankly, I'd given up on the horse, and wanted to salvage as much of the investment as I could". But no one did buy him, and in the 16 weeks since, Charismatic has earned more than $1.6m. A win tomorrow would add not just another $600,000 in purse money, but also a $5m bonus for completing the Triple Crown.

Charismatic has scaled the racing mountain at extraordinary speed, but even his story is overshadowed by that of Chris Antley, his jockey. All of 11 years ago, Antley tested positive for cocaine and marijuana, and voluntarily handed in his licence in 1989, citing substance abuse as his reason. He was back in the plate a year later, and won the 1991 Kentucky Derby on Strike The Gold. In 1997, though, he quit again because of weight problems and depression. American punters thought they had seen the last of him.

But while Charismatic was running in his claimer, Antley was feeling his way back into race-riding, though not without a useful fall-back job producing The Ant Man Report, an e-mail share-tipping bulletin. When Jerry Bailey decided to ride Worldly Manner in the Kentucky Derby rather than the outsider of Lukas's two entries, Antley got the call. It is another twist to the plot, then, that Charismatic's most obvious rival tomorrow night, a runner who may even start favourite ahead of him, will be ridden by none other than Jerry Bailey.

The horse in question is Silverbulletday, a filly who has won 11 of her 12 career starts. Immensely popular with the punters, she is reckoned the best North American filly since Go For Wand, whose career came to a sudden and shocking end in Belmont's home stretch in the 1990 Breeders' Cup. Only two fillies have won the Belmont in its 132-year history, though, and tomorrow's race will be her first start against colts, and her first attempt at a mile and a half.

Nor is the race is a match between Charismatic and Silverbulletday. No horse has ever beaten more than six rivals to win a Triple Crown, but Charismatic may face as many as 13, including Menifee, runner-up in Kentucky and at Pimlico, and Stephen Got Even, fourth in the Preakness, who is that rarity in American racing, a horse with a true stayers' pedigree.

But tomorrow's race revolves around Charismatic, and if you thought there were enough bizarre twists in his story already, ponder this. Lukas claims to have a Triple Crown wristwatch, which he bought 15 years ago, with the colours of previous winners decorating the hours from one to 11. Twelve, of course, is blank. "I want Bob and Beverley's green and gold," he says, "to be on 12 o'clock high."