Afternoons of a Belmont Stakes in which horse racing's Triple Crown can be completed are excruciatingly tense. People gather by the tens of thousands. Anticipation builds among racetrack regulars and casual fans. Hopes rise beyond reason.
Before this year, 25 horses had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in the same year. Fourteen had failed to complete 3-year-old racing's greatest achievement, crushing the spirit of fans. Today it was all that, and worse.
Today, the largest crowd in New York racing history saw Charismatic break two bones in his left front leg -- ending his racing career, according to veterinarians -- just after he finished third in the 131st running of this event and the virtually unknown Lemon Drop Kid won. Charismatic's jockey, Chris Antley, and uncounted others among the 85,818 at Belmont Park wept unashamedly.
"His racing career is over," declared Larry Bramlage, a New York Racing Association veterinarian. Surgery will be performed on Sunday. Bramlage said Charismatic "will be fine as a stallion."
If Charismatic had remained healthy, he would have been expected to race for the remainder of this year and through his 4-year-old season.
Jim Hunt, the veterinarian for Wayne Lukas, Charismatic's trainer, said surgeons can repair the fracture in the cannon, or shin, bone "with no problem." The other fracture, in the lateral sesamoid, one of two small bones above the ankle, "is a little bit trickier," Hunt said. "It simply has to heal with time. . . . It's nothing life-threatening."
Nevertheless, Charismatic's owner, Bob Lewis, was openly shaken. "Our only concern right now is Charismatic," he said. "We hope to God he is going to be fine." The colt's lower leg was placed in a cast and he was resting comfortably in his stall at the barn here, Lukas said late in the day.
Bramlage said Charismatic's injury probably occurred just after he had completed the 1 1/2-mile race, which concludes the annual five-week period in which horse racing enjoys nationwide attention. It begins the first Saturday in May, when the sport's most fabled race, the Derby, is run over 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The Preakness, over 1 3/16 miles at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, comes two weeks later.
Charismatic, a big, beautiful chestnut, captured fans' imaginations by winning the Derby as a 31-to-1 shot. Less than three months earlier, he had been entered in a lowly claiming race in California; anyone willing to pay Lewis $62,500 could have taken ownership of him. After the Derby, he won the Preakness at 8-to-1 odds -- again he had not been the favorite.
Today he was favored in the betting odds and in sentimental terms. But Lemon Drop Kid, at 29-to-1 odds, finished first and Vision and Verse, at 54 to 1, finished second with stretch drives that bypassed Charismatic.
"He gave America a lot. He gave us a lot," said a tearful Antley, who knew there was trouble in the stretch and pulled up Charismatic shortly after crossing the finish line.
Antley remained on the track with Charismatic before the horse was put into an ambulance, and was the last rider to return to the jockeys' room. Shane Sellers, who rode fifth-place finisher Stephen Got Even, immediately hugged him. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," cried Sellers.
"That's okay. Things happen," said Antley, but clearly things were not okay.
"That's the dark side of the business," said Pat Day, who rode eighth-place Menifee. "I'm praying for him. These horses are our livelihood."
The dark side of racing has been exposed before at Belmont, to the anguish of thousands. The beloved filly Ruffian broke down in a match race with Foolish Pleasure in 1975, and had to be destroyed; Ruffian is buried in the infield of this lush and historic venue. In the 1990 Breeders' Cup here, two horses broke down and a third had to be destroyed. Prairie Bayou broke down in the 1992 Belmont.
"All week we talked about how maintenance-free this horse was and how durable he is," Lukas said. "It's racing. These things happen and we have to deal with them. It's not an easy part of the game. He had a good run. It's unfortunate."
Lukas lauded Antley for pulling up Charismatic quickly and jumping off to remove his weight. "That probably kept it from separating," Lukas speculated. "The cast keeps the injury from swelling and immobilizes it. The most encouraging thing was that when they took the X-rays there wasn't any swelling or hemorrhaging."
Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown, none since Affirmed in 1978. Two years ago, Real Quiet raised false hopes. Last year it was Silver Charm. In 1971, the despair was palpable among a then-record Belmont Park crowd of 82,694 when the Venezuelan colt Canonero II failed. The odds of a 3-year-old thoroughbred completing the Triple Crown's rugged requirements are long enough to raise doubt in the most confident owners and trainers, sear the souls of racing sentimentalists who want to see history made and empty the pockets of hard-core bettors who futilely see the possible in the face of the unlikely.
Yet people's expectations are immense. The excitement in the paddock was palpable as thousands crowded into a circle and crushed forward for a view. The interior lawn was so crowded it resembled a boxing ring before a championship fight, only the well-connected of this sport were too finely dressed to be mistaken for the sweet science. "Oh, what a horse," a fan exclaimed as Charismatic passed. "Wow."
"Charismatic hats," cried a vendor, hedging his bets and selling before the race.
"Not today," someone shouted.
Sadly as it turned out, moreso than anyone could have imagined then, that person was right. Antley could barely hold back still more tears.
"Heading for the finish he suddenly dipped underneath me and I could tell he was in pain," Antley said. "He gave everything he had and ran as hard as he could, but he couldn't give the people what they wanted. I hope, if he can't come back to race, he can make a lot of babies we can enjoy later on."
CAPTION: After fading to third place finish in 131st Belmont Stakes, jockey Chris Antley tends to Triple Crown hopeful Charismatic's fractured left front leg. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)
CAPTION: Charismatic's trainer Wayne Lukas, right, owner Bob Lewis discuss horse's injury, two broken bones in left leg. Charismatic will be put out to stud.