Although Charismatic will not be confused with Secretariat or Citation, he possesses some formidable assets as he seeks to join the immortals who have won the Triple Crown.
He appears well suited to the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes. His trainer, Wayne Lukas, has won this race three times in the past five years. His jockey, Chris Antley, is riding with immense confidence. His form appears to be on an upward cycle; the colt's victory in the Preakness was a much stronger effort than his upset score in the Kentucky Derby.
Only two identifiable obstacles stand between him and a $5 million bonanza: Silverbulletday and Menifee. Although the Belmont has drawn 12 entrants, some with respectable credentials, these are the only two who can win if Charismatic runs approximately as well as he did at Pimlico.
Even after winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown, Charismatic isn't the glamour horse of the Belmont field; Silverbulletday is. While Charismatic was considered a failed racehorse until mid-April, Silverbulletday has been a brilliant performer since the start of her career. She has won 11 of 12 career starts and has earned more purse money than any male of her generation. Trainer Bob Baffert declined to enter her in the Derby and scratched her from the Preakness when she drew a bad post position, but he has chosen to run Silverbulletday against males for the first time Saturday. I would have picked and bet confidently on Silverbulletday if she had run in the Derby. But she doesn't fit the Belmont nearly as well. In fact, of all the spots where Baffert could have chosen to take on colts, this one makes the least sense.
Although a versatile runner, Silverbulletday's strength is her ability to accelerate sharply and seize command of a race in a few strides. This is just the type of move that traditionally wins the Kentucky Derby -- the reason I wanted to bet her at Churchill Downs. But this is a style much less effective at 1 1/2 miles.
When asked before the Derby why he didn't want to run Silverbulletday, Baffert said he worried about her effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles. So why does he want to send her an additional two furlongs in the Belmont? Now he says there was no truth to his pre-Derby comments and that he cited concerns about the distance "to get you guys [the press] off my back."
Silverbulletday has consistently run as fast as the best colts. She earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 109 in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico, the day before Charismatic won the Preakness with a 107. Her Kentucky Oaks figure was within a point of the Kentucky Derby. But Silverbulletday has been running fast with the benefit of easy trips. She hugged the rail at Pimlico on the day of a powerful rail-favoring bias. Her male rivals, by contrast, are coming out of rough-and-tumble races in the first two legs of the Triple Crown; Charismatic overcame the Pimlico bias with a four-wide move. I love Silverbulletday, but I don't think she can beat her battle-tested rivals Saturday. This is the wrong time, the wrong place and the wrong distance to challenge colts.
When Charismatic won the Derby over the fast-charging Menifee, many fans thought that the runner-up was the best horse after suffering through a difficult trip in a crowded field. In the Preakness, however, there was no ambiguity about the identity of the superior horse. With both colts in striking position on the turn, Charismatic accelerated while Menifee sputtered, and Charismatic surged to an authoritative 1 1/2-length victory.
Even Menifee's trainer, Elliott Walden, was discouraged. "We were second-best and only second-best," he said plaintively. He is clinging to the hope that 1999's Triple Crown series will turn out the way 1998's did for his colt, Victory Gallop. Real Quiet had beaten Victory Gallop in the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- he was unequivocally superior in the Preakness -- but Victory Gallop saved his best performance for the Belmont and won by a nose.
There is another Triple Crown series that might be a precedent for this year's -- the 1989 rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Sunday Silence won the first two legs of the Triple Crown by out kicking Easy Goer on the turn. In their climactic showdown, the Breeders' Cup Classic, he also sprinted away from Easy Goer on the final turn at Gulfstream Park. Most experts concluded that the slim difference between the two colts was the fact that Sunday Silence could accelerate on turns while Easy Goer couldn't. It was only at Belmont Park -- with its sweeping turns and long stretch -- that Easy Goer was able to beat his arch rival, and he did so by eight lengths.
Menifee appears to have the same weakness as Easy Goer. In the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, he led to the first turn, dropped out of contention, looked as if he was going nowhere until he turned into the stretch and won with an impressive rally. In the Kentucky Derby, he was hopelessly out of contention on the turn but made a phenomenal late run in the stretch. On the turn at Pimlico, Charismatic left him for dead.
If the theory is correct that Menifee can't run well on turns, Belmont Park is his track and this is his moment. Menifee will charge down the long Belmont stretch on Saturday and snatch away Charismatic's chance for immortality.