All eyes were on Charismatic as he crossed the finish line at Belmont Park today -- but not for the reason the racing world had hoped and expected. His bid to become the 12th Triple Crown winner ended tragically when he broke down after finishing third in the Belmont Stakes behind the long shot winner Lemon Drop Kid.
The colt -- whose rise from claiming horse to classic winner had stirred the public's imagination -- fractured bones in his left front leg, an injury that will end his career. He will undergo surgery Sunday, and veterinarian Larry Bramlage predicted Charismatic would be saved for stud duty.
The mishap probably did not cost Charismatic his chance to make racing history. Lemon Drop Kid already had taken command of the race when jockey Chris Antley felt Charismatic bobble just before the finish line.
His injury was one of the unforeseeable bad breaks of the game; Charismatic's durability had been one of his greatest virtues before today. His loss was almost certainly due to the way the early stages of the Belmont were run.
Charismatic had vied for the early lead, and entered the stretch with a narrow advantage. But he and the other pace-setters subjected each other to intense early pressure, setting an exceptionally fast pace that took a toll on all of them. They set the stage for a horse who could unleash a late charge. That horse was Lemon Drop Kid. Benefiting from a perfect ride by Jose Santos, the 29-to-1 shot swooped past the leaders on the turn, and then held off another long shot, Vision and Verse, to win by a head.
Amidst the excitement about Charismatic's bid for a Triple Crown, and the challenge by the champion filly Silverbulletday, little attention was paid to Lemon Drop Kid. For good reason. The colt hadn't won a stakes race this year, and had finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby. But no one could have foreseen that this race would develop in a fashion made to order for him.
Of the 12 horses entered in the Belmont, none was a confirmed runner, raising the prospect that one of them might be able to set a slow pace and lead all the way. Silverbulletday's trainer, Bob Baffert, said, "Our only chance was to get out there and just dictate the pace." However, Baffert's rivals knew his intentions, and they were determined not to let the filly seize a tactical advantage.
When the gate opened, Jerry Bailey asked Silverbulletday to flash her speed -- but they were not alone. Racing fans across America were shocked to see Pat Day hustling Menifee toward the lead; the colt had gained his renown by rallying from 18th place to finish second in the Derby. And Antley, surprisingly, was pushing Charismatic to challenge the filly as they sped to the first turn. His mount had rallied from far behind to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
The leaders sped the first half mile in 47 3/5 seconds, very fast time for a 1 1/2-mile race. (The comparable fractions in the past two runnings of the Belmont were :48 3/5 and :49 1/5 -- and those were fields with more speed horses than this one.) The top three contenders in the Belmont were making a radical departure from their customary style.
Day eventually wrestled Menifee off the lead, but Bailey and Antley had committed themselves to a course of action and neither backed off from the other. While Silverbulletday and Charismatic battled head-and-head, reaching the six-furlong mark in 1:12, Santos was getting a perfect trip. He had angled Lemon Drop Kid to the rail at the first turn, saved ground, and sat in mid-pack, within easy striking distance of the leaders.
As the field turned into the stretch, track announcer Tom Durkin called, "And now Chris Antley gives Charismatic his cue!" setting off a roar from the record crowd of 85,818 that had come to Belmont Park to see history. Charismatic had taken his measure of Silverbulletday, and had seized a narrow lead. In the past two years, however, both Silver Charm and Real Quiet had turned into this long stretch with a lead and an opportunity to earn the $5 million bonus that goes to a Triple Crown winner. Both of them were overhauled in the final quarter mile -- as Charismatic was.
After saving ground much of the way, Santos swung Lemon Drop Kid to the outside for racing room, and made a strong move four-wide. Silverbulletday was finished, and Menifee wasn't getting into contention, but Charismatic wasn't giving up without a fight. Inside the last eighth of a mile, however, Lemon Drop Kid finally had taken command. He then held on as Vision and Verse made a late charge along the rail. The winner covered the 1 1/2 miles in an excellent 2:27 4/5.
Charismatic probably was a beaten horse by the time he suffered his injury. "This was something that happened right at the end of the race," Bramlage, the veterinarian, said. This was Antley's impression, too.
"Heading for the finish," the jockey said, "he suddenly dipped underneath me and I could tell he was in pain. He gave everything he had and ran as hard as he could but he couldn't give the people what they wanted."
CAPTION: As Charismatic pulls up with leg fractures, Lemon Drop Kid, center, finishes ahead of fellow long shot Vision and Verse to win the Belmont Stakes by a head.
CAPTION: After finishing third, jockey Chris Antley leaps off Charismatic to tend to colt's fractured left front leg.
CAPTION: Lemon Drop Kid, left, puts finishing touches on late move to edge Vision and Verse in 131st Belmont Stakes. Charismatic, vying for Triple Crown, was third.
CAPTION: Jockey Jose Santos enjoys championship moment after rallying 29-to-1 Lemon Drop Kid to win Belmont Stakes. Vision and Verse took second.