It was haunting, the look of uncertainty in Charismatic's eyes, his huge chestnut body listing as he limped through the shadows of the shed row at Belmont Park's Barn 10 this morning. Charismatic, his left front leg wrapped in a compression boot to protect bones broken Saturday in the Belmont Stakes' long home stretch, hobbled toward surgery.
Head down, he limped past three stalls to a side entrance of the barn, looked at a photographer crouched and firing away, and stopped in front of the rear doors of a white horse ambulance. This was a setting with which Charismatic was unfamiliar, having been strong and healthy and, as trainer Wayne Lukas had said, "absolutely maintenance free."
After a brief pause, Charismatic walked slowly forward without urging, the doors shutting behind him. The ambulance proceeded slowly over the macadam streets in the barn area less than a half-mile to the Belmont Equine Surgical Clinic, a flat-roofed, one-story building of modest construction that looked like a self-storage facility.
At 11:18 a.m., Charismatic was led into surgery. It was after 5 o'clock this afternoon before the veterinarian, Stephen Selway, had completed his work. He repaired Charismatic's fractured cannon bone, which is similar to a human's shin, and examined the colt's fractured lateral sesamoid, one of two small bones below the cannon that will be left to heal on its own.
"He'll be just fine," said Selway. "It was not the worst injury of this kind I've ever seen, but it was a nasty one and certainly not an average one."
Charismatic was denied the 1 1/2-mile Belmont with an uncharacteristically unsteady run through the stretch, as long shot Lemon Drop Kid rallied for a stunning upset. Charismatic appeared to take a bad step about 40 yards from the finish line, and seemed to bobble just as he crossed the line. Antley pulled him up quickly, dismounted and tenderly held Charismatic's left leg, which he bent almost like a dog would his paw.
"I don't know if Chris Antley necessarily saved his life," Selway said, "but the thing to do is to get the horse pulled up as smoothly and quickly as possible. He certainly helped in preventing any further damage. He should be commended."
Explaining Charismatic's injury, Selway said: "The fracture [of the cannon bone] happened first. As the horse went on, the damaged piece hit the sesamoids and caused them to fracture. The sesamoids are the reason why this horse won't race again. . . . This horse had horrendous stress, but he was an ideal patient."
Four screws were inserted laterally into the vertical cannon bone. The damaged area of the bone extends about six inches. Selway said there was no way to put all the broken bone chips together, and he scraped some away.
In describing the bone as badly shattered, he displayed an X-ray of the leg. The operation itself took 2 1/2 hours; the five-person operating team spent the remaining time preparing Charismatic and then assisting him as he came out of the anesthesia.
Selway, a 16-year veteran at Belmont, said there had been no preexisting condition, and he attributed the injury to a "misstep."
Charismatic's breeding fees are expected to earn millions of dollars for his owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, and the farm of his future in Lexington, Ky. Today, though, Charismatic's injury cast a gloom over the Belmont back stretch near the Lukas stables, where members of the horse's team had been expecting to be continuing a Triple Crown celebration.
"This is a little bit different with Chris," Lukas said this morning, referring to Antley's recent comeback from weight problems and depression. "This horse picked him up when he needed it. This horse came right along at a time when this was probably more therapy for him than anything anybody could prescribe."
Lukas said he was moved by the reaction of fans among the record crowd of 85,818 as Charismatic was led into the paddock area before the race. "I was walking with [golfer] Gary Player and Bob Lewis," Lukas said. "I said to Gary, `Is this like going down the 18th at the Masters at Augusta?' He said, `It's pretty close.' The roar was deafening."
But joy turned to sadness after Charismatic dueled a half-mile alongside the pace-setting filly, Silverbulletday. Once he disposed of the filly and had clear sailing ahead, Charismatic failed where he had surprised en route to victory in the Kentucky Derby and an even more impressive run to the wire in the Preakness.
Lukas, once again denied a Triple Crown, sought consolation in Charismatic's latest heroic bid -- to recover.
"The horse had a really good night," Lukas said. "He was really comfortable. We're optimistic. There was no hemorrhaging or soft tissue tears. The doctor is very upbeat.
"We took the boot off to check it last night and there was no swelling. We checked it again this morning and there was no swelling. He settled down right away. He ate well. He's already shown me that he can get through this."
It was stunning to observe how gingerly Charismatic walked as he was led from Stall 17 down the shed row, especially after his dynamic burst of speed entering the second turn in the Preakness.
The heavy wrappings of the boot itself made walking awkward, and Charismatic was left to place almost all his forward weight on the right leg. After he was gently guided out of the ambulance at the clinic, he had his mouth rinsed with water to clean any food that might be there and had his hoofs cleaned. He stood in total cooperation on a green carpet, occasionally lifting his left leg into the air and keeping it suspended for moments at a time.
Lukas took a wistful look toward Charismatic before he was led away.
"We're going to retire him as a stud as much as the game needs its stars, and needs them on the track," Lukas said. "The pedigree dictates the economics."
Lukas pointed out that such a top-flight thoroughbred would command a breeding fee of about $30,000 with each mare. "Why would we race him another year?" he asked.
At 5:45 p.m. Lukas helped lead Charismatic from the clinic back into the ambulance for the short trip to his stall. A big bandage was wrapped around the horse's wounded leg. Charismatic was unloaded and, walking with apparent comfort, was led into the stall. His calm, willing demeanor was credited with helping him through the ordeal.
Surgery "doesn't get any better than that," Lukas said to reporters. "I expected him to be a good patient. Now I'm ecstatic about it."
With that, Charismatic stuck his head out of the stall. Before the surgery, Lukas had said: "I'll be very surprised if that rascal isn't looking over the door eating out of the hay bag at 4 o'clock."
The trainer had missed by less than two hours, but his prediction was close enough.
"Hey," Lukas called to an aide before stepping back with a smile of satisfaction. "Hang his hay bag."
CAPTION: After undergoing surgery for more than 2 1/2 hours to repair his broken leg bones, Charismatic should be "just fine," said the operating veterinarian.
CAPTION: Charismatic is led by handlers toward surgery to repair a broken leg. He was injured in Saturday's Belmont as he attempted to win the Triple Crown.
CAPTION: (This graphic was not available) Charismatic's Fractured Leg