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By Nick Costa and Mary Dixon Reynolds
A tremendous crowd of 151,051 came to witness the final Kentucky Derby of the 20th century, beneath the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.
The slight favorite was the Nick Zito trainee, Stephen Got Even, whose odds were 9/2 but the feeling was that the roses were up for grabs. Wayne Lukas felt he had an excellent shot with Cat Thief. He also had a chestnut colt named Charismatic who had plagued Lukas with poor performances. He had such doubts about the colt that he put him in a $62,500 claiming race but no one claimed him. He came in second place. In a last effort to make the Derby, the trainer, who usually donned a cowboy hat over his silver hair, entered the colt in the Lexington Stakes on April 18. The colt by Summer Squall won while breaking the track record. This was his first stakes win and it qualified him for the Kentucky Derby.
Prior to the Lexington Stakes, owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis had given up on the colt. Later, Lukas said that putting Charismatic in a claiming race was the dumbest thing he’d ever done. During Charismatic’s poor performances in his early races, Lukas had his stablemate, an exciting colt in his barn, named Cat Thief by Storm Cat to invoke a positive attitude around the barn. When reporters visited the Lucas barn, it was in front of Cat Thief’s stall they would gather. He raced in the prestigious Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby and ran into difficulty both times but managed a 2nd and a 3rd.This did not bother the future Hall of Fame trainer. He knew Cat Thief was special and one day, everyone would know it. Lukas picked Chris Antley to ride Charismatic. Antley had substance abuse issues and had taken time off to deal with the problem. Now he was fit and ready to ride.
With a sapphire blue sky overhead, the bell rang and the gates opened. Charismatic was in post 16, so Antley guided the colt towards the middle of the track. Valhol had taken the lead with Cat Thief in second. Charismatic was seventh. Midway around the turn, Charismatic passed his competition and moved into third. In the stretch, Worldly Manner, Cat Thief, and Charismatic were battling for the lead. Charismatic broke through and was followed closely by Menifee who came in second by a neck. Cat Thief came in third. Cat Thief would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November.
Charismatic was 31-1 but Antley rode him as if he was the best horse in the field. And, on that day, he was.
The Lewis’ had won the Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm in 1997 and Lukas had won in 1988, 1995, and 1996. But this win seemed extremely special. Lukas had finally figured out the horse. He thrived on work. And, Chris Antley, who had been such an incredible rider was back where he belonged. In the winner’s circle.
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