Lacking Charisma

We poor starved racing fans are so eager for mainstream coverage of our sport that we grasp eagerly at whatever crumbs the media want to throw us. Occasional coverage on live TV? Thank you! An HBO series on life at the racetrack? Oh, you are too kind. A documentary by the Worldwide Leader in Sports? Oh, no, really, it’s too much.

Except that this time, it wasn’t.  Watching the Charismatic documentary last night, I came away hungry.

The Charismatic/Chris Antley story is a combination of the compelling and the cliché. The cheap claimer makes good, the fallen finds salvation in sport, the fairy tale almost comes true…but not quite. The romance of racing, and its exoticism relative to other sports, can sometimes rescue a story from slipping into well-worn tracks, but somehow, the conflict and vitality inherent in this story didn’t make it on to the screen.

To be fair, the makers of the documentary were up against it: one of the stars of their movie is dead, and the other can’t talk.  Bob Lewis passed away in 2006. D. Wayne Lukas is absent.  Not a single one of the story’s primary characters appeared in anything except old footage.  It’s tough to build drama from that.

But the style of the documentary felt static: commentators were seated behind tables or in chairs, stationary; interspersed landscape shots were absent of activity or movement. Even the racing shots seemed somehow drained of their energy.

Several sequences relieved the flatness: the shot of Jim McKay talking to and about Antley after the Preakness, essentially imploring the jockey not to fall victim again to this addiction. “I won’t,” promised Antley, captured on television looking reverently up at the sportscaster. The promise of that moment, with Antley at the pinnacle of his career, is devastating as we watch with retrospective knowledge of how the story ends.

The interviews with Natalie Jowett Antley, pregnant with Antley’s child at the time of his death, could easily have fallen into schmaltzy melodrama, but her quiet, almost placid demeanor belied an emotional intensity, kept in check but nonetheless powerfully moving.

And Drew Mollica, Antley’s friend and one-time agent, offered brash, shrewd assessments, infused with regretful affection, of his former client. His were welcome appearances among the moody landscape shots and contemplative recollections.

Noteworthy among the clunky moments were shots of a garbage truck emptying trash outside Antley’s house as the sequence about his death began (morbidly and coarsely symbolic? or something I’ve missed entirely?) and the gratuitously self-promotional insert of SportsCenter announcing Antley’s death.

This is a complex story, filled with people that inspire ambivalence, imbued with deception and delusion and disappointment.  It can be heart-breaking, evoking wistfulness and a sense of what might have been, if only…if only.

If only Antley had conquered his addiction. If only he’d ridden the horse differently in the Belmont. If only Charismatic hadn’t broken down.

Oh, right…Charismatic, for whom the movie is named. The bookend shots of a Bluegrass breeding farm that open and close the movie are meant, I suppose, to remind us that, after all, this was a movie about the horse.

It’s too bad he can’t talk.

14 thoughts on “Lacking Charisma

  1. I would tend to agree with you on all of this Theresa.

    Maybe because we’re close to the game and maybe because we already knew the story it didn’t resonate as much with us.

    Maybe because a part of us is filled with frustration that we all saw this kid – this sweet, talented kid who new what it meant to be a champion – weaken every day against his demons.

    I know when I think of Antley it doesn’t make me sad anymore. It makes me shake my head and wish things we different for him. So many in racing are in the game for one reason and one reason only: it’s all they know.

    I would have liked very much for there to have been commentary from his mother and father in the second half of the program.

    Steven (or is it Stephen?) Michaels did a nice job. I wonder because we are so close to the game if we can be too critical. I’d love to know the thoughts of those who don’t know from which end a horse eats and sat through it.

    As usual, love your writing.

  2. Well it sure beat watching 30 minutes of a weather report (HRTV’s churchill tornedo- part 1), but I see what you mean about coming away hungry, esp since the last part was abruptly cut off on youtube.
    What seemed weird to me was the implication that Antley caused the breakdown by chasing the frontrunner. Team Lukas may have had a different game plan, but jocks make last minute decisions all the time – sometimes they pay off, sometimes not. I can imagine them blaming their Triple Crown loss on a bad ride, but blaming him for the breakdown rang hollow to me. Did they really do that?
    It would have been nice to end it with Charismatic’s legacy, giving credit to Chris for saving his life. Maybe they did that, but YouTube cut it off.
    Thanks for the article!

  3. Hi Teresa,
    About Charismatic on ESPN;
    I wanted something other than what I got. I got movie formula from Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit with none of the charm and none of the triumph. This was not about an owner, a trainer, a jockey and a horse although at first blush that is what it appears to be. This was a story which sensationalized the pressures facing professional horse race riders and in particular Chris Antley in a way that was uncomplimentary and unbalanced. It was unpleasant to watch. The gratuitous ESPN SportsCenter plug you referred to, said that Chris Antley was dead four separate times in twelve seconds. It was both unpleasant to watch and unnecessary.

    This sensationalist smear piece shed no new light other than what was whispered regarding Chris Antley and the decision process to keep him aboard for the Belmont Stakes. It was maudlin, melodramatic and without redeeming itself with a visit to see how beautiful Charismatic is today or to cover his successful career at stud or to report that so many brand name American race horses have left this country in the past 25 years to build a thoroughbred industry in Japan, from the ground up, as Charismatic has.

    Making movies is time consuming and expensive. For my time and money, the time and treasure would have been much better spent if the story started in Japan. Then maybe, it might have been about the horse.

    Thanks once again for your writing. That opening paragraph was killer. If I could write like that I would quit handicapping. I am your fan.

  4. Yeah, right ? I actually thought I was sitting down to watch a story about Charismatic, the horse!
    I suffered through to the end, but it’s pretty depressing to watch people concoct a story about a honest human being (who was probably the real victim here) making a standard move on a horse being the cause of his defeat.

  5. I understand some of the sentiment, but I think the observation that Chris is long dead, the horse is in Japan, Bob Lewis is gone, and D. Wayne refused to participate contributed to the limitation in a big way…hence his then asst. trainers, press members, and Gary Stevens were interviewed to relive and convey the contemporary account of the 1999 TC run.

    But I will note that Charismatic as a title was a play on a description of Chris as well as the name of the horse. The story is intended to be about Chris. And the horse, now healthy and very much alive, is shown in the final shots of the doc at his home at stud in Japan, although perhaps that is not clear to many?

  6. Really curious why Mr. Lukas wouldn’t appear in this documentary. He would have gotten tons of press, lots of airtime and a chance to tell his version of the story.

    Dispute over creative control? Compensation? Still upset over the events of over a decade ago?

    Good hour of TV, but many questions left unanswered.

  7. Maybe they should have included the conditions in which he is now living and that his value as a breeding stallion has dropped dramatically (to approximately US$5,000), and he has been moved to the lowest-ranking of breeding farm in Japan.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m in the racing business and consider myself a huge fan of our great sport. I thought the program took viewers on the full range of emotion from triumph to heartbreak to sadness, the same roller coaster of emotions we all know represent the sport. I thought the interviews with Mr. and Mrs. Antley were valuable. Would it have been nice to hear from Mrs. Lewis? Sure. But Gary Stevens was awesome, barely able to hold back tears at points, now 11 years after his friend’s death. Maybe this wasn’t an Oscar winning documentary, but it was a very good piece for our industry. After all, I’m 27 years old and had countless friends of mine who care nothing about horse racing tell me today that they watched and enjoyed the program.

  9. Teresa,
    I agree with many of your points on the Charismatic film. It was superficial and seemed so contrived at points. What was that with all the television sets in unlikely spots?
    My husband was the co-breeder of Charismatic and we were very involved with his triple crown campaign. We provided ESPN with abundant background material on the horse. To characterize him as a “cheap claimer” was unfair. Obviously they don’t know the definition of the term. There is much more to the story of the Belmont Stakes that was hinted at but never explored. Perhaps Lukas believes that “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all”? What could be gained by criticizing Chris at this time? In defense of Wayne Lukas, many of us felt very let down by Chris’ ride that day and his blatant refusal to follow the plan agreed upon. Oh well, even after all this time we wonder what could have been and reflect wistifully on how close that wonderful horse came to immortality.

  10. Robyn, I think the “cheap claimer” was just a derivative to tell a story with time limitation and to make the underdog angle appealing for a wider audience.

    It felt like Chris wanted Charismatic to win like Secretariat won the Belmont, and that it was a terrible decision to go to the front and press the pace. But Charismatic might have taken a bad step or gone wrong regardless and you know that better than anyone. I agree about Lukas’s decision to not speak. That was a no win for him.

    I understand your personal sentiment of course, but I think most reflect more on the very sad loss of Chris Antley to this world than on whether Charismatic was a few strides from immortality.

  11. Thanks for all the comments and thoughts on the movie. As I watched it, I kept trying to think about how a non-racing person would perceive the movie; I ended up with a conjecture than your friends’ reactions, Justin, so I’m glad to hear that I was wrong. I suspected they’d find it boring, or just another story about an addicted athlete and a horse that breaks down.

    The limitations – of time, of contacts – left the filmmakers with a hard job to do. While I’d like to have heard from more people, my biggest disappointment was in the lack of narrative drama. It didn’t really keep my attention, and that surprised me.

    Loved reading all of your comments – thank you.

  12. I remember being at Belmont when he broke down and being very far down from the finish (this was before NYRA began increasing seat prices for Belmont Day), so I could not see what happened with Charismatic all that well. While many of us there were saddened, I don’t think Chris can be faulted for the ride (I actually bet on Silverbulletday to be the first filly in at that point 94 years to win that Belmont because I thought she had a good chance to wire the field off slow fractions) as he probably felt that was his best shot to take it. The breakdown is something that could simply happen anywhere in my opinion.

    While Charismatic did run in a maiden claimer, $62,500, even in 1999 was not exactly cheap for a horse. Anyone could have claimed him from that and who knows what would have happened.

    That in fact reminded me the 1984 Hambletonian, who’s winner, Historic Freight was a horse I actually would have put up the $52,500 ($35,000 plus allowances for being a three year old) to claim he ran for a tag just a couple of months before that Hambletonian (he was a horse I felt could have done very well in what were then newly minted condition races at Roosevelt Raceway that had replaced the former classified system that had previously been used there). I also remember that Hambo very well, betting him win and place in his elimination when Ben Webster let another horse who had been very inconsistent beat him knowing the “main competition” had already been eliminated in the other elimination and the elimination’s winner had soundness issues (at that time, a horse had to still win two heats in one day to win the Hambletonian). Webster likely knew if he won the second heat, he’d likely also win the race-off and the Hambletonian, which is exactly what happened.

    Just a memorable story that this one on Charismatic reminded me of.

  13. I was at Belmont Park that day at the finish line. When you have attempted to overcome something as difficult as addiction you can hang your hat on your success. When the tide changes, as it will, sooner or later the inner horror of what people think flattens you. That day with all its sunshine and hope in seconds turning silent with the fingers of the grim hand of death that everyone thought was reaching for the horse, was actually reaching for Chris instead. Had he died in a New York hotel room that day would have shocked no one. That he lasted as long as he did on the long slide to hell tells me that a part of him fought all the way down.

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