Friday Flicks: ESPN’s 30 for 30 – Charismatic

The story of 1999 Derby winner Charismatic and his jockey, Chris Antley, is one of both inspiration and tragedy. HN film critic Amanda Ronan reviews ESPN’s portrayal of their story.

From Amanda:

The narrator begins the film Charismatic, presented on ESPN’s 30 for 30 series in 2011, by saying, “This is not Black Beauty.”  Roll the ominous soundtrack….

We begin the story with jockey Chris Antley, a severe drug addict and alcoholic that was “haunted by his demons.”  After his fourth round in rehab he went home to Elloree, South Carolina in hopes of rebuilding himself and his career.  His parents, Les and Shelly Antley, hoped for Chris to start a new path, but he would not be deterred from returning to the only life he had ever known, horse racing.  Almost a year later, he began riding Gary Stevens’s “second colts,” meaning when Stevens was out of town Antley rode his horses.

Next, we move on to D. Wayne Lukas, a legendary horse trainer winning over 500 stakes, including 10 Triple Crown races.

Finally we meet the large chestnut colt, Charismatic, a horse known for being “kinda fat and kinda lazy.”  Charismatic eventually ended up in several claiming races as a two year old where his performances were erratic, winning some and finishing dead last in others.  He remained unclaimed, so Lukas began training the horse harder and faster during his three year old year.  Charismatic finally hit his stride in April of 1999 during the Lexington Stakes.  He surprised everyone with a bold win that would inevitably lead him to the Kentucky Derby.

Our three stories merge at this point.  Lukas had an unpredictable, high-risk horse in need of a rider.  Chris Antley was an unpredictable, high-risk rider in need of a horse.  They entered the Derby as a 30 to 1 long shot.

Destroying all the odds, the unlikely pair won!  Two weeks later, Charismatic and Antley won the Preakness Stakes cementing them as Triple Crown contenders.

The media ran wild with stories of hope and redemption, but those closest to Antley knew that his past was coming back to haunt him.  The three weeks leading up to the Belmont led Antley down a path of intense pressure, depression and ultimately a relapse into addiction.  Charismatic’s owner, Bob Lewis, remained loyal to Antley despite Lukas’s concerns.

During the race, Antley (pictured in the yellow and green silks) defied Lukas’s race plan by immediately putting Charismatic into a speed match with Bob Bafferty’s filly, Silverbulletday.

In the final furlongs Lemon Drop Kid, seemingly out of nowhere, swooped past both horses for the win.  Charismatic finished a disappointing third.

And then tragedy struck.  Within a few strides of the finish line, Antley jumped from the saddle and held desperately to Charismatic’s front leg.

The horse had severely dislocated his ankle.  Equine Veterinarian Larry Bramlage stated that Charismatic’s injuries probably would have been fatal if not for the quick action of Antley, but the media would not be stopped.  Accusations of Antley running the horse too hard too fast too early began to circulate.  The rumors were fueled by Lukas refusing to comment on the subject.  Chris Antley was “depressed and inconsolable” according to Gary Stevens.  Exhausted and withdrawn, Antley officially retired from racing in March 2000.

Newly married and expecting his first child, Antley began showing increasingly erratic behavior.  By July, Antley was using drugs again, at one point even having a meth lab in his California home.  Chris Antley was found dead in his home on December 2, 2000, at the age of 34.  Police initially ruled the death a homicide, citing defensive wounds.

A friend from rehab, Timothy Tyler, had moved in to Antley’s home in July 2000 and was a suspect in the case.  Six weeks later, though, the coroner’s office ruled the death a drug overdose and the case was closed.


Chris Antley won 3,480 races during his career as a jockey, winning more than $92 million.

D. Wayne Lukas holds the record for the most Breeders Cup wins and is tied for Triple Crown wins of all time.

Charismatic currently is standing stud in Japan.

Depressing but moving… I give this ESPN special 3 out of 4 Golden Horseshoes.

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