When you think about it, horse racing gets something of a bad rap. It is known as the "Sport of Kings," but it would be a stretch to say that the reputation has held up well over the years.
Nowadays, people don't really think of royalty when they think of horse racing. It is more of a sport of excess, one defined and run by people of incredible wealth. They breed and run the horses, and the people of lesser wealth get to gamble on the outcome. In fact, one could argue that it is a sport that exists only for gambling purposes.
I actually think that those who would make this argument have a valid point, but I would also say that this is an argument that doesn't quite do horse racing justice. Once you get beyond the cloud of decadence that surrounds the sport, it is clear that there are other, much more wholesome forces at work.
These forces are very much on display in ESPN Films' new documentary, Charismatic, which debuts tonight on ESPN. It is the story of near-Triple Crown winner Charismatic and his jockey, Chris Antley.
As Steve Michaels, the film's director, puts it, Antley was a "washed-up, anorexic, recovering drug addict" jockey by the time the late 1990s rolled around, but legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas gave him a shot by paring him with an unheralded colt.
That colt was Charismatic. With Antley on his back, Charismatic won the 1999 Kentucky Derby despite being a 31-1 longshot. A few weeks later, Antley and Charismatic won the Preakness Stakes. All they had to do was win the Belmont Stakes, and Charismatic would be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Not surprisingly, Charismatic had a lead in the Belmont Stakes, and it looked like the Triple Crown dream was going to be realized. That was when something broke, and Antley decided to slow Charismatic's pace. He then famously jumped off Charismatic and was shown cradling his leg in the middle of the track.
As it turned out, Charismatic's leg was broken in two places. By deciding to apply the brakes, Antley saved Charismatic's life. A little over a year later, Antley lost his own life after a drug overdose.
It's pretty easy to see why ESPN chose to turn this story into a documentary. It's a story that is a fine testament to the more human side of horse racing, which, oddly enough, involves a relationship between man and beast that exists in few other places, much less in few other sports.
In fact, this very relationship is what sets horse racing apart from other sports. Racing horses do get plenty of glory, but both horse and jockey are prone to being viewed as tools. A baseball player uses a bat, a NASCAR driver uses a car, a jockey uses a horse. The difference is that jockeys aren't widely respected as athletes. In the sports world, that means they may as well not be human.
The other difference is that it's impossible for a baseball player to have a relationship with his bat, and it's impossible for a driver to have a relationship with his car. Antley and Charismatic did have a relationship, and it was ultimately revealed to be a genuinely affectionate one.
In many ways, this is what defines their time together. Their wins at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes may as well be secondary concerns.
So the next time you think of horse racing as a decadent sport, remember Charismatic and Chris Antley.