Updated on 02/28/2017 11:59AM

Charismatic, 1999 Horse of the Year, dies unexpectedly at 21

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Barbara D. Livingston
Charismatic had just begun his retirement at Old Friends in December.

Hall of Fame trainer Wayne Lukas visited his 1999 Kentucky Derby winner Charismatic in December at Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky., a day after the stallion was re-patriated to Kentucky following more than a decade at stud in Japan.

“He looked good enough that you probably could have tacked him up and galloped him,” Lukas said Sunday. “He looked terrific.”

So it was a shock when Charismatic, the 1999 Horse of the Year when he won the Derby and the Preakness Stakes, was found dead Sunday morning at Old Friends. The cause of the 21-year-old stallion’s death was not immediately known. A necropsy will be performed.

“Right now, everyone is pretty much inconsolable,” Old Friends founder and president Michael Blowen said in a statement. “Last night, at 6:30, he was fine. He was a really tough horse and he deserved a much longer retirement.”

Owned by the late Robert Lewis and his wife, Beverly Lewis, Charismatic went from claimer to Triple Crown contender in less than four months in 1999. The son of Summer Squall finished second in a $62,500 claimer in February 1999 at Santa Anita, promoted to first in that race after a rival was disqualified for causing interference in the stretch. After finishing second in an allowance race at Santa Anita and the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, Charismatic was fourth behind General Challenge in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3. Two weeks later, the colt won the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, earning a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

“I think the one that probably was the turning point for me was the Lexington,” Lukas said. “We ran him in the Lexington and I got a little bit of the vibes, and a little bit of that turning in the stomach, that maybe he was better than I thought. Because I misread him totally, obviously, running him for a claim. But that day after he won the Lexington, I thought, ‘You know, he’s okay. He deserves a shot in the Derby.’ But I wasn’t thinking grandiose ideas of winning the Derby.

Jerry Bailey, “who rode him, couldn’t ride him back in the Derby, and he came to me the next morning and said, ‘You know, that horse really impressed me, and if I had a chance to ride him I would ride him in the Derby,’ ” Lukas recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, here’s a Hall of Famer – he had [the mount on] one of the favorites in Worldly Manner – and he tells me I’d ride your horse.’ 

“A little while later, Pat Day motioned to me out in the yard and I went over and talked to him and he said, ‘I was second to you the other day and that big red horse just ran by me so easy.’ He said, ‘I think you got a shot in the Derby.’

“Here’s two Hall of Famers the week of the Derby telling me that, and sure enough, they were right.”

Sent off as a 31-1 outsider under the late Chris Antley in the Derby, Charismatic rallied five wide to take the lead in the final furlong and win by a neck over Menifee. Those two finished first and second in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, with Charismatic prevailing by 1 1/2 lengths at 8-1.

Three weeks later, Charismatic was 8-5 to complete the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Charismatic led with a quarter-mile remaining, but could not keep the advantage and finished third to Lemon Drop Kid, losing by 1 1/2 lengths.

Shortly after the finish, Antley dismounted Charismatic, who had pulled up with a career-ending fracture to his left front ankle. The fast-thinking Antley coaxed the colt into lifting his stricken leg and the rider cradled the colt’s leg until ambulance personnel arrived on the scene moments later.

Charismatic retired with a record of 5 wins in 17 starts and earnings of $2,038,064. In addition to the title of Horse of the Year, Charismatic was honored as the outstanding 3-year-old male of 1999.

Charismatic began his stud career at co-breeder William S. Farish’s Lane’s End in 2000. He moved to Japan beginning with the 2003 breeding season, after being purchased by the Japan Racing Association to stand at the JBBA’s Shizunai Stallion Station.

From 426 foals of racing age, Charismatic is the sire of 374 starters and 265 winners for progeny earnings of more than $44.5 million. His runners in the United States were led by Sun King, who won four graded stakes, including the 2005 Pennsylvania Derby, and earned more than $2.2 million. He placed in eight Grade 1 events. Charismatic also is the sire of Grade 3 winner Gouldings Green and Wonder Acute, a multiple group stakes winner in Japan.

Charismatic is the sire of Old Friends resident I’m Charismatic, who arrived at the farm in February 2010 after banking more than $200,000 while winning 10 of 92 career starts.

Charismatic was pensioned at the end of last year in order to move to Old Friends, which had publicly said several times in the past that it stood ready to accept him upon the end of his stud career. His return journey was sponsored in large part by a gift from his former owners via their Robert and Beverly Lewis Foundation. The Lewises’ other Derby and Preakness winner, Silver Charm (1997), also calls Old Friends home. Tito’s Handmade Vodka, another supporter of Old Friends, also made a donation in support of Charismatic.

“The sad part is that he was doing so well,” Lukas said. “They made such an effort to get him home. And when I went out and looked at him I couldn’t believe the condition of him. He was in beautiful shape. We spent the day out there with him and took pictures and everything and it looked like it was going to be forever. But you never can predict these things, and they don't know, I think, really what happened yet.

“He was a part of our career – a big part of it,” Lukas continued. “You don’t replace Derby winners very easy. I really loved that horse. I was very fond of him. He was a knockout looker. When you get one that’s such an overachiever – I really thought that he might end up in the claiming ranks his entire career and the next thing he’s going for the Triple Crown – it was just a joy to be around him.”

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen and Mary Rampellini