02/24/2017 3:26PM

Hovdey: Charismatic filled out Old Friends triptych

Barbara D. Livingston
Charismatic arrived at Old Friends last December.

It figures that Charismatic would not go quietly into that good night. From his noble birth in Kentucky to his roller coaster of a career to his shocking death last week at Old Friends Equine because of a pelvic fracture, the shimmering chestnut spent most of his 21 years as a poster boy for the triumph and tragedy of the racing game.

After taking forever to win a maiden race and running twice for high-priced claiming tags, no American Thoroughbred ever got more out of two winning races than Charismatic, who crept into the 1999 Kentucky Derby on tiptoe, won by a neck at 31-1, then proved it was no fluke two weeks later in the Preakness.

And certainly, no American racehorse has ever inspired his public like Charismatic did in the wake of his Belmont Stakes breakdown. In recovering from his life-threatening injuries, he became the game’s anti-Ruffian, a hero of flesh and blood who lost the battle but won the war.

Equine artist Fred Stone captured the moment forever in his painting of Charismatic squirming on three legs after the Belmont while jockey Chris Antley leaned against the colt and cradled his damaged left fore to keep it off the ground. Short of Goya’s bullfight scenes or the horses of Remington’s wild West, few portraits have ever laid so bare the sacrifice of man’s most cherished animal.

In January 2000, with Charismatic well on his way to restored good health and a stallion career, he was narrowly voted 1999 Horse of the Year. No one doubted that the implied nobility of his third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes on three good legs placed an emotional thumb on the Eclipse Award scale. And so what if it did, if his name on that special list inspires someone to google the story?

Then, in December 2000, the Charismatic tale turned grim once again when Antley was found dead in his Pasadena, Calif., home from what was eventually determined to be the result of a drug-induced frenzy. The deep connection between Antley and Charismatic led most of the news reports, but Stone did not need to do another painting. His first one said it all.

Now another artistic talent will be committing to canvas the handsome image of Charismatic, who was repatriated from stallion duty in Japan last December with the financial help of his former owner, Beverly Lewis, and her family. Charismatic was trained by D. Wayne Lukas and raced in the colors of Robert and Beverly Lewis.

Dagmar Galleithner-Steiner, the unofficial Old Friends house artist, had planned a composition that would include the three Kentucky Derby-Preakness winners in residence at the farm near Lexington, Ky. Silver Charm and War Emblem she already knew up close and personal. But not until she moved to Kentucky from California earlier this month with her husband, retired jockey Joe Steiner, and their son Jonah had she been eye to eye with Charismatic.

Before heading to Kentucky, Galleithner-Steiner had delivered the official 2016 Pacific Classic portrait of California Chrome to Del Mar, where it will be unveiled this summer. She was looking forward to spending time around her three subjects at Old Friends.

“Michael took us to see Charismatic the first night we arrived,” the artist said, referring to Old Friends founder and president Michael Blowen. “By then, he had grown his winter coat, so he had lost that polish of a newly retired stallion. He seemed very comfortable, a real farm boy, but what struck me was his very compact head, so powerful looking.”

Blowen and his Old Friends board of directors must deal with the mortality of their aging residents with painful regularity. In the past year, they have said goodbye to such familiar stars as Gulch (32), Wallenda (26), Hidden Lake (23), and Futural (20). And now, after barely two months on the farm, Charismatic.

“It’s hard, very hard,” Blowen said. “Charismatic was the first horse I contacted his Japanese owners about, 12 years ago. I told them when they were through with him, we wanted him. But every year they said, ‘One more season.’ Until last year. The day he arrived was one of the most special in the history of the farm.”

Blowen said a celebration of Charismatic’s life is being planned for April, when the racing world comes to town for Keeneland – where Charismatic won the 1999 Lexington Stakes – and for the pre-Derby festivities. His remains will be interred in a plot of Old Friends ground alongside Hall of Famers Noor and Skip Away.

“His son, I’m Charismatic, is still going strong here,” Blowen said. “He’s 16, he’s blind, and he is the leader of the herd.

“And do you want to hear some good news?” Blowen added. “Tomorrow we’re getting Sun King.”

Sun King, 15, won the Pennsylvania Derby and $2.2 million in prize money. His modest stud career came to an end when he was donated to Auburn University as the house stallion for study courses in husbandry. Now, his former owner, Tracy Farmer, has signed his ticket for Old Friends.

“I guess it’s fitting,” Blowen said. “After all, he is Charismatic’s best son. Just don’t tell I’m Charismatic I said that.”