ESPN Films: Charismatic (2011)

Directed by Steven Michaels

Horse racing is one of those things. It has its group of devotees, and they are generally rather passionate. Really it is just a glorified gamblers sport when “gentlemen” can wager large sums of money and root on their Thoroughbred beasts for the glory of their pocketbook. But there is something rather simple and attractive about the sport, and every year a lot of people amass at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky to see about 20 horses be pushed to their limit for a couple of minutes. And then there is the pursuit of the elusive Triple Crown that follows the Kentucky Derby winner every year. Some years it lasts longer than others and the feat hasn’t been accomplished in over 30 years, but one of the more recent tandems to make it 2/3 of the way there was Charismatic and his jockey Chris Antley.

But it wasn’t the most conventional story ever told when it comes to the pursuit of the Triple Crown for a couple reasons no one really could have predicted. The horse itself, trained by famed trainer D. Wayne Lukas, was not a star by any stretch of the imagination. He was an underachieving horse and, in fact, was raced in a “claimer” race just months before the Derby, where he won as a 30-1 shot. A Claimer race is one in which all of the horses that run in it are put up for sale for a price should anyone be interested. Luckily for the owners and the trainer, no one wanted Charismatic. But the jockey was an underdog as well, returning from rehab and being the only jockey desperate enough to take the job with an unsure horse. But the two of them created a magical run in the spring of 1999.

But just as heartwarming and redemptive as the story was, it did not end that way. Each of the two main stars met their own separate fate, as tragic as it was, and that is the real story here, not the Cinderella run, which we have seen before, but the tragic downfall which, while making for great drama, is more heart wrenching than the most heart warming of stories. The film is directed by Steven Michaels, someone I had not heard of as a filmmaker, but whose father all sports fans, and even most American in general, are quite familiar. The son of legendary sports announcer Al Michaels, Steven seems an unlikely choice as director, but he shows a steady hand in crafting a well paced, interesting documentary.

There is nothing really flashy in the presentation and most of the standard documentary procedures are followed, but what makes this better than many in the series is the fact that it rises above a simple presentation of events as they happened chronologically. Well, that and the fact that this story is pretty darn compelling and too real and dramatic to have been made up. There is often an outpouring of affection for animals that can sometimes be inequitable to that paid to our human counterparts. I can’t say that’s a shame because often I react the same way. I guess it just seems natural to feel sorry for an animal, especially in this case, when they seem almost defenseless.

But it is the human drama of this story which makes for a great watch. Second chances are few and far between, but to be able to do what Chris Antley did with his is remarkable at one moment, and sad and incomprehensible the very next. The presentation of his untimely death has my opinion clouded by doubt and haphazard facts. Give Michaels credit though for seeing the big picture and being able to set everything up, giving us the needed background on Antley and on Charismatic to make the climax worth as much as it is. I’m just not sure if he has enough vision to extend my interest past this film, which, while solid, was largely buoyed by its unique story.

*** – Good


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