“This is a story of hope and reclamation,” says the narrator at the start of Charismatic. Named for the colt who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1999, the documentary—which premieres on ESPN on 18 October—is also a story of demons and drugs and dreams. The jockey who rode Charismatic to his audacious victories, Chris Antley, was gifted and troubled. As the film begins, he’s just getting out of rehab, and the chance to ride Charismatic is a last one. He was brought on by the horse’s trainer, the famous Wayne Lukas, and he made the best of it, at least at first (Lukas is not interviewed here, maybe because, as one colleague suggests, he still blames Antley’s bad ride in the Belmont that year for not winning the Triple Crown). Steve Michaels’ film offers a series of race footage clips, walks through barns, and talking heads. These include Antley’s friend and fellow jockey Gary Stevens and assistant trainers Mike Marlow and Randy Bradshaw: they describe basic events, noting that the horse was in a claiming race just three months before the Kentucky Derby, then won that race as a 31-1 shot with Antley on board.
This late “blossoming” was not unheard of, but it was thrilling: the horse and Antley became instantly famous as redemption stories, before they were not. The film goes at these stories in odd ways, framing TV interviews or races footage on actual TVs, located in stable aisles or in locker rooms. On one level, the device suggests the causal links between mass media and myths, the ways that stories are concocted for consumption and profits, and also how tragedies are similarly exploited. But the film doesn’t make this analysis, as much as it acts out a similar exploitation. Antley’s redemption is short-lived, and the film doesn’t look at how this happens or how the culture of jockeys and the industry of horse racing are contexts for it, so much as it laments the loss of an opportunity to make history.