I started this series with an East coast based runner, so this time I feature a favorite of mine from Cali, GENERAL CHALLENGE.
In 1999, Bob Baffert was the crown prince of the Kentucky Derby. He had trained the previous 2 winners, SIlver Charm & Real Quiet, both of whom had come within inches of capturing the Triple Crown. He had the top 2 fillies in the nation as well, Excellent Meeting and champion Silverbulletday. He also had a barnful of promising, classy three year olds primed for attack on the Derby trail. His best hope was the gelding dubbed “Rodman”: GENERAL CHALLENGE.
The chestnut with wide blaze and high white socks captured attention whenever he stepped onto the track, usually because of his hotheaded antics. It was obvious why he was gelded when he dumped exercise riders in the mornings and bullied assistant starters at the starting gate. Always outfitted with Baffert’s trademark navy blue blinkers, the colt was easy to spot on the track at Santa Anita. He raced under the maroon and gold colors of John & Betty Mabee’s Golden Eagle Farm, and was by their stallion General Meeting.
General CHallenge jumped on the Derby trail with his dominating performance in the Santa ANita Derby. The 2nd place horse, Prime Timber, was also a Baffert trainee owned by lumber magnate and racing newcomer Aaron Jones. Jones had sent several high-dollar colts to Baffert, and Prime Timber was the first of several stakes winners to come from that partnership that year. The best of Jones’s horses (Forestry) would not make noise until after the Derby, but I am getting off the subject at hand.
The 1999 Santa Anita Derby was just one piece of the huge mess that became Kentucky Derby 125. General Challenge would be coupled with Excellent Meeting as the favored entry (this was in the days before 20 separate betting interests). SA Derby fourth-place finisher Charismatic would make another start in the Lexington Stakes in a last-ditch effort to make the Derby field. In the East, one-hit-wonder Adonis captured the Wood, while Menifee charged home in the Bluegrass for Arthur Hancock. In Florida, First American won one of the last runnings of the Flamingo at Hialeah. Vicar, trained by Carl Nafzger, beat up on D. Wayne Lukas’s Cat Thief in the FLorida Derby. The biggest bomb of them all was VALHOL, the Arkansas Derby winner. After the race, Valhol’s jockey was captured on film dropping an object on the track which was later found & determined to be a battery-operated shocking device, or buzzer. In the drama that ensued, Valhol was disqualified, then not DQ’ed, then the purse money got held up in court, which allowed him to be entered in the Kentucky Derby. Add to that volatile mix 2 good fillies, Excellent Meeting and Three Ring, and you’ve got one helluva Kentucky Derby, Big Brown be damned.
General Challenge never had a chance in the 1999 “Demolition” Derby. The lack of any early speed whatsoever killed all the closers; the stalkers, like GC, got crammed and jostled and blocked in the traffic, and the only horse who got any sort of clean trip was 31-1 shot Charismatic. Next to Giacomo, Charismatic is the worst KY Derby winner in the past 15 years. The final Derby time was a snailish 2:03.20. You all know what happened next: Charismatic won the Preakness, setting up the 3rd TC attempt in as many years and media frenzy unheard of at the time. In the Belmont, Charismatic got caught up in a speed duel with Baffert’s Silverbulletday, and lost to Lemon Drop Kid & Vision and Verse. After the wire, Charismatic’s jock Chris Antley detected something amiss and jumped off the horse; the photos of teary-eyed Antley holding up Charismatic’s broken front leg made all the papers, was named NTRA’s inaugural “Moment of the Year” and helped cement his legacy as a racing hero. Charismatic survived the injury but never raced again.
MEANWHILE, General Challenge took a much-needed break after the terrible Derby trip, where he finished 11th of 19. He came back strong to take the Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood, then defeated older horses in the 1999 PAcific Classic. He was made one fo the favorites for the BC Classic at Gulfstream, but again traffic trouble bothered him and he was 10th to Cat Thief (one of the biggest upsets in BC history. The EX with Budroyale paid $1209). All was not lost for the wiggy chestnut – he came back in December for the Native Diver and ended his 3yo season with a win.
At the end of 1999, the Eclipse award race was just as freakish as the Derby. Despite not racing at all past the Belmont, Charismatic’s PR machine heavily influenced the voters and the chestnut was named Champion 3 year-old AND Horse of the Year. This, to me, was the biggest mistake in the history of the Eclipses. Victory Gallop, Behrens, and Silverbulletday (ALL MULTIPLE Gr1 WINNERS) could all have made a better HOTY than Charismatic. Heck, even Cat Thief I would have understood, seeing as he WON the BREEDERS’ CUP CLASSIC. But of course, my heart belongs to General Challenge.
At four, General Challenge was a tough cookie in Cali. He won the Strub stakes en route to a powerful performance in the Santa Anita Handicap. He looked all but invincible, but a series of physical and mental problems plagued him after the Big Cap. He was never as brilliant as his three-year-old season, but he still showed up for 2nd place effort in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and tried the Pacific classic once more, as well. The flashy gelding retired with 9 wins in 21 starts and over $2 million in earnings.
As for the rest of that crazy 1999 Derby field?
Cat Thief never won another race after the Classic, though he tried 10 times. His best start was a 2nd in the 2000 Whitney. He stands at stud in KY at Overbrook Farm for $7500.
Prime Timber raced for 2 more years desperately looking for another win, but he also never found the winner’s circle. He stands at Sez Who Thoroughbreds in NY for $3000.
Three Ring, the filly who carried silks designed by Calvin Klein, won the Acorn Stakes, defeating future Blue Hen mare Better Than Honor. Tragedy struck the filly as she was being readied for the Mother Goose Stakes — the normally unflappable filly reared and flipped over, striking her head and causing a fatal injury.
Valhol was finally, officially DQed from the Arkansas Derby, and his purse money was redistributed to place horse Certain. Jockey Billy Patin was suspended for life and even did some jail time, I think (though I seem to remember seeing his name among the entires on TVG..hmmm).
Charismatic, of course, spent the rest of ’99 recuperating and enjoying his hardware from the Eclipse awards. He spent 2 seasons at stud at Three Chimneys farm and was sent to Japan in 2002.
And I still think General Challenge should have gotten champion 3 year old colt.