At races, she's got an inside track

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charlsie Cantey has circled Churchill Downs astride a thoroughbred with a mini-cam strapped to her helmet. She has saddled winners at Pimlico Race Course. And she has dashed down the stretch at the Belmont Stakes in a breathless bid to reach the victor in the winner's circle. She traversed that 1/16 of a mile in less-than-record time: Cantey was on foot, and five months' pregnant, that day.

Here's the point: Cantey, of Chevy Chase, is far more familiar than most with the racetracks that make up the Triple Crown. Perhaps that's part of the reason why NBC-TV retained her as the only on-air personality covering this year's Kentucky Derby, tomorrow's Preakness Stakes and next month's Belmont Stakes. Until last year, the races were broadcast on ABC, where Cantey served as a commentator on every Triple Crown race for the past 14 seasons.

What a ride it has been. In 1985, Cantey prepared for the Derby by rounding the track with a camera mounted on her headgear, ABC's bid to give fans a jockey's-eye view of the course. In 1996, while training horses for a year at Pimlico, she spent a hectic Preakness week galloping her charges at dawn before joining the media stampede for stories.

The memorable moment at the Belmont came when Cantey was working for CBS and had a personal stake in the outcome. Twenty-one years ago, the Belmont went to a longshot trained by her then-husband, Joe Cantey. Seeing Temperence Hill ahead in the stretch, Charlsie Cantey dropped her microphone and sprinted alongside the pack, a mother-to-be threading her way through the cheering crowd.

"I ran all the way from the quarter-pole, wheezing for air," she says. "My director, Bob Fishman, said that me and the baby finished second and third. Hey, I had to be in the winner's circle. That horse paid $108 to win [for a $2 bet]."

Such are the tales that wag Cantey's tongue. A former exercise rider, trainer and owner, she has seen it all in more than three decades of reporting from the track.

"Racing has such a cornucopia of personalities," she says. "Each horse, each person has its own story - all of these wonderful bouquets that you can give to the public. I absolutely, totally adore it."

Early obsession

Cantey has been hooked since her first horseback lesson at age 6, back home in Raleigh, N.C. "It was an obsession, even then," she says. "Any day that I couldn't ride was a bad day for me. I'd lay awake at night, as a child, worried I might hear rain on the roof, meaning I couldn't go out and ride the next day."

While attending George Washington University, she exercised horses and broke yearlings at a training center in Middleburg, Va. The buzz was addictive: "I'd wake up at 2 a.m., disappointed that it wasn't yet 5 o'clock and time to get up and gallop horses.

"Every morning was like a shot of adrenalin. I was gonzo over riding - and lucky to have finished college."

Cantey moved to New York, exercised thoroughbreds, married a trainer, learned the trade. In 1975, a local TV station asked her to co-anchor its nightly racing show. The program needed a woman. "You're nuts," she said, but took the job with no news experience. Within two years, she was network-bound, as viewers embraced her candor, her credibility - and her quips.

Working the Belmont last year, in 92-degree heat, Cantey was asked beforehand for her pick. "Right now," she said, "I'll take Central Air Conditioning."

To jockey Jerry Bailey, hugging 4-year-old son Justin after taking Cigar to an easy win in the '95 Woodward Stakes, she said: "I think Justin could have ridden Cigar to victory."

And to Mike Smith, who bombed aboard Holy Bull in the '94 Kentucky Derby, she said: "Your whole trip was a disaster. You never showed any speed at all." The jockey could only concur.

Well-respected

Cantey, 54, gets high marks from peers, past and present.

"There's no question she does an excellent job," says Jim McKay, the ABC commentator who owns a horse farm in Monkton. "She has a very good knowledge of racing, something that is probably more important than in any other sport."

"I love her to death," says David Michaels, her producer at NBC. "She was really underused in the past. The only person [from ABC] whom I really wanted on our team was Charlsie.

"She has this amazing gift of making people, who know nothing about racing, understand what's going on" - without insulting the railbirds, says Michaels. "She walks very well in both worlds."

Cantey can be frank: "His wings are made of gossamer," she said of highly regarded Arazi, after the horse tanked in the '92 derby. She can be facile: Awaiting the break at the '95 derby, a race featuring female jockey Julie Krone, she declared, "Lady and gentlemen, start your horses." She can be funny: Having failed three times to pronounce Fusaichi Pegasus, winner of last year's derby, Cantey threw up her hands and said, "We gotta change his name."

Critics say Cantey's biggest fault is her empathy for all things equine. Four years ago, she wept openly while interviewing Chris McCarron, winner of the Travers Stakes, one day after the jockey had buried his 75-year-old mother.

"He was crying and I was crying. I could hardly get through it," she says now. "It was very easy to draw me offsides that day."

Knows her stuff

But that sensitivity is part of her allure, says NBC's Tom Hammond, co-host of tomorrow's Preakness.

"Charlsie is a horsewoman, not an artificial broadcaster," he says. "[Viewers] look at this sport through her eyes; that's part of her appeal."

None who saw it will forget Cantey's heartfelt post-race dialogue with a tearful Chris Antley, whose favored mount, Charismatic, fractured a leg in the '99 Belmont. Some called the interview gripping; others decried it as "grief counseling."

Cantey: "He gave you a lot, Chris. And he's going to be safe. He's going to wind up fine."

Antley: "He will, I think. But the game goes on. Charismatic will be OK, I think. I'm just a little upset right now."

Cantey: "I know you are, and well you should be. But you know? You and Charismatic were a wonderful, wonderful comeback team."

Charismatic survived; Antley, beset by drug and alcohol problems, died last year.

Cantey defends her tender handling of the story.

"Chris' fears for that horse were so utterly genuine," she says. "That man had a fatal flaw, but he was very sensitive, without a streak of guile. What was I supposed to say, 'Listen, you jerk, you should have beaten the hide off of him all the way to the wire?' "

She thinks not.

"Hey, I never went to journalism school," she says. 'I react to having worked with horses."

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