History Lesson: My Charmer

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Larry Robideaux Jr. remembers the day well, gathered around the television set with other horsemen to watch the sixth running of the Marlboro Cup Invitational in 1978 at Belmont Park – a race memorable to many around the world because it marked the first meeting between two Triple Crown winners.

Certainly Robideaux and his colleagues were interested in the race because it pitted Seattle Slew against Affirmed. Who wasn’t? But the New Orleans native was also interested because what he saw in Seattle Slew that day, and other days the 1977 Triple Crown winner raced, was something he first witnessed more than seven years earlier as he trained the colt’s dam.

“We were watching the Marlboro Cup on television and Seattle Slew, he was a nervous son of a gun, always hyper,” Robideaux said this week from his home on Bossier City, Louisiana, not far from Louisiana Downs. “The guys watching were carrying on, like ‘oh heck, he’s washing out’ and this and that. I said, ‘just like his mother.’ She was like that, too, but what a nice filly to train.”

The filly that would gain international fame as the broodmare who produced racing’s 10th Triple Crown winner was My Charmer, namesake of a $100,000 stakes for fillies and mares to be run Saturday as part of the Tropical meeting at Calder Race Course.

Despite the fact the Grade 3 stake is being run in South Florida and on the grass – two places My Charmer never raced – the honor seems appropriate, especially to Robideaux.

“She was just a pleasure to have,” said Robideaux, 80, now retired from training but still active in racing as Louisiana Downs’ stall superintendent. “She was a nervous-type filly, but a willing participant. I was reminiscing with some older pictures the other day, from way back when, and I saw one of her. You never realize when you have them sometimes what nice-looking individuals they are and she was. Conformation wise and everything. Solid bay, but a great looking filly.”

Ben Castleman and Martin Fiege, who purchased My Charmer’s dam, Fair Charmer, from the late Elizabeth N. Graham’s Maine Chance Farm shortly before a dispersal of that farm’s stock at Keeneland November breeding stock sale in 1967, bred her in Kentucky.

My Charmer would become the first stakes winner for Poker, who at the time stood at L. P. Doherty’s The Stallion Station in Lexington and would later become much more noted as a broodmare sire. She raced 18 times as a 2-year-old, debuting in early February in $10,000 maiden claiming company, and it took her nine starts to win her first race. Three of her first eight losses came in claiming company and she also finished seventh in the Debutante Stakes at Fair Grounds in her fourth start.

Robideaux didn’t mind racing My Charmer often, lamenting to an adage horsemen of another era sometimes swear by that basically says one race is the equivalent of five works. The other members of his small string also dealt Robideaux’s hand at the time.

“As I got more horses, then I could work in sets,” Robideaux said. “But when I had her, I might have only had 10 horses at the time and nothing I could work her with. I couldn’t get fitness working, so I did it in a race.”

My Charmer won two of next eight starts to wrap her juvenile campaign. Robideaux didn’t race her in November and December, and then brought her back with the same philosophy in mid-January at Fair Grounds. She won her fourth start of the season, a 6-furlong allowance race on a sloppy track, then returned 15 days later to finish second in a similar race. Larry Melancon, then a 5-pound apprentice and now retired with 2,857 victories, was aboard for those races. The official chart of that race said she “then worked out a mile” after the finish, another almost obsolete style that was by design.

“I told Larry to let her go out the extra distance, a quarter of a mile, just to make sure she had enough air,” Robideaux said. “I’ve done that over the years with horses I’ve been sprinting and were running long. And I had the race picked out for her, so she needed that extra quarter.”

The race was the seventh running of $23,350 Fair Grounds Oaks, which will carry a purse of $500,000 in March. With Melancon riding, My Charmer raced in third early and just off the early pace. She swung wide in the lane and won the 1 1/16-mile Oaks by a length over Color Me Blue.

“That was a long time ago,” Robideaux said. “I started training in 1960 and along the way I picked up excerpts from other trainers. I was just a little farm boy. I started from scratch, never groomed, just took care of my own horses. I galloped some. Back then getting stuff from other guys was a gift.

“I watched Woody Stephens and I watched Allen Jerkens, even though I’ve never met him. Woody, I met him. But my main man that I got a lot of information from was Marion Van Berg, Jack’s daddy. He gave me a lot of knowledge that I incorporated into my training.”

Robideaux trained until 2012, winning 1,963 races and accumulating purses of $23,569,100. His stable earned $1 million or more in purses four times, a long way from the season he completed during My Charmer’s 3-year-old year. The stable earned $323,512 that year, $23,160 from My Charmer’s 14 starts.

My Charmer only posted one more victory after the Fair Grounds Oaks, that coming in a $25,000 claiming race at Arlington Park and she ended her career that September in the Windy City Handicap at Sportsman’s Park. She joined Castleman’s small broodmare band at his White Horse Acres, located not far from Fasig-Tipton Kentucky’s base on Newtown Pike in Lexington and named for his White Horse Tavern, a popular watering hole for horsemen near Latonia Race Course (now Turfway Park) in Northern Kentucky.

The third mare mated to Claiborne Farm’s first-year stallion Bold Reasoning – on a $5,000 stud fee and based on advice Castleman got from Seth Hancock – My Charmer got in foal on the first cover in 1973. Seattle Slew was born the following year and went on to one of the most celebrated racing careers in American racing history. He won 14 of 17 starts, including his first nine through the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, a Horse of the Year crown in 1977, three consecutive divisional titles from 1976 to 1978 and induction into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1981.

“He was her first foal, and she was the first foal out of her dam,” Robideaux said. “Lightning strikes. I’ve always said, the horse business works in mysterious ways.”

Entries for Saturday’s My Charmer Handicap.

Watch Seattle Slew defeat Affirmed in 1978 Marlboro Cup Invitational.

Learn more about My Charmer, her Triple Crown-winning son Seattle Slew and other offspring that include $13.1 million yearling Seattle Dancer.

Read about Larry Melancon, who rode My Charmer to victory in 1972 Fair Grounds Oaks.

New York Times’ obit of Ben Castleman.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a regular series designed to shed light on the rich, colorful and sometimes forgotten or ignored history of racing in North America. If you’ve got a topic that’s interesting or something you’ve always wondered about related to racing, send it to Tom Law at [email protected] and we’ll start digging.