For many horse racing fans, the experience of the sport's biggest race days comes through their television screens. Those of us who watched the Triple Crown more for the horses than the betting tips quickly learned to listen for the lilting voice of broadcaster Charlsie Cantey, who spent three decades giving audiences the horseman's viewpoint on the horses, jockeys, and trainers. As a child watching the broadcasts from my living room in central Virginia in the 1990s, it became clear that if I really wanted to know what was going on with a horse, I needed to wait for the camera to shift to the lady who was usually sitting atop one.
Cantey retired from her role as a broadcaster in 2005 and her horse-side interviews have since been taken over by Donna Barton-Brothers, but that doesn't mean Cantey is cut off from the racing world.
“I pay attention to everything that happens in racing, and I still care,” said Cantey, who makes an annual pilgrimage up to Maryland for the Preakness. “I always liked Pimlico. It's where I won my first race and was always my favorite broadcast.”
Cantey chose to leave the business when she married W. Douglas Davidson, senior vice president and financial adviser at Morgan Stanley. She had trained a string of horses in Maryland from 1996 through 1999 alongside her television career. After winning 46 races from 324 starts, Cantey said it “was a culture shock” to go from catching planes and reading condition books to living the quiet life – but she thinks it was the right decision.
“He was a complete civilian, although he loved the races,” she said. “When we decided to get married, he said, 'Just keep training your horses, that's fine.' I said, 'No, no, you don't understand.' My words, which I took straight from Criquette Head-Maarek, were, 'You cannot have a life and train horses. That's just a given.'”
Now, Cantey and Davidson have found another hobby, which she says isn't so different from horses: sailboats. Both take a lot of time, learning, and money, and she found the Annapolis Boat Show to be not unlike the Keeneland sales – hard to walk away from without a purchase, despite best intentions.
The couple have moved to Spring Island, S.C. and take sailing trips through the Caribbean. Cantey also has three grandchildren she spends time visiting in Texas. The time away from the track has given her a chance to connect more with nature, which is abundant on the peaceful Spring Island.
“I'm going on a birdwatching trip tomorrow,” Cantey said early Preakness week. “I always used to think 'Birdwatching! Who wants to stand around with a pair of binoculars and stare at trees?' But it's a whole other world out there. It's been fascinating.”
Cantey also stays involved with the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, which remains an important cause to her.
“It's really incredible,” she said. “The horses that have been saved from horrible calamities because of the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation are just incredible. It's amazing how few people really are aware of what they do. They keep the horses safe, the riders safe, and the sport's image in good tact.”
Cantey started in the horse business with sport horses, showing jumpers up and down the East Coast. When she was in college, a friend mentioned the Middleburg Training Center in Virginia, where her friend was galloping horses and breaking yearlings. Cantey rode to work with her one day and instantly knew this was the world she needed to be in. She recalled barely graduating George Washington University because she often cut class to ride at Middleburg and in Maryland. She hit the barns in the early 1970s looking to work as a freelancer at a time when she said few women were exercising horses. When she came by looking for a job, people usually laughed.
“I'd still love to get on one and gallop, I really would. But I'm not even going to think about it,” she said. “All I wanted to do was ride around the clock. I was doing what I would have done for free and they were paying me.”
Cantey based out of New York for much of the 1970s and looks back in awe at the quality of athlete she used to encounter on the horse path at the time.
“How's that for an office? Here comes Seattle Slew. He'd look great but I'd be more interested in whatever great joke Mike Kennedy, his exercise rider, would tell that morning. It was that commonplace,” she remembered. “Here comes Affirmed. Oh, there went Secretariat. At the time, we just sort of thought 'This is always going to happen' that there'd always be Triple Crown winners around. We didn't take it for granted, but that's just the way it was, every day, every week.”
It was after Cantey talked herself into a job with trainer Frank Whiteley that she was approached to fill in on a weekly television show for WOR-TV with Frank Wright and Dave Johnson. That gig eventually led to her job with national networks (CBS, then ABC, then NBC), covering the NFL and NBA along with Thoroughbred racing. But Cantey said she never got comfortable in front of the camera. She began dreading Saturday broadcasts starting on Wednesday, and rejoiced on Sundays when they were over and she could go back to the saddle. She quickly learned if she smiled, she could convincingly hide the nervous energy from most everyone. It's both ironic and humbling when she meets young racetrackers who tell her that as children, they wanted to grow up to be just like her.
“I remember when I was still up at Belmont Park a couple of gals came up to me and said, 'My mother would have never let me work on the track if it hadn't been for you' and that was so validating, I can't tell you,” Cantey recalled. “That's one of the nicest things people would say to me: 'You made the horses real to me.' They can put that on my epitaph, as far as I'm concerned.”
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