Charlsie Cantey never sought to break ground as the first female racing broadcaster. She never fancied herself as the pioneering type. It just sort of happened.
Cantey was among a handful of women exercising horses in 1975 when Frank Tours, then with the New York Racing Association, asked if she might be interested in appearing regularly on a television show that featured local racing on WOR. The more he asked, the more vehemently she rejected the notion.
Finally, as a way to put the matter to rest more than anything, she reluctantly agreed to meet with Bill Creasy, who oversaw the broadcast and was eager to add Cantey to the voices of Dave Johnson and Frank Wright.
Not long after that, Cantey received a phone call that Wright would be forced to miss one show due to another commitment. Would she replace him for an afternoon?
She agreed, and it was as if it was meant to be from the start. Her search for material began and ended with a horse that could not have been more aptly named – No Bias.
He was wheeled back in the Vosburgh Stakes as part of the telecast one day after he sprinted to an allowance win at Belmont Park. Remarkably, No Bias won for the second time in as many days.
The storyline could not have worked out any better. And Cantey could not have worked out any better after overcoming early skepticism.
“I’m sure people thought ‘Charlsie Cantey is going to be on television?’ And then you watch her one or two times and you realize, ‘Yeah, this works,’ ” said Johnson.
Although Cantey battled nervousness throughout a 30-year broadcasting career that went on to include, at one time or another, ABC, CBS, ESPN, and NBC, she was a hit from the start.
“She was just terrific,” said Johnson, a mentor who became a good friend. “She was a natural in terms of communication.”
Cantey knew horses, and she knew special horses as the exercise rider for the great Ruffian. She spoke from the heart, capturing audiences with her knowledge, folksy style, and charm.
“All I know is what got me through the whole thing was the fact that I loved the sport so much,” she said. “All I wanted was to be around the racetrack and be with horses and be involved with horses. To this day, I pinch myself.”
There were very few women when Cantey broke in as an exercise rider. Many of them were the wives of trainers. She remembers approaching someone about the possibility of working for Frank Whiteley’s powerful stable.
“Don’t even think about it,” she was told. “He wouldn’t have a girl in that shedrow for nothing.”
Undaunted by such pessimism, she convinced Whiteley that she could be an asset.
“He was tough,” Cantey said, “but, boy, did he have a batch of great horses.”
In truth, riding came to her more easily than broadcasting. The immediacy of live television unsettled her throughout her career and led her to work with a hypnotist. That provided some help in the five years before her retirement in 2005.
“It didn’t matter how much you prepare,” Cantey said. “The first camera rolls and everything can really go to hell.”
Cantey, of course, more than made it through.
“I never got any criticism of her, man or woman,” Johnson said. “I just thought that the people I hung out with, and the people I liked, thought she was a tremendous addition to racing on television.”
Cantey is gratified to know that she helped pave the way for the many women who work in racing. She remembers one girl, in particular, whose mother had forbidden her from seeking employment at the track. The mother changed her opinion after watching Cantey on television.
“Working just as a regular backstretch worker was a big step forward and television was a major step,” Cantey said. “I look at all the talented girls doing paddock shows and it has just exploded.”
She thought back to her early days, when it was impossible to find a women’s restroom in the barn area, when the odds were so long against making a significant contribution in a male-dominated industry.
“Everything has come a long way, baby,” she said.
- Cantey graduated from George Washington University in 1968.
- She has one son, Joseph B. Cantey IV, named after her first husband. Douglas Davidson is her second husband.
- Cantey appeared on “What’s My Line” when she worked as a trainer.
- She replaced Phyllis George on “The NFL Today” in 1984 when George took maternity leave.
Cantey was presented with Jim McKay Award for broadcasting excellence by National Turf Writers and Broadcasters in 2014.