August 04, 1980 12:00 PM

Temperence Hill had just thundered across the finish line to win June’s Belmont Stakes at 53 to 1. Stationed down the homestretch, a CBS-TV commentator impulsively pulled off her headset, dashed through the mud to the winner’s circle and kissed the victorious trainer.

If Charlsie Cantey’s behavior was less than professional, at least she had good reason: Temperence Hill’s trainer is her husband, Joe. Their marriage has beaten the odds too. While she was posing for a victory photo, Charlsie, 34, kept wishing her late mother was watching. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to say, ‘I told you so,’ ” she laments. “Momma was always mad I hadn’t married someone with wads of money.” Now Joe, 38, is providing nicely. He ranks among the top trainers in the U.S., his horses having won more than $1 million in 1979, of which Cantey collected 10 percent.

Despite Momma’s concern, the couple figured to be a winning combination. For 12 years Charlsie has spent dawns exercising racehorses and many of her afternoons breaking skittish yearlings to saddle. Since 1976 she has done weekly telecasts from the track for a New York City station.

So she knows the business, which Joe says has been vital to their marriage. “In racing,” he explains, “you leave for work at 5 a.m. and don’t come home until 9 p.m., seven days a week. When you get home, if your wife wants to go dancing, that leads to trouble. Fortunately, Charlsie always got up at 4:30 a.m., the same as I did.”

The couple met in the early ’60s when they tied for third place in a South Carolina horse show. She ran into Joe again in 1968 when she was looking for someone else in a bar near the Saratoga, N.Y. racetrack. Cantey was talking to a jockey she knew, so she stopped to chat. Hours later they were still at the table and Joe was joking, “Maybe we should get married—how about tomorrow?” Replied Charlsie: “Fine. I’ll meet you on the backstretch after the last race.” They wed the next year.

Joe is the son of a tobacco, cotton and cattle farmer from Camden, S.C. He grew up riding, fishing and hunting, becoming such a crack shot he was asked by Winchester to tour the country to demonstrate its shotguns. As a teenager Cantey hung around the Camden training stables, where thoroughbreds winter. He went off to college—”Clemson, the University of Georgia and several others”—and played trumpet seriously enough to make the Asheville Symphony in his early 20s.

However, he returned to his first love, horses, opening a stable in Camden for hunters. He supplemented his income by schooling steeplechasers for Mrs. Marian duPont Scott (who was once married to actor Randolph Scott). When he bumped into Charlsie in Saratoga, he was working as an assistant trainer.

The daughter of a Raleigh engineer, she was christened Charlsie as a compromise. Her father was determined to have a child named Charles Oscar, but he relented when the infant’s sisters objected. One of them, Ann “Puddin’ ” Lincoln, subsequently played an ingenue on Broadway before mothering six children. The other sister is the irreverent author-TV personality Barbara Howar, “who was more mother than my real mother,” according to Charlsie. Howar, 45, agrees: “I was the only girl my age with a kid’s seat in her car. I’d ride up and down fraternity row and flirt with all the North Carolina State boys, and alongside me was this little thing, sticking her finger up her nose.

“I used to pay for Charlsie’s pony rides,” Howar continues. “I’d buy up all the rides and go off. Hours later I’d come back and there was Charlsie, still going around in circles.”

At 12, Charlsie got her first horse. She turned the $300 bargain into one of the best open jumpers in the U.S. Then, while at college in Washington, D.C.—two years at Mount Vernon, two at George Washington—Charlsie moonlighted at a thoroughbred training center in Middleburg, Va. “There’s nothing like being on a racehorse, just galloping,” she says. “I was hooked, bitten, stung and burned for life.” After graduation she began working full-time for trainers at Delaware Park, Belmont and then Saratoga. She eventually was earning $400 a week.

When she and Joe married in 1969 in Camden, her parents weren’t invited. “As far as Momma was concerned,” Charlsie says, “Joe was just something I dragged in from the racetrack! When I wanted to set a wedding date, Momma would claim the living room needed painting, or she had to lose weight. She wouldn’t agree to a time.”

As Momma surmised, the couple had little to live on. Joe got his trainer’s license in 1970 and was given two horses by a Camden drugstore owner. One nag was 9 years old and had sinus trouble. The other was 11. Neither had raced before. Joe scraped along, training jumpers, until a friend introduced him to an owner looking to buy a flat horse. Joe picked out Too Many Chiefs, who was 4 years old, blind in one eye and had just had a knee operation. “He was not what you call ideal,” Charlsie understates. Yet he ultimately won more than $100,000 and kept the Canteys eating while Joe built his reputation.

By 1979 he had 30 horses in training and Temperence, an $80,000 yearling purchase, in the barn. Cantey helped pick out the colt for lumberman John Ed Anthony of Fordyce, Ark., who named the dark bay after a nearby community but inadvertently misspelled “temperance.” The horse didn’t win his first race until last February. “Temperence Hill loves to go out there and do his thing,” Joe says. “He usually just doesn’t want to do it very quickly.” Despite his erratic history, he has won $400,000 so far.

He will be entered in the $125,000 Travers Stakes on August 16 at Saratoga, which Charlsie will broadcast for CBS. Her TV colleague, trainer Frank Wright, says, “This is not a case of showcasing another dumb broad.” SPORTS ILLUSTRATED rated her in track jargon: has the credentials, rates attention, can handle this field. Charlsie and Joe have both felt uncomfortable the few times she has interviewed him. The Canteys almost never work together, even on the backstretch. Charlsie has ridden mostly for other stables.

She and Joe have collaborated recently, though. Charlsie is pregnant with their first child, due in November. They’ve scaled down their plans—Joe once said he wanted seven children—and two years ago they bought a two-bedroom Long Island home.

Charlsie quit riding nine months ago and will resign as a TV commentator when the baby arrives. But she is not sure how far she will stay from racing. Visiting the stable at Belmont one morning recently, she admitted, “I come to the barn and walk the horses, just to keep familiar.” Meanwhile big sister Barbara has found a project to keep Charlsie in touch—a contract for a children’s book. It will, of course, be about adventures with horses.

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