The blessed, yet cursed life of Chris Antley

Updated: December 14, 2000, 4:31 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

It wasn't that long ago that Chris Antley experienced his finest and most memorable moment on the racetrack, the 1999 Kentucky Derby, a race he not only won but won under the glare of the spotlight of the media, which gobbled up the warmer aspects of his incredible journey and his latest comeback. But the Chris Antley who won the Derby and Preakness aboard Charismatic was already a shell of the magnificent young talent who burst on the scene in the mid-eighties and who seemed poised to rewrite the record books. He had had barely 100 winners over the past two problem-filled years, was heavy and got the mount from trainer Wayne Lukas only because no one else was available when Laffit Pincay Jr. turned it down.

He was Joe DiMaggio incarnate. He was a natural. He could do things so effortlessly. ”
— Drew Mollica
Those close to him realized it was worse than that, that he was a troubled individual on an inexorable path toward self-destruction. In fact, Antley's riding career soon collapsed again, less than a year later. Some 18 months after the Derby win, his life came to a tragic ending when he was apparently beaten to death in his Pasadena, California home. The person who struck Antley with a fatal blow snuffed out his life. His riding career had, for all practical purposes, wasted away years earlier. In the days when Antley's mind was free of the poison of drugs and personal demons, he was one of the most naturally gifted jockeys anyone had ever seen. Poised to become one of the greatest jockeys ever, he became instead a poster child for wasted talent. Antley's first steps toward the racetrack began in his native Elloree, South Carolina, where, when he was 14, he wandered on to the grounds of the Elloree Training Center and got a job doing menial tasks for trainer Franklin Smith. Before long, he was riding the most difficult horses among Smith's group of yearlings and 2-year-olds who were being prepared for the track. "He had hands like Pat Day, but he could be an animal on a horse like Angel Cordero Jr.," Smith said. "And he could think like think like Chris McCarron. He had everything a rider needs to be a good one. And he was very confident right from the start. Right away, we knew this kid was really different. I told my brother (Maryland-based trainer Hamilton Smith) that I had a kid who was unbelievable. If ever there was a natural, he was it." Antley arrived at the Maryland racetracks in 1983 at the age of 17 and won his first race June 11, 1983 at Pimlico. The following year he went to New Jersey and started to tear up that circuit, winning a record 171 races at the 1984 Monmouth meet. In 1985, he led the country with 469 wins and won 731 races the next two years combined, which included a record nine winners in one day. He was just getting started. By 1987, Antley was beginning to take the next step, graduating into the elite echelon. He won the 1987 Wood Memorial aboard Private Terms, who would lose in the Kentucky Derby as the favorite. "He did brilliant things," said Drew Mollica, his agent from 1984 through 1990 and who called Antley at the time `Roy Hobbs in jockey silks.' "He was Joe DiMaggio incarnate. He was a natural. He could do things so effortlessly." Before his 22nd birthday, he had compiled 1,608 wins in less than five full years of riding. Ignoring his first season, when he rode half the year, he was averaging 377 wins a year. If he could have kept up anything close to that pace, the numbers would have been staggering. Just imagine what could have been. "It's easy to say after someone has passed away that they could have been anything," Mollica said. "In his case, it's not hyperbole. He'd be right there in numbers with (Laffit) Pincay (Jr.). "He could have won 10,000 races." If they're lucky and relatively injury-free, most jockeys can ride at top form into their late forties. Had Antley averaged just 300 winners a year from 1987 on, he would have had over 5,500 winners by now and would have hit 10,000 by his 49th birthday. Pincay, who turns 54 Dec. 26, has 9,028 career winners. But whatever chance he had for immortality ended when he began a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse that he could never conquer. That, coupled with depression and other personal problems, put Antley's career on the brink, and he could never quite get back on solid ground. Antley's substance abuse problems surfaced in 1988 when he, now riding on the New York circuit, entered drug rehab in December of that year. He made it back from that setback, winning 240 races in 1989 and starting a streak in which he won at least one race for 64 straight racing days. Just when it had seemed that he had put his woes behind him, he was back in trouble. In Sept., 1989, he lost his license due to continued drug problems. "In the days before he was really messed up (on drugs) he was as focused as he had ever been on his craft," Mollica said. "It showed in his numbers. As time went by, his volume and his numbers went down and maybe that was because his focus had waned." Antley had two more semi-successful years after the 1989 revocation of his license, including a win in the1991 Kentucky Derby aboard Strike the Gold. But his best days were already behind him. He won 214 races in 1991 and would never reach that mark again. For the rest of his career, he was in and out of the game, missing for prolonged periods of time, absences he attributed to weight problems. In retrospect, it was more than that, probably a combination of weight, drugs and personal problems, a combination that caused him to so unravel that riding was out of the question. He did not ride at all in 1998, the year before he returned to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Publicly, Antley appeared happy then and the media bought into the story that he had conquered not only his weight problems but his demons. We were fooled. "As long as I've known him, the only time he was ever in control were those 15 minute periods from the time he climbed aboard a horse in the paddock to the time the race was over," Mollica said. There are so many reasons why his life and its premature ending were tragedies. Underneath all the problems, Antley was just a sweet, naive, messed up kid. He had been blessed and cursed in his life, cursed with personal demons and blessed with a gift, the ability to ride a race horse like no one else could. He could have been the best ever. What a shame.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com