The Charismatic Chris Antley

The Charismatic Chris Antley
Photo: Associated Press / Al Behrman
Chris Antley, after riding Charismatic to victory in the 1999 Kentucky Derby.
What was to have been a one-hour interview had stretched to twice that, filled with memories, laughter, poignancy, and tears. When it was finally over, the subject, Chris Antley, told the writer, "That was incredible. I think I can stop seeing my psychiatrist now."

If Antley's trips to the shrink stopped, the demons that followed him like a thundercloud never did. As tortured as he was inside, Antley was warm and engaging to friends and strangers alike. His openness in revealing his inner thoughts was disarming. He told stories about trainers that would have cost him his business had they been printed. Chris Antley may well have trusted everyone else, including the person who ended his life, too much, and himself not enough.

Antley grew up an insecure kid in South Carolina, too small to make the football team and be one of the popular ones. He fell into work at a stable in the town of Elloree, not because he knew anything about horses. He didn't. But he liked coming home with a few twenties in his pocket, with which he bought Izod shirts, a symbol to him of belonging.

People considered Antley a "natural" on a horse. Actually, he taught himself to ride by watching how the cowboys did it around the farm, and mimicking them. He didn't fall in love with riding. He fell in love with horses. One, a 2-year-old chestnut, in particular. Antley would rush to the stable from school, lay down with his head on the horse's stomach in the stall, then groom the horse until he could see his reflection in its coat. He rode the chestnut in the Elloree Trials, and won. The horse's name was Surviving the Life.

When it was time for the horse to ship north and begin racetrack training, Antley rushed home and began packing up an old trunk. His mother, upon hearing Chris' plan, told him what any mom would tell her son: "No, you're not." Antley looked at her with those steel blue eyes, which anyone who ever met him will never forget. "Yes, I am," he replied.

And he was off. Stopping at Bubba Fogel's filling station down the street for a map to Delaware, the 16-year-old Antley got in his beater car and followed that horse van north.

The numbers pick up part of the story from there. Before he was out of his teens Antley was the nation's leading rider -- 469 wins in 1985. Two years later he captured nine races in a day. Another two years, and he went 64 consecutive days winning at least one race. Riding title at Monmouth. Leading rider in New York. A successful move to the West Coast in the early '90s.

The other part of the story takes place not in the winner's circle, but inside the head of a troubled young man. There was the daily grind of abusing his body to make weight. The bouts with drugs, for which he blamed no one but himself. The depression. The extended absences for "personal reasons." The sense he was battling voices that wouldn't go away, and searching for a peace that remained just beyond his reach.

Riders are judged by what they do today and today and today, the successful ones blending those days into years of consistency. Antley, the exception, showed more gaps on his work-tab than a cheap 9-year-old claimer with bad legs. But with his talent, and his charm, he came back on again and again.

Two years ago he was back home in South Carolina, fighting desperately to get down to riding weight. He would leave home each morning dressed in layers of sweats and a wool cap pulled down low, his "Superman cap," he called it, because it made him feel invincible. Out the door, he had no direction other than to keep moving, moving all day. Away from what tortured him as well as toward a comeback so dramatic only he could imagine it.

We all saw the triumphs -- the emotional wins aboard Charismatic in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And then saving the horse's life after the Belmont while the world watched. The tears welled up in Antley's eyes not because he had just lost the Triple Crown, but because he cared that much about the horse.

And then there was the side very few saw. The warmth, the special gift he had with kids. The way they loved him, because he was one of them. His wife, Natalie, was pregnant with their child when Chris Antley died. Perhaps fatherhood would have helped kill off the demons that got him first.

Lenny Shulman is features editor of The Blood-Horse magazine. This article appears in the Dec. 9 Blood-Horse.

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