The story of Chris Antley has been immortalized in a documentary for ESPN, and many people remember this exciting young jockey. The image of Antley holding the damaged leg of Charismatic in the 1999 Belmont Stakes is a poignant indication of how much the jockey loved horses and his sport. Sadly, the world would lose Chris Antley in 2000 under mysterious circumstances. His story is one that presents a cautionary tale about the dangers of substance abuse.
The Antman is Born
For a young boy in a small South Carolina town, riding horses was a strange desire. No one can say for sure why Chris Antley developed an affection for racehorses in a part of the country that prefers to watch racing of the Nascar variety.
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There was a horse training center in Antley’s home town of Elloree. One day, farm manager Franklin Smith was tending his business when a 14-year-old Antley rode up on his bicycle. All he really wanted to do was take a swim in the farm’s pond. Smith made him a deal. Swim as much as you want if you’re willing to help out with the horses. Mucking stalls and pulling the manure cart were two of the young boy’s primary duties. Antley began showing up every day.
It wasn’t long before Smith began to teach Chris the basics of horsemanship. By all accounts, he was a natural. What seemed to set Chris apart is that he had a genuine affinity for the animals. Taking care of them wasn’t just a job. It was more like a sacred duty. Before long, Chris had gained enough skills to become an exercise rider. Trainers especially loved the way that he could calm a horse down. Even the most unruly horses were no problem for the kid who would become known as the Antman.
Antley Begins His Jockey Career
At just 16 years old, Chris Antley dropped out of school. There were objections raised, of course, but his mind was made up. He packed up his things in South Carolina and made the decision to move a little farther up the east coast to Maryland. There, he sought to work his way into the jockey colony at Pimlico Racecourse, the home of the Preakness Stakes.
His first win came at Pimlico in November of 1983 aboard Vaya Con Dinero. The horse’s name translates to “go with the money.” It is somewhat fitting because Chris Antley was going to become the top money rider in the United States. By just his third year of riding horses, Antley led the nation in wins with 469.
The Pimlico days lasted only a year. The bigger circuits of New York and New Jersey were calling. Trainers there had taken note of Antley’s talent. Many jockeys will tell you that riding horses has a certain snowball effect. The more you win, the better horses you are offered to ride. Antley was offered the cream of the crop, and he made he best of the opportunity.
Legendary jockey Gary Stevens, profiled here on EZ Horse Betting, became one of Antley’s closest friends. He has said that Chris was as talented as any rider that ever competed. When the Antman went to Monmouth Park, he won 171 races. Antley went on to lead the colony there by wins in 1986 and 1987.
There was something brewing, however. It was a dark cloud that would haunt Antley for the rest of his life. Like some other famous jockeys, Antley had developed a substance problem. Perhaps it was he constant pain. Perhaps it was the loneliness of being far from home. Whatever the reason, Antley made his first trip to a rehabilitation facility in the late 1980’s. Many people were wondering is this was the end for the talented jockey.
Chris Antley returned to the racing circuit and accomplished a feat that may never be matched. In 1989, he rode nine winners on a single race card. That means he won almost every race held that day. Such a feat is unheard of in thoroughbred racing. He also amassed a streak of 64 straight days in which he won at least one race a day.
These accomplishments were not going unnoticed out in sunny California, the place where movie stars go to watch the races and the trainers and jockeys are treated like celebrities. Antley moved his tack to the West Coast in 1990 and never looked back.
Pursuing the Triple Crown
Antley’s first major score came on Strike the Gold in the 1991 Kentucky Derby. His win served notice to all other jockeys that the Antman meant business. Antley began to carve out relationships with legendary trainers like D. Wayne Lukas. While the success was fast and furious, so was the lifestyle. It wasn’t long before Antley had resumed his substance habit. He also began having weight issues. On a sad day in 1997, Antley was forced to face the truth. He was going to have to retire from racing.
There are those who will tell you it is very hard for a jockey to let their career go. For some of them, riding is all they know. Antley was one of these. After he got himself clean and got his weight under control, Antley was back in the saddle in 1999. Yet, some trainers were hesitant to place their hopes on Chris. After all, he was a two-time loser when it came to battling drugs.
An exception was Lukas. The tough trainer, known for his brash personality, decided to give Antley the mount on Charismatic, a horse that would make a run at the Triple Crown in 1999. Charismatic won the first two legs of the series with ease, and the smart money was on Antley to bring home the Triple Crown trophy in the Belmont Stakes.
What happened that day is still shown on sports highlight films. The pictures of Antley holding the injured leg of Charismatic on the Belmont track were shown all over the world. The horse broke down in the stretch, and the quick-thinking Antley pulled the horse up and out of contention. Antley quickly dismounted and held the leg until veterinarians could arrive. The move very likely saved Charismatic’s life.
The owners of Charismatic were so touched by Antley’s gesture that they awarded him a share of the breeding profits earned by the horse in retirement.
Antley wouldn’t live to see the money.
The Death of Chris Antley
In 2000, police found Chris Antley dead in his Pasadena, California home. He had suffered blunt force trauma to the head, and investigators believed the death was a homicide. This theory was later ruled out when it was discovered that Antley had overdosed on multiple drugs. Among them were methamphetamine and diet drugs.
The jockey was laid to rest in Elloree, South Carolina, the place where he had learned to ride. In 2015, Antley was inducted into the National Horse Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. His memory is still strong in the hearts of many racing fans.
Antley’s life serves as a warning to those who would consider a career as a jockey. The path is not easy. The pressures of making weight and putting one’s life at stake each day are too much for some jockeys to handle.
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