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Tiny giant's life marked by turmoil


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000

Pound for pound, jockeys may be the world's most remarkable athletes.

Forced to ride at just over 100 pounds, a third the size of football linemen, no heftier than bony fashion models, they are small wonders who must have strength, courage and judgment to steer speedy, high-strung horses weighing half a ton.

Chris Antley's skills were extraordinary. In a life of exotic highs and devastating lows, Ant Man's grasp, control and success were most evident when high in the saddle, reins in powerful little hands, driving thoroughbreds to glory in the ultimate races, including Strike the Gold (1991) and Charismatic (1999) in the Kentucky Derby.

How unforgettable the Belmont Stakes portrait, just 19 months ago, Antley having ruled the Derby and Preakness, going for the first Triple Crown in 21 years, when tragedy would strike his front-running Charismatic in the New York stretch.

So few steps from immortality, the front left leg of the 3-year-old colt snapped like raw pasta. Instinctively, with startling ability plus deep passion, Antley leaped from his mount to heroically cradle the horse's crippled limb.

Sparing the animal's life.

Before long, the rider's taut cheeks flooded with tears. Witnessing the moment, unknowing eyes might've seen it as the depth of Antley's existence, his optimum run being so excruciatingly halted.

Sadly, that Saturday at Belmont Park wasn't even close to the little man's personal dungeon. Antley's most penal, traumatic times were off the track, where drugs and alcohol were constants, and suffering was frequent, heading for a horrible end when, at 34, Chris died from a savage blow to the head.

Many jockeys fight weight problems. Ant Man once blimped to 150 pounds on a 5-foot-3 frame, but he paid colossal dues to get back to 117, prepping for what became that Derby/Preakness year with Charismatic.

Antley would take ghastly dives, repetitively, then remarkably rebound. Abusing himself with pills, drinks and needles. But there was mental brilliance despite the South Carolinian being a ninth-grade dropout.

He made big scores as a stock-market investor and even marketed himself as a guru in The Ant Man, an Internet feature. Chris said he made $1-million in a single day of Wall Street gymnastics. So up, so down. Then, Saturday, there came a plunge beyond retrievability.

What gifts he had, which were seldom as evident as on Halloween 1987 when Antley won nine races, four at Aqueduct in the afternoon, five in the evening at the Meadowlands. In all, Chris came home first 3,480 times, earning $10-million.

"All along, there were personal troubles," said Gary Stevens, a fabulous rider who was Antley's best friend. "Chris didn't respond to down times as well as he might've. Drugs and booze took heavy tolls.

"It's so rotten. This was a basically a good guy, with fantastic talents, but his off-track crashes kept eating away. He should've wound up ranked with Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker and riders at that historic level."

Drew Mollica, a jock agent who booked Antley for six years, called Chris "the Roy Hobbs of racing. The Natural. As good as a rider can be. It was always so perplexing to see The Ant have such extreme discipline to get back into racing shape, then to watch him fall apart again."

Antley was America's leading rider in 1987 with 469 winners, but a year later surrendered his racing license after testing positive for cocaine and marijuana.

Many jockeys are bulimic. Frequently on purpose, as a sickening tool for keeping weight down. "I always wanted to be one," Antley said. "I never did become a good flipper." He would use sweat boxes, diuretics and excessive exercise to make his 117-pound expectations.

In 1998 Chris puffed to 150. Most trainers gave up on him. Antley seemed finished at 32. Money still was coming in from stock investments, but Chris pined to race again.

There came a surge of Antley discipline. Fat and forgotten, he went home to Elloree, S.C., near Columbia, living with his father, Les, and stepmother, Annie. Chris began running. Exercising. Working up from a mile to 5, then 10, eventually 25 to 30 a day as pounds melted away. At night, Chris played Wall Street on his computer.

It was a magic, melodramatic story that drove Antley to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, given a ride on 33-to-1 shot Charismatic. He'd been to hell and back. After an odds-shattering win, Antley extended his wonderworks to Baltimore, where Charismatic also won the Preakness.

Leading to Belmont.

Antley's grip on excellence soon waned. Back to booze. On drugs again. "You have to keep winning," he once said. "Only the strong survive." For memorable periods, Chris was a stunning survivor. But always, there were personal relapses.

After the Derby/Preakness delight of '99, Ant Man's thoroughbred fortunes slid. Soon he was winning just three races in 30. Chris had knee surgery. In disgust, he quit racing nine months ago.

Antley married Natalie Jowett, a field producer for ABC Sports. They lived in a California home he bought for $1.2-million. His widow is expecting a baby next month.

Your throat goes dry.

In the bittersweet saga of Chris Antley, there are abundant messages. Many choices, some heroic but a lot of bad ones. I don't know if Ant Man was murdered. It looks that way. But, through the years, he was clearly beating himself to death.

It should make us all cry.

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