The triumphs were legendary. In one day, Oct. 31, 1987, Chris Antley rode nine different horses to first-place finishes, the only jockey in history ever to do so. And in a span of nine years, Antley would win the Kentucky Derby not once but twice, the first time in 1991 aboard Strike the Gold, the second in 1999 aboard Charismatic. Even in defeat, he could be inspiring. Racing the Belmont in 1999, Charismatic came up lame at the end. Television cameras recorded Antley leaping off his mount to brace the ailing leg of the horse, saving the Thoroughbred from a potentially catastrophic injury. That was his golden age.
But Antley was also aging. Thirty-four this year, he discovered that his body, characteristically diminutive as jockeys, go, no longer reacted to the regimens he used to keep himself in racing trim. Jim Herzfeld, a screenwriter who lives next door to Antley's home in Pasadena, Calif., recalls that Antley talked about quitting. "He said it was too hard for him, not being able to eat what he wanted," Herzfeld recalls. Antley complained that unlike other jockeys, he had never been very good at "flipping," his term for vomiting to keep the weight off. When the police found the 5-ft. 4-in. Antley last week, he weighed 140 lbs., over his riding weight by 23 lbs.
He was also dead, possibly from a head trauma so grievous that police could not be sure whether it was an accident, self-inflicted or a homicide. What is certain is that before and after his last race in March, Antley allowed his life to go into a spiral of methamphetamine and alcohol, turning him into a recluse. The police came to his ranch-style Pasadena home only after his brother flew from South Carolina to check on Antley. And the brother did so only after Antley's pregnant wife, who was living separately from him in New York City, said she had not heard from him in days. He had once threatened her life. "Chris had quite a talent for racing," says Herzfeld, "but all the other stuff, he couldn't handle it."
While police have not ruled out foul play, they are also investigating the possibility that Antley fell at home after an overdose of the antidepressant Xanax, injuring himself fatally. A conclusive report from the coroner is not expected for weeks.
Police arrested Timothy Tyler, 24, a sometime friend of Antley's, on separate drug charges, none related to the jockey's death. But Tyler was witness to the depths Antley had sunk to. At 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 28, police came to the Pasadena home to find Antley and Tyler--and methamphetamine and marijuana. Antley told the police, "The meth and the marijuana is not mine. The other guy brought it." Antley, however, admitted to using dope a few hours before the cops arrived. (The drug charges against both men were later dropped.)
It had not been Antley's first brush with the law. Two months earlier, police stopped him after he drove his green Jeep Cherokee erratically through downtown Pasadena. He admitted to having drunk an entire bottle of vodka and had a breath-alcohol content of 0.26%, more than three times the legal limit. A more serious run-in came in October, when Tyler summoned police to the house claiming Antley had been talking about going to the airport to pick up his wife Natalie, saying "I'm going to do away with her."