Two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, trainer Wayne Lukas remained uncertain who would ride his long shot, Charismatic, in the sport's most famous race. Most of the big-name riders already were committed. Chris Antley, however, had been coming around regularly to Lukas's barn at Santa Anita, seeking mounts. There had been a time when trainers would have scrambled to boost Antley into the saddle. But that was years ago, before he encountered serious trouble with alcohol and drug abuse and, more recently, an inability to make weight and depression.
Antley was out of racing from November 1997 to February 1999.
But Lukas had a feeling.
"All my career I've been able, or have been lucky in picking a guy here and there to fit a situation and getting very, very good results from him," Lukas said during the quiet of an afternoon recently in the office of his barn at Churchill Downs.
He cited an instance from three years ago, when he announced that Rene Douglas would ride Editor's Note in the Belmont Stakes. "There were about 20 reporters standing there and they said, `Who?' I said, `Rene Douglas. He's a good fit for this horse, an absolute good fit.' "
To the storyteller's delight, Douglas guided Editor's Note to victory.
This April, Antley rode a winner for Lukas at Santa Anita. As the two walked from the winner's circle, Lukas told the jockey to watch Charismatic, who had been entered in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, because he was interested in having him ride the colt in the Kentucky Derby.
"You watch this horse run in the Lexington Stakes and then I'm going to call you," Lukas remembered telling Antley. "But I sure don't want you to come unless you feel as strongly about his chances as I do. If it's just to get in the post parade and say you rode in the Kentucky Derby in '99, I don't want you riding the horse. But if you sincerely feel in your heart that you have a legitimate chance, which I think you do, then I want you to ride the horse. You're my pick."
As soon as Charismatic won the Lexington, Lukas called Antley's agent. The agent told Lukas, "Chris is trying to get hold of you because we certainly want to come."
This year's comeback story in racing was underway. It will continue with the Belmont Saturday, when Charismatic and Antley will try to complete the Triple Crown.
Antley, 33, grew up in Elloree, S.C., southeast of Columbia. One day, as a 15-year-old, he went fishing and then rode his bicycle to a nearby horse training center owned by Franklin Smith. Antley asked for a job. The man gave him one, cleaning out stalls and walking horses. Soon, Smith was teaching Antley how to ride.
"You could see it is his eyes, the first time he got on a pony," said Smith. "He was bright-eyed. He couldn't believe he was up there. First thing you know, he was riding other horses." Smith refined Antley's natural ability, and taught him to think when he was riding on a track. They watched films of races together. "He could communicate so well with horses. He had good hands," said Smith. "He could get along with some unruly horses better than the others could."
Two years later, Antley dropped out of high school and was off to the races. He broke in for Smith's brother, Hamilton Smith, on Maryland tracks, getting his first win at Pimlico in 1983. In 1985 he led the country with 469 winners. In 1987 he won at least one race 64 days in a row. He won nine races in a single day in 1989. In 1991 he won the Kentucky Derby aboard Strike the Gold. But all was not as right as it seemed.
Twice in 1988 Antley was suspended in New York after testing positive for drugs. He entered a drug-rehabilitation program in New York and was able to rebound at the track. By 1993, however, his racing success had dimmed. He shifted to tracks in California, but his fortunes didn't change. "I felt like a total failure," he said recently.
Depressed from an inability to keep his weight down, he entered another rehab center late in 1997, in Pasadena, Calif. "I had to get out of myself," is the way he put it. He intended to stay at the center for 18 days, but "I stayed six months. I didn't want to leave. I felt like a loser. But I found `family' in there."
By the summer of 1998 Antley was back at the track -- but only briefly. His weight ballooned to 147 pounds. "I couldn't get the weight down," he said. He went home to South Carolina.
"I was concerned about his mental health because he was really down," said his father, Les Antley, who lives in Columbia. "He didn't seem to care about much. He'd lie around, do nothing, for the first two or three weeks."
"My father suggested that I get out of racing," Antley said. "He said, `It's dangerous, you have all the money you need. . . . Open a restaurant.' " Antley bought three old cars, '50s and '60s models, and began fixing them just for something to do.
"Then last October I saw the races on television and that shook me up pretty bad," he said. "But I was a dead issue. I was a claimer."
Said Antley's father: "He thought he might be out of the game forever and that really frightened him."
Antley began dieting and working out, running especially. It took months of work to shed the pounds. But he remained patient and took the weight off slowly. At the same time, his long-standing interest in the stock market began resulting in significant financial gains. He said that last year alone, he made more than $1 million by trading stocks on the Internet. But he yearned to be back in racing.
"It wasn't the money," he said. "If they raced for nothing, I wanted to do it. I'd race for free. I never wanted it that bad before. If I made it back and died at the quarter pole, I'd have lived exactly like I wanted to. I would be the happiest SOB who ever lived. I know it sounds goofy."
Antley returned to Santa Anita in February. He weighed 121 pounds, seven more than he does now. He was thrilled to be back and to be fit.
He said his first day back in the jockeys' room "was as great as the Derby. I'd lived a nightmare. But I had gone from the lowest of lows to the highest high in five months. It was so profound a moment that I choke up today just thinking about it."
After Lukas tapped him to ride Charismatic, Antley called home.
"Hey, Dad, I got a mount in the Derby and it's not only a mount, it's a legitimate horse," Les Antley recalled him saying. Later, the father tried to find out about Charismatic. "The first odds I got on the horse it was 100-1," Les Antley said. "I said to myself, `Yeah, that's a real legitimate horse.' I never thought he had a chance."
In Charismatic and Antley, Lukas matched a long-shot horse with a virtually overlooked jockey in what now seems a prescient pairing.
"This is a very, very tough business and you can't lead with your heart," Lukas said at his barn at Churchill Downs. "The bottom line is, you have to have the talent there. And when Chris was right and when he was doing well, he was extremely talented. I thought this was an opportunity for a good fit on my horse -- Chris's style of riding. He's a smart rider when he's right, and he finishes a horse very well, which you could see in the last two races" -- the Derby and the Preakness.
After Charismatic had dominated the Preakness, people at Pimlico were surprised when Antley dashed off to ride in the next race. Lukas even suggested that he could skip it, with the Preakness celebration underway. But Antley wasn't about to miss the next race because he would be riding a horse for Hamilton Smith, the person who had helped give him his start.
Later that afternoon, Antley leaned against the Preakness barn, not far from Charismatic's stall. Wearing a tan suit, he lingered quietly, prolonging an unforgettable afternoon. He thanked well-wishers and signed autographs. He looked serene.
"It just might be a case of a guy being in the right place at the right time," Lukas said. "Coming off of what he was coming off. . . . Now he's on a rocket-ship ride to real prominence."
CAPTION: Jockey Chris Antley and Charismatic are brought to the winner's circle following their stunning win in Kentucky Derby May 1.
CAPTION: Chris Antley overcame alcohol, drug abuse, depression and an inability to make weight. He and Charismatic will go for Triple Crown on Saturday at the Belmont.
CAPTION: After dieting, exercise and sobriety, Chris Antley, 33, is on top of the world, one victory away from the Triple Crown.
CAPTION: "I was a dead issue," says Chris Antley of his career. "I was a claimer."