Antley's death stuns horsemen

Trainer Nick Zito was on the phone Sunday night from Lexington, Ky.

"It's been seven hours since I found out that Chris [Antley] died," Zito said. "I still can't get over it. It's a crying shame."

Antley was found dead late Saturday at his home in Pasadena, the victim of an apparent beating.

At the end of 1990 and early in 1991, Zito was training a well-bred son of Alydar, a colt that couldn't win even though some of the best jockeys in the game--Mike Smith, Jerry Bailey, Pat Day and Craig Perret--were given shots to ride him.

It was three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, and Zito hired Antley to ride Strike The Gold in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Strike The Gold had only one win to show for six starts, but Antley rode him to perfection, winning the Blue Grass by three lengths. Strike The Gold moved on to Churchill Downs, where as the third choice in the Derby he won under Antley again, this time by almost two lengths.

"Chris was a superb athlete," Zito said. "Regardless of the downside to his career, he was one of the best jockeys of our time. He was right up there with riders like Gary Stevens and Jerry Bailey."

Eight years after Strike The Gold--too much of the time dissipated by drug use and battles to shed weight--Antley was united with another horse with a bad case of the slows. Trainer Wayne Lukas, so frustrated with Charismatic that he ran him twice in races in which another trainer could have claimed him for $62,500, tapped Antley two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. With three other jockeys, Charismatic had won only three of 14 starts and, under Laffit Pincay, was a badly beaten fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.

At 31-1, Charismatic and Antley won the Derby by a neck over Menifee. Antley was so tickled nearing the wire that he prematurely raised an index finger, and seemed to bobble in the saddle.

"If he doesn't get there," Lukas jokingly said the next morning, "all of you would have next seen that finger in a bottle of formaldehyde."

Antley's was a career with a jillion comebacks. With his weight down and his head straight, he could ride the hair off a horse. Less than 24 hours after his death, the Hollywood Park and Aqueduct tracks lowered their flags to half-staff, and at Hollywood the two dozen or so riders came out of the jockeys' room between races for a moment of silence.

One of those riders, Stevens, had answered his phone at home at 5:45 Sunday morning. Natalie Jowett Antley was on the other end from New York, saying that her husband had been killed.

A little later, Ron Anderson, a jockeys' agent who had represented both Stevens and Antley, called Stevens with the same bad news.

"When Chris was focused, he was so good that it was scary," Anderson once said.

Antley's death is the most tragic off the track for a California jockey since Ron Hansen, whose barely identifiable remains were found in a salt marsh not far from the San Mateo Bridge in 1994. One of Hansen's closest friends, horse owner Ron Volkman, called the Hollywood Park press box late Sunday, hoping that his unconfirmed report of Antley's death was only a bad rumor.

What Stevens said about Antley could also have been said about Hansen.

"I truly believe that had Chris been able to focus all his energies, he most definitely was going to break many, many records and would have been a Hall of Fame rider."

Antley had already set a few records--nine wins in one day, 64 consecutive days of winning at least one race--and, as Stevens said, two Kentucky Derby wins weren't really enough. Interviewed last May, he envisioned a revival by July at Del Mar, but that day never came.

Trainer Vladimir Cerin couldn't remember any big races that Antley had won for him, but Cerin used him frequently on many of his horses. Antley's loyalty to Cerin was unflagging.

"I had this horse Mateo that I was running in a $35,000 race at Turf Paradise [in Phoenix]," Cerin said. "I didn't think Chris would go over there just to ride one horse, but he did. He missed a whole weekend of riding locally just to ride in a $35,000 race."

Trainer Ron McAnally once campaigned a good filly named Antespend for Elmendorf Farm. Antley, mistakenly, thought the horse had been named after him, which was not the reason McAnally hired him to ride her. Together, Antespend and Antley won the Las Virgenes Stakes, the Santa Anita Oaks and the Del Mar Oaks.

In 1996, the day of the $400,000 Queen Elizabeth Challenge Cup at Keeneland, Antley missed his plane out of Los Angeles. He asked his agent, Tony Matos, to find a private plane that would get him to Kentucky in time.

"A private plane?" Matos said. "How do you expect me to pay for that?"

"Here," Antley said, handing Matos a piece of plastic, "put it on my credit card."

In the paddock at Keeneland, about 15 minutes before the race, a valet came out of the jockeys' room and told McAnally that Antley was a no-show. McAnally had already settled on a substitute rider, Willie Martinez, when Antley seemed to appear out of nowhere. Antespend finished third, with Antley's share of the purse coming to only $4,000. His bottom line for the day, counting the $17,500 for the Lear jet, was a minus $13,500, but he had honored the mount.

Cerin said that Antley, when he could make weight, was a 115-pound man hiding inside a 150-pound body.

A few days after Charismatic's victory in the Derby, a reporter scheduled an interview with Antley in the Hollywood Park jockeys' room. By accident, the two of them took seats at the lunch counter.

"Whoa," the reporter said, "this has got to be the worst place in the room for us to be doing this."

"That's OK," Antley said. "I go by this counter every day. I can handle it."

There were too many things in life that Antley couldn't handle.

"I think he was in search of the perfect life," Stevens said. "Unfortunately, there is no such thing."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times