Elmont, N.Y.--He is called the natural, a Roy Hobbs in racing silks. That's what they tell him in the winner's circle, when he is mud-splattered and smiling, overjoyed with victory.
They say he is the next Angel Cordero, gifted in finding the spare inch of room along the rail and then summoning the courage to drive through a storm of flesh and dirt, in taming thoroughbreds with nothing more than his hands and his heart.
Once, he won nine times in one day, and, later, he won on 64 consecutive days, and they proclaimed him racing's Joe DiMaggio. But winning didn't matter much to him, until he almost lost it all.
He invited cocaine into his life and discovered that it was the houseguest from hell. It owned him. He threw it out. It owned him again.
Now, he is clean, they say. Nineteen months without a snort. The path is clear. For one week, for two, for -- who knows? -- maybe five, he can rule horse racing, the featured player in a Triple Crown drama.
The first Saturday in May 1991 remains his forever. Standing in the saddle on a gorgeous reddish colt, his right hand clasping the reins, his left arm raised with the whip clenched in his fist, his eyes fixed on the sky, an image of triumph.
3' He did not want this moment to end.
Opening day at Belmont Park.
Chris Antley sits in the snack bar of the jockeys' room, receiving hugs and congratulations from his peers. It is four days after he has ridden Strike the Gold to victory in the 117th Kentucky Derby.
Antley talks deliberately, his fingertips lightly drumming on a table. He is reliving the Derby, explaining how he kept his horse out of trouble, remaining comfortable in 12th place, waiting until that moment at the three-eights pole when it was time to stop talking to Cordero on Quintana and start moving for a hole,
savoring every step as he brought Strike the Gold wide around the traffic to the wire.
"When it's over, you realize it's more than a race, it's part of history," Antley said. "You try not to dwell on that history. But it hit me hard when I crossed the wire. I kind of froze. I thought to myself, 'That didn't really happen?' I asked the outrider, 'Did you see that?' I was in a daze."
The daze has given way to reality. Antley is a man rebuilding a career that was supposed to be perfect but often has appeared tragic.
"I screwed a lot of things up," he said. "I acted like a kid half the time, and this is a grown-up game of pressure and responsibility. Winning five races isn't the end of the game. This can be the greatest sport, but if you take it for granted, you can get hurt."
He is 25, but in many ways he remains a 5-foot-3, 110-pound kid. He long since has ditched an $80,000 white Mercedes-Benz with gold trim for an understated Chevy Blazer and replaced designer jeans with faded Levi's.
"It seems to me that Chris has gone back to his personality from the beginning," jockey Julie Krone said. "He's again someone who can be humbled by things. In the middle of his career, he seemed unaffected, which is a sad way to be. It's almost like he was born again, young again."
Take out the drugs, and this is the kind of story horse racing loves, the country kid who rekindles the romance in a ruthless business.
Born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but raised in Elloree, S.C., Antley was smaller than his friends, but he was tougher. He worked summers in the tobacco fields, willed himself into becoming a left-handed second baseman, playing quarterback and running for his high school junior-varsity team although he weighed less than 100 pounds.
"I knew Chris was something special because he was so determined," said his father, Les Antley. "All the problems he has had, I never lost faith."
Chris Antley discovered horses when he was 14. His parents were separating, and he sought a refuge from home.
One day, after fishing, he wandered into the Elloree Training Center and found a friend in the owner, Franklin Smith.
Smith taught him the riding business from the ground up. Antley mucked the stalls, fed the horses, worked for $20 on weekends and finally climbed aboard an old pony named Buck.
"It was like he found a toy," Smith said.
At night, Smith and Antley looked at tapes from races in New York. The old trainer showed the kid tricks of the big-city riders, drummed into his head that preparation led to victory.
"I showed him how fast you had to see things in front of you and around you," Smith said. "You have to know the riders you're competing against, and then you have to know what you're doing."
Antley digested Smith's lessons. Although Strike the Gold trainer Nick Zito jokingly has called Antley's style brainless, that was far from an accurate description of his ability. Antley is unorthodox, refusing to fit
in any pattern. He wanted to keep his opponents guessing while out-flanking them. It's a game of high-speed chess.
Krone calls Antley "a raw, beautiful rider, who has that sixth sense that people can only understand if they ride."
It was that talent that drew Antley to the track. In 1983, just after he finished 11th grade, he dropped out of high school and left Elloree with a suitcase and a $100 bill in his pocket from his father.
He knew little but success. His first winner came 11 days after his June 1, 1983 debut at Pimlico Race Course. He dominated Monmouth in New Jersey for three years and had that nine-win day Oct. 31, 1987, shuttling from Aqueduct to The Meadowlands.
"It was like Tinker to Evers to Chance. Flawless," said Antley's former agent, Drew Mollica.
For four years, Mollica and Antley, the streetwise agent from the Bronx and the country kid from Elloree, were inseparable. The partnership worked until Antley's personal life came apart.
"Who knows why this happens? Whether it was too much success or too little success. But Chris was sick," Mollica said.
Cocaine often is part of the track scene. The free-flowing cash and
transient lifestyle probably contribute to the drug's lure in racing. Certainly, jockeys are not immune. Pat Day and Pat Valenzuela are among the leading riders who have had drug problems.
"These jockeys live crazy lives," said Dr. Allan Lans, a psychiatrist who treated Antley and now works for the New York Mets. "These guys believe 6 more ounces will win or lose a race. They're always in a sweat about their weight. They really abuse themselves. Some of them think cocaine restricts their food intake. But that's bull. I think it's about getting high on drugs."
For Antley, there were hints of problems. A failed Breathalyzer test at the Meadowlands in October 1986. A positive test for marijuana at Aqueduct in February 1988. Minor violations in a country flowing with drugs, but the red flares were out.
"What we saw was a young kid with a lot of talent, making a lot of money, who wasn't able to deal with success," jockey Craig Perret said. "He was in a fast lane, he enjoyed himself, and it caught up to him and nearly smothered him. He had to pay the price."
Antley was forced to confront his drug problem after testing positive for cocaine at Aqueduct on Nov. 24, 1988. He left the track, went to his apartment on Long Island and used cocaine for VTC three more days. He contemplated suicide but instead sought help.
Antley entered the Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center in New York for 28 days. By January 1989, he was back on the track, pronouncing himself the victor over drugs. For a time, he was the hottest rider the sport had seen, winning 64 straight days. It was easy. Maybe too easy.
"When I think back, everything came awfully fast. Everything fell my way. I won a lot of races. I took a lot for granted," Antley said.
Mollica said: "I'm telling you, this guy was fearless. He would ride in holes like a marshmallow squeezed into a piggy bank. It's so hard to win one race, let alone at least one race every day for 64 days. And he did it."
The streak ended, and after the summer meeting in Saratoga, Antley was in trouble. He was removed from his mounts by Belmont stewards Sept. 23, 1989, and Mollica announced he was cutting his ties with the jockey. Drugs were never mentioned, but the racing bureaucracy was closing in on Antley. Three days later, Antley surrendered his license to ride in New York and later entered South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y., for substance-abuse treatment.
"Chris was like a brother to me," Mollica said. "I still love him. But sometimes you need tough love. We had a long battle, a battle of wills and love."
Antley has tested clean since his return to racing March 17, 1990. He will not discuss his experiences with cocaine, although he provides clues to why he used the drug.
Antley said he associated with the wrong crowd, that he nearly lost track of where he had come from and what he had wanted from racing and life.
"I was always trying to put on a show and be somebody, to be friends of everyone, even if they were the wrong friends," he said. "I lost all self identity. I was this person with this guy and this person with that. People said, 'He's on top of the game.' I took it for granted. I look back now, and I think, 'What an ass I was.' All I thought of was myself."
Treatment and recovery have changed his life.
"I wanted to cure myself, period," he said. "It had nothing to do with getting back riding. I wanted to find why I was unhappy, why I did this to myself. I had to find myself. Losing the game was a big, big part of me. But losing your whole self was different. I had to be happy to live."
He is now on top of the game, in the place others long ago had said was his destiny. Trainer Zito may have upset some in Kentucky by selecting Antley over Day to ride Strike the Gold in the Derby, but the choice proved unassailable. Antley rode a perfect race.
"In Kentucky and all, Pat is the governor," Antley said. "I don't consider myself a superstar. I got lucky enough to get on a good horse in the Derby. Plenty of good riders would have won with Strike the Gold."
Can Strike the Gold and Antley win a Triple Crown? Antley said not to discount his horse, but if he loses the Preakness, he "won't die." In the past three years, he has discovered there is a difference, a big difference, between riding and living.
Drugs, he said, are part of his past. He is trying to live without secrets. The natural, the next Cordero, racing's DiMaggio, just wants to be known as Chris Antley, jockey.
"In my mind, I'm cured," he said. "I've got too much to live for. Winning the Derby is great. But I'm happy with myself. That is what counts in life. Happiness."
Antley's victories and defeats
A look at the ups and downs of Chris Antley's career:
Victories * June 1, 1983: Makes debut riding at Pimlico and records firs victory 11 days later.
* Sept. 1, 1984: Wins first of three riding titles at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
* Dec. 31, 1985: Leads nation with 469 victories.
* Oct. 31, 1987: Becomes racing's first jockey to win nine races in one day, four at Aqueduct and five at the Meadowlands.
* Feb. 8, 1989: Begins 64-day winning streak that concludes May 1, and completes year as New York's leading rider with 234 victories.
* March 17, 1990: Returns to racing after seeking treatment for substance abuse, and rides three winners at Aqueduct.
* May 4, 1991: Rides Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold.
Defeats * Oct. 18, 1986: Fails Breathalyzer test at the Meadowlands afte drinking beer at a Rutgers-Florida football game. Fined $250.
* February 1988: Tests positive for marijuana at Aqueduct.
* Nov. 24, 1988: Tests positive for cocaine at Aqueduct. Suspended and required to seek treatment. Enters Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center on Dec. 4, and reinstated Jan. 25, 1989.
* Sept. 23, 1989: Removed from his mounts by Belmont stewards. Agent Drew Mollica severs their relationship.
* Sept. 26, 1989: Voluntarily surrenders his license to ride in New York.
* Oct. 4, 1989: Enters South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y., for substance-abuse treatment.