Natalie Jowett Antley does not know what she will say about her late husband, Chris Antley, when she speaks at the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame on Friday. She has been worried more about how her daughter will hold up when the father who died before she was born will be recognized as one of the greatest jockeys of all time.
She is reminded of him every day when she looks in Violet Grace Antley’s piercing blue eyes and sees her late husband looking back. Antley passed his love of horses on to his daughter — Natalie and Violet have made the trip to the training center in Elloree, S.C., where a teenage Chris first discovered that he had a gift for thoroughbreds.
Antley certainly put up Hall of Fame numbers: He won 3,480 races for purse earnings of $92,261,894 and captured 127 graded stakes races, including the Kentucky Derby twice, with Strike the Gold (1991) and Charismatic (1999). He burned a place in the hearts of casual sports fans on June 5, 1999, when, with tears streaking his dusty face, he held Charismatic’s broken left leg in his hand just past the finish line of the Belmont Stakes, waiting for an ambulance to reach the colt.
Horse and rider were trying to sweep the Triple Crown that day. They finished third and another Triple Crown bid was thwarted, but something extraordinary happened nevertheless. Antley’s swift dismount and quick comforting of the colt was credited with saving Charismatic’s life.
Life was not as easy for him away from the racetrack. He was in and out of rehabilitation centers for drug addiction, was bipolar and fought depression. In December 2000, Antley, just 34, was found dead in his California home of what was subsequently ruled an overdose. The drugs present in his system not only attested to the hard life of a jockey but mapped his personal demons — they included a weight-control drug; methamphetamine; an antidepressant; and an anti-seizure medication.
“She’s always known how her dad died,” Jowett Antley said. “I told her the truth, and she is well aware of his struggles. What I want Violet to take away is that we all have gifts. We all have crosses that we bear and pains that we suffer.”
Horse racing is rarely thought of as forward-thinking or compassionate as a sport, but it will demonstrate both those traits with Antley’s Hall of Fame induction Friday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., alongside the trainer King Leatherbury and the racehorses Lava Man and Xtra Heat.
“He was a once-in-a-lifetime jockey, and his superior talent superseded whatever his flaws,” said Drew Mollica, his former agent.
Antley’s talents and torments were well-known throughout a career that spanned 1983 to 2000 and took him from New Jersey to New York to California. He turned in some riding feats that live on in racing lore. On Oct. 31, 1987, he rode nine winners; four at Aqueduct in the afternoon, five at the Meadowlands in the evening. From Feb. 8 to May 1, 1989, Antley claimed a victory on 64 straight racing days, a streak that is considered as unapproachable as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting feat.
On the track, Antley was a soft-spoken professional with a precise mind who was popular among horsemen. He was a strong and solidly built 5 feet 4 inches, and constantly battled his weight, but he was savvy, too. One of his tricks was pumping his elbows as he rode so rivals thought he was working hard while his hands remained still and the horse beneath him was actually barely being asked to run. Still, Antley understood his greatest gift: “I could make a horse my friend by the time I get to the starting gate.”
Gary Stevens is himself a Hall of Famer. He was one of Antley’s best friends and is the godfather of Violet Grace Antley.
“There’s the old wives’ tale that horses are dumb — that their brains are not as big as heart,” Stevens said. “But they are the most intelligent and intuitive creatures I’ve been around, and Chris was incredibly intuitive and communicated with horses in a way I’ve never seen.”
In 1985, just his third year of riding, Antley led the country with 469 victories and was projected as a certainty for the Hall of Fame. He was 19, making $30,000 a week, but choosing his running mates poorly.
In between the bouts of riding brilliance, Antley fought losing ones with the bottle first, then with marijuana and eventually cocaine.
What began as an occasional missed day at the track turned into lost weeks and months as Antley disappeared into rehab and then worked himself back in to riding shape. By September 1989, however, Antley had lost his license after testing positive for a controlled substance.
But the second chances kept coming. After regaining his license, Antley won the 1991 Derby on Strike the Gold. It was more than his transcendent talent that led to serial forgiveness. Antley was a sweet-natured soul capable of extraordinary acts of generosity, whether it was handing Mollica’s wife a $5,000 check to make up for the lost business when Antley’s troubles kept him from the track or buying computers for trainers and fellow jockeys and showing them all the amazing things they could do. He dropped envelopes of cash on grooms and stable hands and even bought a racehorse outright so Angel Cordero Jr., then a recently retired Hall of Fame rider, could begin a career as a trainer.
“It is very strange to say, but with all the demons that he had, Chris is the one person to this day who was the most comfortable with himself,” Stevens said. “He was very at peace with himself, no matter what was going on.”
In 1997, Antley, then based in California, left the racetrack again for what was supposed to be a 30-day stint in rehabilitation. It evolved into what he described as a four-month self-examination and eventually a two-year sabbatical from the sport. He did not know how much he loved racing, however, until he moved back to Columbia, S.C., to live with his father.
Les Antley saw his son finally healthy and carrying the 145 pounds his frame was meant for and urged him to start his own business, to find another profession. Instead, Antley focused on getting back in the saddle. His friends and neighbors dubbed him Forrest Gump as he took to the streets, running day and night.
In February 1999, Antley, who had slimmed down to 116 pounds, was riding in California. Three months later, on the first Saturday in May, he was aboard Charismatic, a former claiming horse that was sent off in the Kentucky Derby at odds of 31-1 but ended up in the winner’s circle.
For Antley, it was another improbable comeback as well as the beginning of a love story. At the time, Natalie Jowett was a producer for ABC Sports assigned to the Triple Crown. “It was pretty much love at first sight,” she said.
Theirs was a whirlwind courtship, and on April 12, 2000, at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, they were married. Bob Baffert, the trainer of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, gave Natalie away.
Eight months later — on Dec. 2 — Chris was dead. The following month, on Jan. 11, 2001, Violet was born.
“Whenever I look at Violet’s face, I see Chris,” Natalie said. “She has the same body, the same walk, the same smile.”
In 2004, Natalie married Jeff Agoos, the former soccer player, and Violet now has a little sister named Emma. Agoos and Emma will remain at their home in New Jersey while Natalie and Violet join the Antleys, and trainers and jockeys from both coasts, to honor a father, a husband, a friend and a competitor. They will be around people who loved Chris Antley and will hear stories about the many kind things he did for others.
“Time passes,” Natalie said. “We let go of the bad stuff and remember the good stuff — that he was a wonderful person and gifted rider.”