Remembering Chris Antley

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Editor’s Note: Maggie Kimmitt goes way back with Chris Antley, the mercurial jockey who was recently named a 2013 finalist for the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. Antley won 3,480 races and dazzled the sport; he also battled demons and died too young…

He’s on the ballot with nine others – jockeys Calvin Borel, Garrett Gomez, Craig Perret and Alex Solis; trainer Gary Jones and horses Ashado, Housebuster, Invasor and Lure. Antley may or may not make the Hall of Fame (the class of four will be announced April 26), but he left a mark on racing – and on Kimmitt.

It was the last thing in the world I ever expected to see – but there it was, in black and white.  Literally hot off the presses, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame had just published its list of nominees for the class of 2013.  His name was even listed first:  “Chris Antley.”

Immediately grateful to be alone at that moment, I let the tears flow.  Not that I could have stopped them; it’s surprising how a split second can evoke such a dramatic involuntary response.   I read it again just to be sure.  Knowing that Chris’ mother, Michelle, is rarely if ever on a computer, I called.  “I have news,” I told her.  “It’s big news.”

Like me, she was caught off guard.  “Are you serious?” she kept repeating.  “My heart is bursting!”  As her raw emotion took over, I listened quietly as she processed the information.  Disbelief, elation, gratitude, pride.   This woman who so many years ago received a call no parent should ever receive; a call that forever changed the lives of everyone who knew and loved her oldest son.

I was one of those people.  I still am.  That was the thing with Chris.  To know him was to love him, come hell or high water – and there was plenty of both.   When I met him at Pimlico in 1983, he looked like something painted on the ceiling of a cathedral.  Impossibly golden with blue eyes that defied description, everyone noticed this 17-year-old boy from tiny Elloree, S.C. – even before they watched him ride.  He arrived in Maryland a clean slate; a kid with so much talent and pure ability that, 30 years later, many still believe him to be the best they’ve ever seen. 

Franklin Smith Sr. thinks so.  The owner of Elloree Training Center taught Chris to ride.  Highly regarded in the industry as a top-tier developer of young horses and young riders, Smith cultivated Chris’ skills before sending him to his brother, trainer Hamilton Smith.  Hammy Smith gave the kid jockey his start, and after an impressive rookie year Chris left the Maryland circuit and headed to Monmouth Park.  Then 18, he didn’t smoke or drink and hadn’t quite grown into his quick success.  Naturally the Smith brothers were concerned that it was all too much, too soon.  It was.

Following his career over the years was akin to riding Space Mountain; exhilarating highs, unpredictable twists and turns, and, frequently, darkness.  The honors and accolades were peppered with suspensions and rehab stints.  Yet always we rooted for him, sending up silent prayers that his other-worldly gifts would be enough to mute the demons he never quite seemed to shake. 

Through it all, the one thing that remained constant was his kindness.  The biggest thing about him was his heart, and his generosity knew no limits.  Sadly, that often worked to his detriment.  Several years ago I read a quote from Craig Perret referring to Chris as “a great country kid.”  It was true, he never forgot people or the roles they played in his life.   And I wanted people to know that; I wanted them to realize that the Chris Antley sometimes portrayed by outside sources was not the man who touched so many lives. 

I learned to never count him out.  Before his comeback with Charismatic in 1999, every member of his family was telling him to choose another life path, assuring him there was no shame in ending what had been a phenomenal career.  What he did next taught all of us yet another lesson:  no matter what the odds, never give up on what you love most.  Dream it, believe it, do it. 

The only downside to 1999 was that it was followed by 2000.  Three weeks before that Christmas, Chris was gone.  A sudden, shocking death creates such a void, leaving one feeling like an amputee.  And the cruel thing is, those are the moments that sear themselves into our psyches with such permanence, bombarding us with memories painful enough to cripple at times.   But of course we move forward – we have to.  Life goes on.  And at some point comes the healing realization that it’s not necessary to go on without those we love.  We simply carry them with us.

It’s easy to smile about him now.  It’s even more rewarding when people make it a point to share a special memory or anecdote.  A few years ago I was at the home of Ramon and Sharon Dominguez, and Ramon asked me about the “ANTLEY” vanity license plate on my car.   We talked about the closeness among my family, the Antleys, the Smiths, and Chris’ extended family at Elloree Training Center.  I told Ramon that my biggest regret has been the knowledge that so many people remember Chris not for his talent and accomplishments but rather for his struggles and shortcomings.  Ramon was quick to assure me that the New York jockey colony remembers Chris with great fondness and affection – and that he’s still considered one of the best many of them have ever seen. 

Regardless of the outcome, Chris’ nomination to the Hall of Fame is a salve on the scars left by 12-plus years of “what ifs” and “if onlys.”  It is hard proof that, yet again, you can never count him out.

My sisters and I return to Elloree every March for the running of the Elloree Trials.  On each visit, our first stop is Moore’s Flowers on Cleveland Street where we pick up a dozen yellow roses.  Before we do anything else, we head about a mile down Old Highway 6 to Bookhardt Family Cemetery where we visit with Chris and place the roses on his grave.  And this year, we’re bringing champagne.

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Maggie Kimmitt is a photographer, writer and Maggie of all trades within Thoroughbred racing. See more of her work. 

For more on the 2013 Hall of Fame process, see the National Museum of Racing.