It would, perhaps, be more accurate to say Chris Antley was the only jockey I ever had a crush on, but that probably goes without saying. But he was young (although older than we were, which made him interesting), blond and got to ride some amazing horses – a heady combination to two teenage girls trapped in the midwest. In addition to the pictures of pretty horses, he was a compelling reason a friend and I split the cost of a subscription to The Blood-Horse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I can vividly recall sitting in her bedroom, poring over an interview with Antley after his first post-drugs comeback, in late 1988 or early 1989. Of course, we were soon to know that it was too good to be true, and he’d lost his license by the following September. But he was back by the spring of 1990, apparently stuck on a revolving door of rehab and racing that would become his pattern for much of the decade. There would be brief moments of promise – I was thrilled when he won the Derby on Strike the Gold in 1991 – but it was obvious that things would not remain on an even keel. By the time he was banned for drugs again, in 1992, I was a busy college student – I noted the news in passing, and I was momentarily sad for my former favorite jockey, but I had moved on.
Fast forward to 1999: I had recently moved back to the US after graduate school and years thereafter spent abroad, and I was looking forward to seeing my first ‘live’ Derby (on television) in a number of years. Not having had a chance to follow the prep races until that point (I may have worked for a dot-com at that point, but finding racing information online was still a ways off), I nearly fell off my chair when I saw Chris Antley riding Charismatic in the post parade. I was all the more surprised when I saw he was riding for D. Wayne Lukas, who had never struck me as a trainer who would use Antley as his first-call jockey – indeed, the long odds on ex-claimer Charismatic suggested that the horse was not the one Lukas expected to win, either. Nevertheless, I backed Charismatic to win (at least to the other people in the room) and was thrilled to see him come home first. Catching up on the backstory, I was so pleased to discover that Antley had (so it seemed) finally beaten his demons and was back on top. Granted, he looked a little rougher than he should have – he was still in his early 30s, but hardly looked it – but given the intervening years, it was unsurprising. I was equally delighted when Charismatic won the Preakness, and though he had a fine chance in the Belmont (although I was also a fan of Silverbulletday and thought that if anyone was going to beat him, it was the tough filly). We all know what happened next: the third-place finish, the breakdown, a devastated Antley on the track cradling the horse’s leg and the media not entirely sure where to look. But it seemed that the story, though ultimately disheartening, still had its bright spots: Charismatic would be saved, and Chris Antley finally had a solid base on which to build a future in the racing business. Barely a year later, he was dead.
All these memories came back in full force after watching the ESPN Films documentary on Charismatic, which recalled many of these elements, but seemed too rushed to explore others. Some parts were extremely well done – the interviews with Gary Stevens (who had fabulous lighting), Drew Mollica and Antley’s widow, Natalie Jowett Antley, in particular, seemed well-researched and compassionately-executed – they were by far the highlight of the documentary. I certainly learned a few unpleasant truths from that portion of the film – for example, I had been unaware of the rumors that Antley was already off the wagon before the Belmont, or that he had flown in on the red eye to win the Derby. I never really questioned his ride in the Belmont, and while I could certainly see why the former assistant trainers to D. Wayne Lukas might have done so, it seemed crass for them to continue to do so these long years later, in light of what happed, both to the horse and to Antley. While I had long regarded Antley as the hero of the day for ‘saving’ Charismatic, I had privately wondered whether or not his actions in grabbing the horse’s leg were the right or wrong decision; that question, at least, was answered affirmatively by Dr. Larry Bramlage, who indicated that Charismatic would likely not have survived without such quick intervention.
But the bizarre circumstances surrounding Antley’s death remained just as mysterious after the documentary as they had before – while no one questions that drugs were involved, it still seems that there was more going on than was explained by either the coroner or police investigations. Other aspects of the story that could have done with further illumination are Antley’s earlier career: what brought him to California to ride in the first place? Who mentored him, and how did it go so badly wrong the first time? And then, of course – the horse: I would have liked to see some discussion of Charismatic’s recovery, and how he eventually ended up in Japan (where, it must be noted, he looked fit and healthy in the brief clips we did see). Granted, some of that might not appeal to a general audience, but it would have fleshed out more of the story.
On the whole, it was refreshing to see that someone beyond the hardcore racing community still cared about these stories, but I think that both a general and a racing audience would have been better served by a longer film, filling in more of the still-open gaps. I’ve always felt that Charismatic was under-rated, and that while he was always an inconsistent horse, we never saw his best; the same could be said of this look at his – and Chris Antley’s – story.