ELMONT, N.Y. — 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."