By Alex Tresniowski
Updated January 08, 2001 12:00 PM

The cheering of crowds and glow of the winner’s circle had long since faded when Chris Antley answered a knock at his door on Nov. 6. Standing outside his gray, ranch-style home in a ritzy section of Pasadena was his friend Gary Stevens, there to try and shake Antley—one of the most talented jockeys in the history of horse racing—out of yet another emotional tailspin. But Stevens soon realized that Antley, already drinking at 8:30 a.m., was beyond help. In fact he even had a chilling premonition: “He was saying, ‘I am going to die, they are going to get me,’ ” recalls Stevens, 37, also a jockey. “A lot of the things he said were paranoid. But a lot of the things we thought were paranoid have happened.”

Four weeks after that futile visit, Antley’s brother Bryan and another friend, Cathy Park, found Antley lying dead in the hallway of his home, his body cut and bruised, his head severely smashed. Police also found what is believed to be crystal methamphetamine in the house, as well as a bedroom door knocked off its hinges. They are investigating the death as a homicide and have interrogated Antley’s frequent houseguest, Tim Tyler, a man with a record of drug abuse who was spotted with a crowbar at Antley’s home the day he died. So far, though, “we are neither ruling anyone out nor are we identifying any suspects,” says Mary Schander, a commander with the Pasadena Police department.

An intuitive, fearless rider with an almost mystical rapport with horses, Antley, 34, won 3,480 races and two Kentucky Derbys in his 17-year career. Away from the track, however, he fought a relentless battle against addiction, depression and paranoia. Despite some promising signs of late—he had recently been married, bought a new home and was excitedly awaiting the birth of his first child—Antley only reluctantly sought help for his mental illness and often refused to take medication that might have lifted him out of the circumstances that apparently led to his death. “His depressions were dark, and he’d want to be by himself,” says Natalie, 36, his wife of eight months. “It never got through his head that he deserved all the love that people wanted to give him.”

The 5’3″ Antley also struggled mightily with his weight, which he needed to keep below 118 lbs. to meet the limit for jockeys. Unlike smaller riders who made that weight more easily, Antley had to stick to a rigid diet and exercise regimen, often resorting to common jockey practices such as taking laxatives, sweating off pounds in a sauna and vomiting, or flipping. “I did it in cycles,” Antley told PEOPLE in 1999. “Sometimes I flipped for a while, then I’d go to water pills, then I’d try the hot box, then I’d throw in a laxative. Whatever my body could handle.”

Early on, it was clear to those who knew Antley that he was as troubled as he was gifted. Born in Ft. Lauderdale to Les Antley, an asbestos insulation installer, and Shelly, a daycare-center operator, he was 12 when his parents divorced. Distraught, he moved in with his grandmother in Elloree, S.C., and at age 14 took a job at the Elloree Training Center cleaning stalls. Given the chance to train as a jockey, Antley never looked back. “He was a natural,” says his mentor, Goree Smith, who ran the center. “And he loved being around horses.” Antley dropped out of high school to race on the East Coast circuit in 1983; two years later he was the nation’s leading rider, with 469 victories.

In 1988 Antley, 22, lost his racing license after testing positive for marijuana and cocaine. He returned to form after a short suspension, winning races on a record 64 straight days in 1989. Yet Antley could not escape the pressure of maintaining an unnatural weight—or the feeling of being unworthy of success. In 1997 he was once again suspended from racing after refusing to take a drug test. “He could get on a horse and ride the hair off it,” says Don Murray, who as the executive director of the Winners Foundation, a program that helped racing industry employees with drug and alcohol problems, steered Antley into rehab. “Yet he was afraid and unhappy.”

Convinced he was through with racing, Antley shot up to 147 lbs. But watching the 1998 Breeders Cup on TV inspired him to make a comeback. He rode the 31-to-l long shot Charismatic to victory in the 1999 Kentucky Derby, then took the second jewel of the Triple Crown at Maryland’s Pimlico Racetrack that May. But then, at the Belmont Stakes, a front-running Charismatic broke its leg during the race and finished third. Antley then jumped off the panicked horse and kept it from further damaging its leg, probably saving its life. It was a heroic act, yet some believe the loss sent Antley over the edge. “He had put a lot of pressure on himself,” says Gary Stevens. “He not only had to live with the feeling of failure, but with the horse breaking down.”

Antley capped his remarkable year in April 2000, when he married Natalie Jowett, an ABC sports producer he met while she was filming a feature on him. “I felt so safe around him,” says Natalie, who remembers Antley taking a piece of purple crystal, straightening out a paper clip and fashioning it into a ring. “He said, ‘Look, honey, will you be my wife?’ ” she says. “We got married two days later.” After quitting racing last March, Antley bought a $1.2 million, 3,000-sq.-ft. home in Pasadena’s exclusive San Rafael neighborhood and seemed delighted at the prospect of being a father. “He always longed for children, but he wasn’t sure he could have one after the sweatboxes and diuretics,” says his mother, Shelly, 54. “So he was ecstatic when Natalie got pregnant.”

The depression that plagued him most of his life, however, would not be easily conquered. Since Natalie worked in New York City, Antley was often alone for long stretches of time. Towards the end his behavior became more bizarre. “He was impulsive,” says his neighbor Jim Herzfeld, a screenwriter. “I’d find his computer monitor floating in the pool, and he’s like, I got mad at it.’ ”

In July 2000 Antley was arrested for driving under the influence. Last September he was booked for possessing methamphetamine. In October Antley’s wife stopped flying to visit him because of her pregnancy and work demands. “She was still trying to work things out with him,” says the noted horse trainer Bob Baffert, who gave Natalie away at the wedding. “But he didn’t even want to come out of the house.”

The only person Antley didn’t chase away was Tim Tyler, 24, a friend he met in rehab. “He just kept showing up,” says Gary Stevens. “He made himself a houseguest.” Cathy Park spotted Tyler at Antley’s house on Dec. 2 holding a crowbar he later said he needed to break into a toolbox. Antley’s body was discovered around 11 that night; the next morning police arrested Tyler on three warrants involving drugs. Tyler, who declined to comment for this article, is currently out on probation.

On Dec. 9 Antley was buried in a small, century-old cemetery along Elloree’s Old Highway Number Six. Laid beside him in the casket was a set of racing silks that Antley wore in better times. “I just wanted something of his younger days,” says his mother, Shelly, “when [racing] was pure for him.” Sometime in January Antley’s wife is expected to give birth to their daughter Violet Grace, the child whom many hoped might help stave off his merciless demons. Sadly, that hope turned out to be the greatest long shot of all. “Chris had a huge heart, but I don’t think he ever found true happiness,” says his friend, Goree Smith’s son Greg. “It was just harder for him to deal with people than with horses.”

Alex Tresniowski

Linda Trischitta in Elloree and Leslie Berestein and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles