The little man has tasted everything that a jockey's life can
bring. He was a groom at age eight, the oldest of seven siblings
in a poor family in his native Chile, the son of a rider. At 15
he was getting mounts in horse races at Club Hipico de
Concepcion--a wispy 85-pound boy holding on desperately aboard
half-ton thoroughbreds. At 17 he moved to Colombia, where for
six years he honed his craft by day and partied relentlessly by
night. "I was making a lot of money, and I spent all of it in
the blink of an eye," he says. "Alcohol, cocaine. You name it,
I did it. Lots of it." On Jan. 3, 1984, Jose Santos arrived at
Miami International Airport with world-class riding skills and
a crippling coke habit to match. Before getting off the jet, he
vowed that he would never do drugs again, a promise he says he
For four consecutive years in the late 1980s Santos led all
jockeys in money won, making a tough job look effortless while
competing on the voracious New York circuit. The '90s paid him
back mercilessly. He moved to California and struggled for one
painful year. In '92, back on the East Coast, he broke 11 bones
in a spill and lost business that wouldn't return in full for
more than a decade. His first marriage fell apart. His second
took hold but strained against the demands of travel and
distance, Dad living in New York for nine months, Mom and the
four kids in Florida.
In the spring of 2001, even as he was returning to form, Santos
shattered his right wrist in another fall, necessitating
reconstructive surgery that kept him off horses for five months.
His wife, Rita, 32, a native of Panama and also the child of a
jockey, cried softly last week as she told of begging Jose, then
40, not to eat himself into a career-ending weight gain. "Joe,
don't do this to yourself," she pleaded. She had seen her
father's career stunted by the cycle of injury and bloat. Jose
and Rita walked together for three miles a day around their gated
community in Hollywood, Fla. He gained only five pounds from his
riding weight of 114 pounds on a 5'2" frame. By the spring of
2002 Santos had a new agent, then rode to victory last fall in
the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard 43-1 shot Volponi.
Santos saw all of this and more flash through his mind's eye on
the first Saturday in May, when he rode Funny Cide to victory in
the Kentucky Derby. "It was like when you rewind a tape and play
it forward fast," he says. "I saw my daddy teaching me to ride, I
saw the bad things in Colombia, the injuries, the people who
helped me come back. I saw everything." Then last Saturday, under
pale skies that bled a cold mist on a crowd of 100,268 at Pimlico
Race Course in north Baltimore, Santos piloted Funny Cide to a
withering 9 3/4-length victory in the 128th Preakness, the
largest winning margin in the race since the inaugural running,
in 1873. Suddenly the jockey and the horse stood on the brink of
the Triple Crown.
May 25, 2003
The Preakness win, though, would come only after Santos had
experienced perhaps the most painful chapter of his racing life.
Seven days after the Derby, The Miami Herald published a story
suggesting that the jockey might have carried a device in his
right hand during the race, possibly a battery with which he
could shock Funny Cide into giving more effort. The story was
thin and sloppy, created through a series of misinterpretations
and misjudgments, but it subjected Santos to three days of
scrutiny and embarrassment before he was swiftly cleared by
Churchill Downs stewards after a May 12 hearing.
Now history calls. In the June 7 Belmont Stakes, Funny Cide--a
New York-bred gelding who is stabled at Belmont Park--can become
the 12th Triple Crown winner in the sport and the first since
Affirmed in 1978. And the dizzying, unreal ride continues for
Funny Cide's collection of 10 workaday owners who call themselves
Sackatoga Stable. Included in the syndicate are six high school
buddies from the northern New York village of Sackets Harbor who
nine years ago anted up $5,000 each to play a game none of them
expected to win so fully.
The horse belongs to many, but the Preakness belonged to Santos.
It was on May 10 that the Herald published a picture of Santos in
which there is a dark spot in his whip (right) hand, along with a
story in which Churchill Downs steward Rick Leigh called the
photo "very suspicious." Santos had been interviewed for the
story on the previous day during a phone call that lasted less
than a minute. During that conversation he told freelance writer
Frank Carlson in his accented English that he wore a "Q-Ray"
bracelet on his left wrist to help his "arthritis," an
explanation that appeared in the paper as a "cue ring" to call
"outriders." Santos was launched into a scandal. Railbirds at
Belmont taunted him during weekend races, and he hired a lawyer
to travel with him to Churchill Downs for the Monday hearing.
Yet while Santos was certain of his innocence--"I knew I wasn't
carrying anything," he says--he learned much about the breadth of
his friendships. On May 11 a large group of riders gathered with
Santos in the Belmont jockeys' room to watch a Derby replay. Upon
seeing it, several called media members in support of Santos.
"Jose is a consummately professional race rider and world-class
human being," says retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron.
Numerous media organizations produced enlarged pictures showing
nothing in Santos's hand but his whip. The phone rang all weekend
at his second home, near Belmont. "One person who called was
[Secretariat's jockey] Ron Turcotte," says Santos. "That was very
touching to me, because we've never known each other, but he
called to say that everything would be all right. There were so
many others like that."
On Sunday night Santos flew to Louisville for the hearing, at
which he was quickly exonerated. By Tuesday morning, four days
before the Preakness, he was back at Belmont, watching Funny Cide
work sharply under assistant trainer Robin Smullen. "I knew he
was a monster," Santos would say later in the week.
On Preakness day, some 75 minutes before post time, Smullen and
trainer Barclay Tagg sat in the front seat of Tagg's silver
Lexus, counting down the minutes outside Barn 3, a faded brick
and cinder-block bunker with plexiglass storm windows. It was a
decidedly unglamorous setting for a Kentucky Derby winner, but
Tagg, 65, is a decidedly unconventional trainer. Funny Cide,
after being surrounded by owners, media and assorted others on
the walk from his Kentucky Derby barn to the Churchill Downs
paddock, had become ill-tempered and wild. "Barclay wasn't going
to let that happen again," says Smullen. The entire week was
designed to keep Funny Cide in a cocoon of comfort. Against
Pimlico officials' wishes, Tagg didn't bring Funny Cide to
Baltimore until the Friday afternoon before the Preakness.
An hour before the race, Funny Cide stood quietly in his stall
with both front legs in tubs of ice water, his normal prerace
routine for cooling soft tissue, much like anti-inflammatory
medication would do. Smullen lovingly spilled the cold water over
the horse's knees. Tagg had worked for nearly three decades at
Pimlico, often watching the Preakness from the roof of nearby
Barn 8 but never running in it. As he waited on Saturday, he
reminisced with Smullen, not only his assistant but his
girlfriend, too. "A car crashed into my barn once," he told her,
and then he couldn't remember which barn it was. The two laughed,
and Tagg marveled that now he was here to win the race he had
only been able to watch from afar. "I always wanted to play at
the top level," Tagg had said early in Preakness week. "I was
never sure it would happen."
As the race began, Funny Cide pulled Santos from the dangerously
wide number 9 post position to a spot just two paths off the rail
on the first turn. On the backside the chestnut gelding moved
alongside Peace Rules, the second betting choice and Derby show
horse, but Funny Cide dismissed him on the turn for home. "I was
crushing those other horses," Santos said. Funny Cide moved
easily into a commanding lead. "The way Jose is riding, he's in a
zone," says McCarron. "Horses want to run for him."
It was on the final turn that Santos began hitting Funny Cide,
opening daylight on Peace Rules. In their box seats above the
finish line, owners Dave Mahan of Watertown, Conn., and Lew
Titterton of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., were screaming. "It's too
early!" Titterton yelled above the din.
But it wasn't. The lead grew. Three lengths and then five. Six.
Eight. Nearly 10 at the finish. The Sackatogians, made giddy at
the Derby by their shocking 1 3/4-length victory, were now
stunned by the ease of Funny Cide's win. At the finish Santos
raised two fingers (signaling he had won the first two legs of
the Triple Crown) and then opened his right hand like a magician
who has made a silk handkerchief disappear. "He was showing
everybody: no buzzer," said Santos's track-savvy eight-year-old
son, Jose Jr. Even with two thirds of the Triple Crown tucked
away, Santos would eschew celebratory parties to return to
Belmont and climb on Volponi for a Sunday-morning workout, a
measure of his dedication.
As a cold darkness fell on Pimlico, the Sackatoga gang, more than
120 strong, descended upon the barn that hosts the traditional
post-Preakness victory party. As in Louisville, they had traveled
to the track in a rented school bus, but this time their numbers
had swelled so much that they rented a motor coach, too. In the
gloaming they sang the Sackets Harbor Central School alma mater,
filling the misty air with gleefully off-key music. Across the
track Smullen walked circles around a sandy shedrow with Funny
Cide, cooling him out from his effort. Soon she would load him
into a trailer for his trip home. Fresh opponents await,
skeptical and hungry. History beckons an unlikely king.
At the finish Santos raised two fingers and then opened his right
hand LIKE A MAGICIAN who has made a silk handkerchief disappear.