Santos' Nightmare Comes to an End
Photo: AP/Ed Reinke
Jose Santos, with Churchill Downs' twin spires in the background.
Last Sunday night, Rita Santos and her four children, Nadia, 15, Jose Jr., 8, Selena, 7, and Savannah, 5, all curled up in bed together, watching TV. Around that time, Rita's husband, Jose, was arriving in Kentucky to appear the following day before the Churchill Downs stewards, who were investigating allegations made in the Miami Herald that Santos may have been carrying an illegal object in his hand in the Kentucky Derby.

Rita would always fall asleep watching TV when Jose was out of town. On this night, she wanted the family to be together after the ordeal they had been put through since Saturday morning when the Herald's story and accompanying photo appeared. She felt she had done a good job keeping most of it from the kids. But, as she dozed off, she had no idea that Selena was watching her father on TV arriving in Kentucky.

At 2 a.m., Selena was having trouble sleeping, and appeared disturbed. When Rita asked her what was wrong, she said, "I can't sleep. I'm nervous. I didn't realize my daddy was such a bad person."

Rita was devastated. "How do you handle something like that at two in the morning?" she said. "I probably shouldn't have told Jose about it, but it just hurt so much. I told Jose the next morning, 'I know you're going to get through all this, but I have to tell you what Selena said.' After I told him, I said I would talk to her and tell her everything is going to be OK. That afternoon, we watched the press conference on TV, and I could see the hurt in Jose's eyes. The day before, he was pretty cool and calm, and looked like he was handling it well. But even on TV, I could see a different look in his eyes. I could see the anger in there. I know my husband well, and I knew from his face that what Selena said really hurt him a lot."

Selena's remark was the low point for the Santos family. Fortunately, Jose Jr., who has been a fixture around the track for years, had enough racetrack savvy to know that all the accusations were false. Rita and Jose tried their best to protect him from the possible repercussions, at school and at the track. But he was well aware what was happening. He told Rita, "Dad thinks I don't know what what's going on. But they're accusing my dad of cheating and I know he's not a cheater."

"Those were serious words from an 8-year-old," Rita said.

The incident took root on Friday, when Santos received a call from Frank Carlson of the Miami Herald. "He left a message, and I called him back," Santos recalled. "He said, 'Thank you for calling back and congratulations on your Derby win.' Then he told me I was carrying something in my hand. I told him the only thing I had was my Q-Ray bracelet for arthritis (a birthday present he received from Rita two weeks earlier). He said, 'No, you were carrying something with your whip.' I realized he was accusing me, so I said, 'I don't have time for this nonsense,' and I hung up the phone. The whole conversation lasted a total of 25-30 seconds. When I told my wife about it, she said, 'I hope that phone call doesn't bite you in the (butt) later.' And it did."

The next morning, the story and photo appeared and rocked the entire racing world. Because of miscommunication between Santos and the writer, Santos was quoted as saying he was carrying a "cue ring" for the outriders.

Rita first heard about it later that morning. Jose and " Little Joe," as Jose Jr. is known, went to the track together. At 8 a..m., Jose called Rita and told her that the Miami Herald had printed something accusing him of carrying a battery. "He told me not to worry about it," Rita said. "He said it's not going to be a big deal. At 9:30, he called again and said, 'You need to get over here and pick up Joe. This is getting bad, and we need to see an attorney.' I asked him, 'How can this be?' Then Nadia went on the Internet and pulled up the photo, and you couldn't even make anything out. The neighbors instantly started calling."

That was the beginning of a 72-hour nightmare for the Santos family and all of racing. "It was all so crazy," Rita said. "It was horrible for everyone to have to go through this. Not just us, but everyone in the industry.."

When Santos rode the beaten favorites in his first two mounts Saturday afternoon, someone shouted to him, "You can't win no more, because they took your battery away." After he won the Nassau County Breeders' Cup Stakes aboard second-choice House Party, the same person shouted, "Sure, you use your machine just for the stakes races."

It also was a bad day for Rita. "We always come out for the races on weekends," she said. "When I got here and saw all those TV cameras, I called my brother and asked him, 'Could you do me a favor and come and get the kids out of here. The media is going crazy; they're chasing Jose all over the paddock.' Then, Sunday was really rough because I had to keep the children at home all day."

Rita and Jose are so grateful for all the support everyone has shown. "Even Jay Leno, who was hosting the 'Today' show, said Jose got a bum rap, and he really doesn't know that much about racing," Rita said. "What he said brought tears to my eyes. It was so wonderful for someone who doesn't know the industry come out and support Jose. And this was before Jose was exonerated. I definitely want to send him a thank you letter."

While Jose was in Kentucky, Rita represented her husband at the state Capitol Monday, where the state legislators honored Santos for his victory in the Derby. It was there that they all watched the press conference in Kentucky, and cheered when the decision was announced. "It was unbelievable," Rita said. "We left at 8 a.m. for Albany, and it was an all-day affair. We didn't get home until midnight. The governor's words were wonderful. He said to tell Jose they were all very proud of him. He then shook Little Jose's hand and said, 'Are you proud of your daddy? Because all of New York is proud of him.' Nadia said, 'Wow! Did you hear what he said?' I'm just so glad it's over."

Santos feels even more determined now to win the Preakness. "I feel like I have to win," he said. "I have to show the public we won the Derby fair and square. I have a good horse, and I have a lot of confidence in him. I just want to put all this behind me and focus on the Preakness. It was like a big, dark cloud came, and now that cloud is gone."

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