Jose Santos: Derby-Preakness Winning Jockey

Jose Santos: Derby-Preakness Winning Jockey
Photo: Associated Press
Jockey Jose Santos, with Churchill Downs' twin spires in the background.
Published in the May 10 issue of The Blood-Horse
Jose Santos is one of the masters of big-time race riding. In 1999, he denied Charismatic the Triple Crown when he booted Lemon Drop Kid home in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Last October, he guided Volponi to a 43-1 upset victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) and on the first Saturday in May, the Chilean-born jockey won his first Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in seven attempts.

"I always had a dream to win the Kentucky Derby," Santos said amid the throng of well-wishers after guiding Funny Cide to a 1 3/4-length victory. "I always wanted to pass the wire first. And today it came true...Here was my dream."

After the race Santos was met by his 8-year-old son, Jose Jr., who shook his fists at the fans who cheered as his father passed through the Churchill grandstand. Asked his feeling watching the race, Jose Jr. exclaimed, "Wow!"

"I'm hoping one day he'll be a jockey and keep the Santos tradition going," his proud father said.

"I'll probably ride Funny Cide's son," Jose Jr. said, apparently unaware that Funny Cide is a gelding.

If and when the younger Santos dons the silks and goggles, he would become the third generation of the Santos family to become a jockey. Santos is the son of a former jockey, Manuel Santos, who began taking Jose to the backstretch when he was eight years old. "My father wasn't a very good jockey, but he was a very good teacher," he said. "Me and my brothers are all champion jockeys."

Santos' riding career began at age 14 in Chile, then he rode for seven years in Colombia before returning home. His first win came on Oct. 24, 1976, aboard Sebueso at Hipico Racecourse in Chile.

Santos was stricken with Derby fever at age 12 after watching Secretariat win the 1973 Derby en route to his Triple Crown triumph, and the fever only intensified after watching Steve Cauthen guide Affirmed to Triple Crown glory in 1978.

"I knew this day would come. I never doubted it. After watching Steve Cauthen and Affirmed I knew this is where I wanted to be," Santos said.

In January 1984, Santos made the move to the United States where he tied for leading rider honors with 69 victories at Calder Race Course's summer meet. Later, he tied for leading rider at the 1984-85 Tropical-at-Calder meeting with 46 wins. He then moved to Gulfstream and Hialeah where he won both jockey titles outright in 1985. At Gulfstream, he rode 62 winners during the 50-day meet.

Santos moved his tack to New York in the summer of 1985 and his career was as ripe as some of the fruit he sold as a child. He led the nation in purse earnings the next four years (1986-89) and was the leading rider in New York by wins from 1986-88.

In 1987, he unseated Angel Cordero Jr., the "King of Saratoga," from his throne after 11 consecutive meet titles. That same year he rode 56 stakes winners, one shy of Jorge Velasquez' then-national standard. He capped 1988 off by earning an Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding jockey.

"In the 1980s I was on top of the world," he said. "Everything was great. Then things kind of slowed down and now they are on the rise again. It's just the nature of this game."

Santos' dream of winning the Derby began melting into reality last August, when he breezed Funny Cide for trainer Barclay Tagg. He told Tagg he was the best 2-year-old he'd ever been on, and Santos became his regular rider.

The night Santos won the Breeders' Cup Classic in Chicago, he told Jackson Knowlton, managing partner of the syndicate that owns Funny Cide, "Funny Cide--I love that horse. That's my Derby horse for next year."

Knowlton said he was glad that Santos kept his word.

After the excitement of the Derby had quieted to a dull roar, Santos still had one more riding commitment. He was scheduled to ride for trainer Kenny McPeek in the final race of the day aboard the appropriately named King of the World, but he took off the mount with McPeek's OK. "He can take off with my blessing," McPeek said. "It's his day, and he deserves this moment."

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