Jockey Jose Santos, who will ride Funny Cide in his bid for the Triple Crown Saturday afternoon in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), has a lot of people in his corner. Count among them Hall of Fame trainer P.G. Johnson, who compared him to the legendary Braulio Baeza.
The 77-year-old Johnson was on the Belmont Park apron Tuesday morning to watch his Volponi work seven furlongs in 1:24.02. Johnson employed Santos to ride Volponi last fall in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships and the connections scored a monumental upset victory in the $4-million Classic (gr. I).
"Going back to the '70s, Jose reminds of Braulio Baeza," said Johnson, who has been training on the New York circuit for five decades. "The way he carries the stick, the way he twirls it." Baeza won the Belmont three times, with Sherluck in 1961, Chateaugay in 1963, and with Arts and Letters in 1969. Santos won the 1999 Belmont aboard Lemon Drop Kid.
"He's riding cool, like he used to," Johnson said.
Santos, the leading rider in America by purse earnings four years in a row in the late 1980s, saw his business dwindle in the 1990s. "Everything went wrong," Johnson said. "He had a marriage go wrong; he had a lot of kids and a lot of bills."
His business turned back around, according to Johnson, when he switched agents to Mike Sellitto, a former New York City policeman. "When he changed agents, he took off," Johnson said. "He changed his attitude, he changed his life. Last year at Saratoga, at the Oklahoma training track, you'd see him out there at a quarter of six. You could see it."
Johnson recalled Santos getting the mount on Volponi for the Classic. In the horse's previous start, the Meadowlands Cup (gr. II), he was ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan, who was also the regular rider of Evening Attire, winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and a Classic contender. Volponi was cross-entered in the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. I) and the Classic. When Johnson learned that Bridgmohan would be sticking with Evening Attire in the Classic, Sellitto was right there to say, "We'll ride in both races!" Johnson committed to Santos, and the rest is history.
What if both the Barlcay Tagg-trained Funny Cide and Volponi make it to the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall at Santa Anita? "Barclay and I talked about it after the Derby, and we both agreed that each horse would have a jockey," Johnson said with a laugh.