Back on top of the world
Jose Santos was brutally honest. The reason he didn't just walk away?
"I have a family," he said. "I have to feed them."
At least he wasn't alone.
Mike Smith didn't quit either, but he did bail on New York racing. His career path had followed Santos', step by frustrating step. He was the undisputed kingpin of New York until injuries got in his way. He couldn't seem to regain his momentum and after a while he wasn't winning many races, especially the ones that mattered. So he left for California in May of 2001, a desperate attempt to revive his career.
It wasn't working. At the 2001 Breeders' Cup he had just two mounts, neither of them on horses who appeared to have a serious chance. At least he made out better than Santos. He had one mount, a 13-1 shot named Volga in the Filly & Mare Turf. Between them, Santos and Smith had won 14 Breeders' Cup races, but no one wants a rider on what seems like an inexorable path to mediocrity.
"A slump like that is really tough, to be honest with you," Smith said. "I probably tried to pretend that it wasn't at first, but it was the hardest thing I ever went through mentally. I had never run into something like that in my career before. It had always gone up. I had never gotten to a point where things went down, and not only did they go down but they plummeted."
So Smith kept at it and waited for a break. So did Santos. They both hoped someone will remember how good they once were. After this Breeders' Cup, that won't be a problem. Between them they won three races, two by Smith, one by Santos.
What made it happen? They always could ride. They just needed to start getting on some horses who could run.
For both, injuries ignited their declines. Here's how it goes: a jockey loses his momentum and stops winning races. Because the jockey isn't winning, no one wants to give them any good horses to ride. Bad mounts lead to more losers. The slump worsens.
For the 41-year-old Santos, it began to turn around when he hired Mike Sellito as his agent. A former New York City cop, Sellito has worked magic. He solidified Santos' hold on the Christophe Clement barn and worked hard to convince new clients that his jockey still had it. Sellito got him better mounts and Santos didn't waste the opportunity. After having just 67 winners in 2001, he already has 154 this year.
"In the eighties I was on top for five, six years and then I had a terrible spill in 1992," he said. "My business went down terribly. Then this year, I started to get up again. It's been a rejuvenation."
Smith, 37, struggled in his first year in California and won just 95 races in 2001. But at least two trainers still had some faith in him. Laura De Seroux, a rising star in the business at age 50, tabbed Smith to be her stable rider. That meant he was given the mount on Azeri, one of his two Breeders' Cup winners. The other was the Bob Baffert-trained Vindication.
Meanwhile, Santos was doing nothing on the day and that wasn't supposed to change in the $4 million Classic. He was riding a hopeless longshot named Volponi and only got the mount because Shaun Bridgmohan chose to ride Evening Attire. But Volponi ran so fast that all Santos had to do was hold on and steer. He crushed the field, giving his jockey the biggest pay day of his career.
"I'm on top of the world right now, believe me," Santos said. "To win this race is wonderful. People say it's a lot of money. That helps. But it's the prestige of winning a race like this that is most important to me."
Santos won't have to think about walking away for a long, long time. Neither will Smith. They had three Breeders' Cup winners among them. Give them good horses and they'll win races. It's really no more difficult than that.