Santos a deserving winner in Preakness
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
They were all celebrating, the many owners, the trainer, the assistant trainer, the New York bred folks and anyone who was smart enough to grab the 9-5 (wow, what a steal) on Funny Cide. The horse ran great and the trainer did a superb job keeping him on top of his game after the Kentucky Derby victory. The credit needs to be spread here, there and everywhere.
By now, Jose Santos' tale is the best known story in horse racing. He was the poor kid out of Chile who made it to the top in New York only to have his career all but fall apart. By 2001, he wasn't even among the top 60 jockeys in the country in earnings. But he never gave up and, out of nowhere, enjoyed an incredible career revival that began early last year. In a span of some six months, he won the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Kentucky Derby and no one was saying that he was washed up anymore.
He was having the time of his life, and then someone came up with the ridiculous idea that he was carrying a battery in his hand in the Kentucky Derby. Santos' happiest moment turned into three days of hell.
"The Saturday I won the Kentucky Derby was one of the happiest moments of my life," he said. "And then the bomb blew up, and that wasn't nice."
Santos held up better than could be expected, but his family wasn't doing nearly as well. His wife, Rita, told harrowing stories about how hard the couple's children had taken the news, how they couldn't sleep at night, how they had to be escorted out of Belmont Park when a couple of idiot fans started riding their father.
Despite this, Santos remained gracious and classy. Other than when approached by a reporter from the Miami Herald, the paper that started the fiasco, he never refused an interview, never gave anyone a hard time. He was all class.
"Jose Santos is not only a great rider, he's a great individual," trainer Barclay Tagg said.
By Monday, Santos was in clear. The Churchill Downs stewards had exonerated him and he was able to focus his attention on the race. Still, it had been a terrible time for him and for his family, But he was intent on moving on.
"The only thing I wanted was to have a clear mind and come and ride this race," he said.
Two weeks earlier, Santos has ridden a perfect race in the Kentucky Derby. Every step of the way, he had Funny Cide in a perfect spot, right behind a pretty swift pace and ready to pounce any time the rider wanted. It was such a heady ride that the trip was being held against Funny Cide as some concluded that he could never get that lucky again.
They were wrong. The jockey whose days as a top rider were supposed to be over did it again. So maybe Al Roker could have won on Funny Cide Saturday. That's how dominant he was. But a flawless ride from his jockey sure didn't hurt. He made every right move.
He was careful not to get into any kind of speed duel with Peace Rules or anyone else as he positioned Funny Cide in the garden spot, second down the backstretch. At the same time, he couldn't afford to let Peace Rules get away. He nudged his mount ever so gently down the backstretch, attacking Peace Rules about a half mile from home.
"I was very concerned about Peace Rules because he has very good speed," he said. "I didn't want to give Funny Cide too much to do, so I kept him close to Peace Rules. I was eating Peace Rules apart at the three-eighths pole."
When Funny Cide made his move, he effortlessly drew alongside Peace Rules. They were about three furlongs from the wire, but the race was over.
Through the stretch, it was Funny Cide and nine stragglers battling it out for second. Up in the stands, the Santos family celebration had begun. The cameras caught the poignant sight of Jose Santos Jr, the charming 8-year-old who obviously adores his father, crying. This time, they were tears of joy, replacing the tears of sorrow that had run down his face just a few days earlier.
"It was a wonderful feeling, believe me," Santos said of his victory. "Winning the Preakness was more sentimental because of all the b.s. that happened. Now we did it. Nobody can say anything bad about Jose Santos, about Funny Cide or Barclay Tagg."
So now the focus shifts to what promises to be one of the greatest runnings of the Belmont Stakes ever. Not only will a very popular horse, one whose feel-good story resonates with the public, be going for the Triple Crown, but he will be facing a stellar groups of competitors. Waiting for him will be, among others, some very tough horses in Empire Maker, Dynever and Atswhatimtalknbout.
Maybe Funny Cide will win and maybe he won't. And some may still think he doesn't deserve to win the Triple Crown; that he's really not that good. But the jockey is a different story. Jose Santos had a great day Saturday. He deserves at least one more.