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He's History

Santos has rebounded from tough times to take a magical ride with Funny Cide

June 01, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y — ELMONT, N.Y. -- Last summer, Mike Sellito, Jose Santos' agent of about four months, went to the jockey at Belmont Park and mentioned that trainer Barclay Tagg had an unraced 2-year-old he wanted Santos to ride in a workout.

Santos, unfamiliar with the horse, was not thrilled by the prospect.

"Do I have to work a horse for that grouchy guy?" Santos asked Sellito, then went to Tagg's barn for an introduction to the horse, anyway.

It is almost a year later, and now Santos can flash a big smile as he tells the story. The 42-year-old jockey knew earlier than many of the reporters along the Triple Crown trail that the 65-year-old Tagg is a sourpuss, but these are times when almost everybody, especially Santos, is willing to suffer churls gladly. That green juvenile from last summer has blossomed into Funny Cide, who on Saturday can make Santos, Tagg and 10 wide-eyed owners richer by several million dollars. A victory by Funny Cide in the Belmont Stakes here would make him the 12th Triple Crown champion, and the first since Affirmed in 1978. Besides the purses from the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and now the Belmont -- all $1-million races -- Funny Cide would also earn an insurance-paid $5-million bonus for sweeping the series.

Funny Cide might have sneaked up on handicappers and the racing public -- he was favored in only two of his first eight races and was a 12-1 shot in the Derby -- but Santos knew from the outset that Tagg had a bona fide contender for the classics. It wasn't long after that first workout at Belmont that Santos told his wife Rita, the sister of jockey Herb Castillo Jr., that he had found his Derby horse. Before 2003, Santos had ridden in the race five times with no better than a fourth-place finish.

When Santos told his wife that Funny Cide was a New York-bred, she pointed out that a horse foaled here had never won the Derby. Santos went on to explain that Funny Cide was also a gelding.

"A gelding and a New York-bred?" Rita Santos asked incredulously. "Are you insane?"

When Santos won the Derby four weeks ago, Funny Cide became the first gelding winner in 74 years. When Santos rode Funny Cide to victory in the Preakness two weeks back, cinching two-thirds of the Triple Crown, Funny Cide's 9 3/4-length margin was the biggest since the first year the race was run, in 1873.

"I will be riding this horse with a lot of confidence in the Belmont," said Santos, whose most demanding job during the coming week may be calming his 8-year-old son Jose Jr., one of his four children who have been along for the Triple Crown ride. In post-race interview tents in Louisville and Baltimore, young Jose has been at his father's side, like a kid on Christmas morn, not knowing what to expect next and overwhelmed by every minute.

"I don't know what I'll do before the Belmont," the Chilean-born jockey said. "He gets so nervous. I'm a little nervous too, but he's even worse."

Funny Cide has crystallized a long road back for Santos in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business of race riding. In 1987, after Santos had won the Saratoga riding title, ending an 11-year reign by the incomparable Angel Cordero at the prestigious upstate New York track, Joe Hirsch, the esteemed columnist for the Daily Racing Form, wrote: "Many regard [Santos] as the next great American rider, in the mold of Eddie Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker."

Santos had already won three national money titles when that was said, and he added the fourth in 1989. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald had warned, there was no second act. Late in 1990, Santos was battling Gary Stevens, the California jockey, for his fifth title when he and his agent at the time, Frank Sanabria, honored a promise to Marje Everett, chairman of Hollywood Park, to come ride at the Inglewood track where Stevens was also competing. The Santos-Stevens confrontation seemed compelling on paper, but Santos would have been better positioned to rack up purses back home, riding in New York by day and at the Meadowlands in nearby New Jersey at night.

Santos gave California a lengthy shot, finishing the Hollywood Park fall-winter meet, staying through the winter at Santa Anita and starting another Hollywood season in the spring, but winners were scarce and he returned to New York. Meantime, Stevens won the national title, beating him out by about $1 million.

Momentum is paramount for a jockey and Santos, only 30, suddenly had to reinvent himself. He had opened few doors in California and had shut several in New York.

Worse, his first marriage was unraveling, then in 1992 he was seriously injured in an ugly three-horse spill at Belmont. Entering the stretch of a grass race, Santos tried to wedge his mount through a closing hole near the rail. Santos' horse clipped the heels of a horse in front, went down and launched his rider into orbit. Santos, who appeared to have been trampled by his own horse, broke an arm and a collarbone and didn't ride for five months.

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