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Santos Is Cleared by Derby Inquiry

Stewards at Churchill Downs say review of photos shows jockey didn't have electrical charger in hand.

May 13, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Winning the Kentucky Derby was easy for jockey Jose Santos. What came afterward was difficult.

At Belmont Park over the weekend, after failing to win with a couple of favorites, Santos heard from the stands, "You can't win when they take your battery away."

Even when Santos won a stakes race Saturday, the unkind remarks persisted.

Santos kept his children away from the track Saturday and Sunday -- after his 8-year-old son, Jose Jr., had sat by his side and participated in the post-Derby news conference at Churchill Downs on May 3 -- for fear they'd also hear from the fans, and he kept them home from school Monday.

Santos himself was at Churchill Downs on Monday, defending himself against accusations that he might have carried an illegal electrical charger when he rode Funny Cide to victory May 3 in the Derby. After a 1 1/2-hour hearing, the yoke was lifted. The three stewards said that Santos had done nothing illegal in winning the Derby.

Said Bernie Hettel, the chief steward: "Based on the information that we have gathered and reviewed, we are confident that Jose Santos carried nothing more than a whip in his right hand as Funny Cide won the Derby. There is no evidence that would suggest that Mr. Santos had any prohibited device in his possession or that he engaged in any improper actions in the race."

Speculation that Santos might have used an electrical prod -- called a "battery" in racetrack parlance -- was fanned by a story and photograph in last Saturday's Miami Herald. In the photo, it appeared that Santos had something besides his whip in is right hand. The Herald had run the story after showing the photo to the stewards, one of whom labeled the picture "very suspicious."

After extensive review, the stewards concluded that the area in the photo that showed Santos' whip hand, between his fingers and the thumb, consisted of the turquoise silks of jockey Jerry Bailey, who was behind Funny Cide, riding the second-place finisher Empire Maker. The photo also showed a tiny part of the strap from Bailey's goggles. Even photo experts from the Louisville police department were called in to help the stewards, who reviewed more than 300 still photos of the Derby, plus videotapes of the race. The stewards also searched the track and winner's-circle area for a battery, but found nothing.

"Winning the Derby was one of the happiest moments of my life," Santos said Monday. "Now this is one of the happiest moments of my life. I am thankful this nightmare is over. A week ago, I was enjoying the happiest moment of my life. Then this photograph came in, and destroyed my career, actually."

Asked if he were angry at the newspaper for running the story, he said: "Anybody who has some false situation, they have to be very angry. It was a terrible situation for my family. My little boy, my No. 1 fan, he was at home and I told him everything would be OK. He said to me, 'All the people who cheat in racing, Daddy, you're not a cheater.' "

After the hearing, Santos and his attorney, Karen Murphy, returned to New York, where Funny Cide is being prepared at Belmont Park for Saturday's Preakness, the second leg in the Triple Crown. Just days ago, Pimlico was expecting a small field for the Preakness, but now it appears that 12 or 13 horses will run at the Baltimore track.

Santos would not comment about whether he was considering legal action against the Miami Herald, which is being criticized by other media for the way it handled the story. One of the Herald reporters said that he might have misunderstood the Chilean-born Santos, who speaks with a heavy accent, in a phone interview that was conducted before the story was published.

"The [stewards'] review was clearly painstakingly done, and we certainly accept the result," said Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Herald. "I think the process unfolded as it should when a question arises."

Although Santos was exonerated, the controversy over the possible use of a battery could have long-term effects on the sport's uphill battle to promote integrity. Racing was still recovering from the pick-six scandal at last October's Breeders' Cup races when the Santos story broke.

"I'm glad it's over," said Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer at Pimlico, in an interview with the Thoroughbred Times. "But it's a shame it was sensationalized the way it was. Everyone knows what a class act Jose Santos is but, frankly, the sport doesn't need another black eye."

Barclay Tagg, who trains Funny Cide for the 10-member Sackatoga Stable, and Jack Knowlton, the owners' managing partner, defended Santos. Tagg doesn't plan to van Funny Cide the 200 miles from Belmont Park to Pimlico until Saturday morning, perhaps in part to avoid the fallout from the battery accusations.

"We are disappointed that the inquiry had to take place and that one photo was the basis of the [Herald's] story," Knowlton said in a statement.

The Preakness already had nine entries when Foufa's Warrior, New York Hero and Ten Cents A Shine joined the field Monday. During is also a possible. Earlier, Funny Cide, Peace Rules, Senor Swinger, Scrimshaw, Midway Road, Cherokee's Boy, Champali, Kissin Saint and Alysweep were committed to running.

Trainer Wayne Lukas named Pat Valenzuela to ride Ten Cents A Shine, who finished eighth in the Derby. Scrimshaw, also trained by Lukas, and Senor Swinger, trained by Bob Baffert, will be coupled in the betting, because both colts are owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis.

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