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Hands DOWN
Tim Layden
May 26, 2003
Putting a baseless accusation behind him, Jose Santos rode Funny Cide to an easy Preakness win and closed in on the first Triple Crown since 1978
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May 26, 2003

Hands Down

Putting a baseless accusation behind him, Jose Santos rode Funny Cide to an easy Preakness win and closed in on the first Triple Crown since 1978

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The little man has tasted everything that a jockey's life can bring. He was a groom at age eight, the oldest of seven siblings in a poor family in his native Chile, the son of a rider. At 15 he was getting mounts in horse races at Club Hipico de Concepcion—a wispy 85-pound boy holding on desperately aboard half-ton thoroughbreds. At 17 he moved to Colombia, where for six years he honed his craft by day and partied relentlessly by night. "I was making a lot of money, and I spent all of it in the blink of an eye," he says. "Alcohol, cocaine. You name it, I did it. Lots of it." On Jan. 3, 1984, Jose Santos arrived at Miami International Airport with world-class riding skills and a crippling coke habit to match. Before getting off the jet, he vowed that he would never do drugs again, a promise he says he has kept.

For four consecutive years in the late 1980s Santos led all jockeys in money won, making a tough job look effortless while competing on the voracious New York circuit. The '90s paid him back mercilessly. He moved to California and struggled for one painful year. In '92, back on the East Coast, he broke 11 bones in a spill and lost business that wouldn't return in full for more than a decade. His first marriage fell apart. His second took hold but strained against the demands of travel and distance, Dad living in New York for nine months, Mom and the four kids in Florida.

In the spring of 2001, even as he was returning to form, Santos shattered his right wrist in another fall, necessitating reconstructive surgery that kept him off horses for five months. His wife, Rita, 32, a native of Panama and also the child of a jockey, cried softly last week as she told of begging Jose, then 40, not to eat himself into a career-ending weight gain. "Joe, don't do this to yourself," she pleaded. She had seen her father's career stunted by the cycle of injury and bloat. Jose and Rita walked together for three miles a day around their gated community in Hollywood, Fla. He gained only five pounds from his riding weight of 114 pounds on a 5'2" frame. By the spring of 2002 Santos had a new agent, then rode to victory last fall in the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard 43-1 shot Volponi.

Santos saw all of this and more flash through his mind's eye on the first Saturday in May, when he rode Funny Cide to victory in the Kentucky Derby. "It was like when you rewind a tape and play it forward fast," he says. "I saw my daddy teaching me to ride, I saw the bad things in Colombia, the injuries, the people who helped me come back I saw everything." Then last Saturday, under pale skies that bled a cold mist on a crowd of 100,268 at Pimlico Race Course in north Baltimore, Santos piloted Funny Cide to a withering 9�-length victory in the 128th Preakness, the largest winning margin in the race since the inaugural running, in 1873-Suddenly the jockey and the horse stood on the brink of the Triple Crown.

The Preakness win, though, would come only after Santos had experienced perhaps the most painful chapter of his racing life. Seven days after the Derby, The Miami Herald published a story suggesting that the jockey might have carried a device in his right hand during the race, possibly a battery with which he could shock Funny Cide into giving more effort. The story was thin and sloppy, created through a series of misinterpretations and misjudgments, but it subjected Santos to three days of scrutiny and embarrassment before he was swiftly cleared by Churchill Downs stewards after a May 12 hearing.

Now history calls. In the June 7 Belmont Stakes, Funny Cide—a New York-bred gelding who is stabled at Belmont Park-can become the 12th Triple Crown winner in the sport and the first since Affirmed in 1978. And the dizzying, unreal ride continues for Funny Cide's collection of 10 workaday owners who call themselves Sackatoga Stable. Included in the syndicate are six high school buddies from the northern New York village of Sackets Harbor who nine years ago anted up $5,000 each to play a game none of them expected to win so fully

The horse belongs to many, but the Preakness belonged to Santos. It was on May 10 that the Herald published a picture of Santos in which there is a dark spot in his whip (right) hand, along with a story in which Churchill Downs steward Rick Leigh called the photo "very suspicious." Santos had been interviewed for the story on the previous day during a phone call that lasted less than a minute. During that conversation he told freelance writer Frank Carlson in his accented English that he wore a "Q-Ray" bracelet on his left wrist to help his "arthritis," an explanation that appeared in the paper as a "cue ring" to call "outriders." Santos was launched into a scandal. Railbirds at Belmont taunted him during weekend races, and he hired a lawyer to travel with him to Churchill Downs for the Monday hearing.

Yet while Santos was certain of his innocence—"I knew I wasn't carrying anything," he says—he learned much about the breadth of his friendships. On May 11 a large group of riders gathered with Santos in the Belmont jockeys' room to watch a Derby replay. Upon seeing it, several called media members in support of Santos. "Jose is a consummately professional race rider and world-class human being," says retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron. Numerous media organizations produced enlarged pictures showing nothing in Santos's hand but his whip. The phone rang all weekend at his second home, near Belmont. "One person who called was [Secretariat's jockey] Ron Turcotte," says Santos. "That was very touching to me, because we've never known each other, but he called to say that everything would be all right. There were so many others like that."

On Sunday night Santos flew to Louisville for the hearing, at which he was quickly exonerated. By Tuesday morning, four days before the Preakness, he was back at Belmont, watching Funny Cide work sharply under assistant trainer Robin Smullen. "I knew he was a monster," Santos would say later in the week.

On Preakness day, some 75 minutes before post time, Smullen and trainer Barclay Tagg sat in the front seat of Tagg's silver Lexus, counting down the minutes outside Barn 3, a faded brick and cinder-block bunker with plexiglass storm windows. It was a decidedly unglamorous setting for a Kentucky Derby winner, but Tagg, 65, is a decidedly unconventional trainer. Funny Cide, after being surrounded by owners, media and assorted others on the walk from his Kentucky Derby barn to the Churchill Downs paddock, had become ill-tempered and wild. "Barclay wasn't going to let that happen again," says Smullen. The entire week was designed to keep Funny Cide in a cocoon of comfort. Against Pimlico officials' wishes, Tagg didn't bring Funny Cide to Baltimore until the Friday afternoon before the Preakness.

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