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He’s History

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Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.”

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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.

He struggled for years after that as many once familiar trainers sent their business to other riders. He won the 1999 Belmont Stakes with Lemon Drop Kid for one of his old clients, Scotty Schulhofer, nixing the Triple Crown bid of Charismatic, but two years later he won only 68 races.

Then last year, in March, Santos went hunting for a new agent. His first choice, Richard DePass, wasn’t available because he already had a rider, so Santos signed on with Sellito, a former New York City police officer who had recently split with Richard Migliore. On their first day together, Santos almost won the Florida Derby with Peekskill, a 96-1 shot, and a week later Sellito put him on Jolie Jalouse, who won the Orchard Handicap at Gulfstream Park. The year was already beginning to smack of old times when, in October, he got a big break in the $4-million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Arlington Park.

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Santos had already won six Breeders’ Cup races, but only one after 1990, when Shaun Bridgmohan gave up the mount on a 43-1 shot to ride Evening Attire in the richest race in the country. Santos rode Volponi to an improbable win in the Classic, capping a year that added up to 176 wins and almost $12 million.

Now, with Funny Cide in tow, Santos has regained the lofty standing he enjoyed in the late 1980s. Even a scandal in a teapot, the Miami Herald’s reckless suggestion that he might have used an electrical prod in winning the Kentucky Derby, was quickly scotched by the stewards at Churchill Downs and failed to slow Santos down.

“Jose is one of the biggest assets Funny Cide has,” said jockey Jerry Bailey, who with Empire Maker, the second-place finisher in the Derby, has the best chance in the Belmont of thwarting another Triple Crown sweep. “He’s ridden in enough big races that he won’t be intimidated in this one. He’s not going to get rattled in the Belmont.”

Desperate for heroes, four-legged or otherwise, racing would be hard-pressed to find a more timely example than Santos.

Last Monday, Memorial Day, Santos was scheduled to ride in two stakes at Hollywood Park and he appeared in the paddock several hours early to entertain several hundred multilingual fans for half an hour. Track officials said that Santos, who had flown in from New York only an hour or two before, drew twice the crowd these sessions usually attract.

At the finish, the fans were exhorting Santos in both English and Spanish, several of them with young children on their backs for a better view of this 5-foot-2, 112-pound celebrity. The loudest applause erupted after Santos had recalled his recovery from the misspent early years riding in Colombia. Away from the hardscrabble life in Chile, where his father and three of his seven brothers were jockeys, Santos was winning races in bunches, but in between he became a self-destructive party animal and cocaine user. He told the audience that he has been drug-free since arriving in Florida to ride in 1984.

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Santos’ most deadly off-the-track passion these days is a poker game -- with a limit of $5-$10 -- that he plays with other horsemen and friends. The name of the game is “Omaha,” and a 10-hour marathon session is not out of the ordinary. In the approximately 2 1/2 minutes it takes to run the Belmont on Saturday, Santos’ game will escalate to high stakes. He is convinced that he will be holding a pat hand.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Probable Belmont Field

Horses, in alphabetical order, that are expected to run in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. The Belmont draw will be Wednesday at 8 a.m. PDT.

*--* Horse Probable Jockey Trainer Comment BEST MINISTER Shane Sellers Ken McPeek A three-length winner in a Preakness Day stakes undercard DYNEVER Edgar Prado Christophe Clement Won Lone Star Derby by 1 1/2 lengths, even with tons of trouble in the upper stretch EMPIRE MAKER Jerry Bailey Bobby Frankel Is 1-1 in rivalry with Funny Cide -- his win over an Aqueduct track listed muddy FUNNY CIDE Jose Santos Barclay Tagg All systems go for gelding trying to become first Triple Crown winner since 1978 MIDWAY ROAD Robby Albarado Neil Howard A distant second to Funny Cide with a troubled trip in the Preakness OUTTA HERE Kent Desormeaux Bill Currin $500,000 Delta Jackpot winner shuffled around in seventh-place Kentucky Derby effort SCRIMSHAW Gary Stevens Wayne Lukas Finished 10 1/2 lengths behind Funny Cide in both Triple Crown races SUPERVISOR Jorge Chavez Linda Rice Last victory was in a $25,000 optional claiming race at Calder TEN MOST WANTED Pat Day Wally Dollase Easy Illinois Derby winner was a disappointing ninth-place finisher in Kentucky Derby

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