Jose Santos had just ridden the winner of the 129th Kentucky Derby. The horse was Funny Cide, a 12-1 underdog, the first New York-bred horse to win the Derby, the first gelding since 1929 to win the Derby.
But Santos was a bigger underdog, a Derby winner, finally, in his seventh try. A jockey who had disappeared for years, unable to get good mounts or cursed with ill-timed injuries, loyal for too long to owners and trainers and agents who weren’t helping him much. But also a jockey who was convinced, absolutely convinced, he would ride a Kentucky Derby winner one day.
Santos’ 8-year-old son, Jose Jr., was crying, a happy, overwhelmed kid in a black suit and pink shirt, a little man, a big kid, so proud of his father.
His 15-year-old daughter, Nadia, was tottering on her very grown-up high heels, a teenager trying to act nonchalant as she chattered on a cell phone but stepping in and out of those heels. His wife, Rita, was next to Nadia, talking on another cell phone, to her brother. All Rita could say, over and over, was “I don’t believe this has happened. I don’t believe this has happened.”
And Santos, 42 years old, thin stripes of white in his black hair, skin weathered and wrinkled from sun and worry, from diets and sleepless nights, from pain and joy, told his story.
Santos was thinking about 1976. If most of the world traveled in vehicles with motors, the Santos family was not so lucky. That’s what Santos was remembering.
He was remembering his father, Manuel. Manuel was a jockey. Not a good one, says his son, but Manuel was a good teacher and a stern father. Jose, the oldest, had been grooming horses, cleaning up after horses, riding horses for nearly 10 years. Not because he wanted to, but because his father told him he had to.
Now Jose was 15 and was ready to leave home, leave the small, poor place in Concepcion, Chile, where Manuel could barely support his eight children. Jose had earned a small reputation at tiny tracks in Chile as a youngster with soft hands, strong arms and a good head. An acquaintance in Colombia said Jose could make $200 a month, “huge money to me,” Santos said, riding the circuit.
Santos left home, in a horse-drawn cart, from which the family sold food. “Everybody was there, all these little heads bobbing,” Santos said. “I was happy and sad.”
When he was 12, Santos said, he had been somewhere, not at home, but somewhere with a television and had seen Secretariat win the Kentucky Derby. “On that day,” Santos said, “I decided I would someday win the same race.”
When he got to Colombia, Santos watched the 1978 Derby, saw Steve Cauthen guide Affirmed to the Derby. “I decided I wanted to be Steve Cauthen,” Santos said.
So Santos got himself a three-month visa and came to Florida. He was lonely, he spoke no English, but, he said, “I knew horses and I knew I could ride horses.”
From 1986 through 1989 Santos led the country in money earned among jockeys. He won the 1987 Saratoga riding title and an Eclipse award in 1988.
In 1992, though, Santos had a dramatic spill at Belmont. He broke his right arm, collarbone and hip and during the healing process, Santos lost business and some of his confidence. Trainers and owners aren’t eager to hire a rider who is hesitant or hurting or suddenly doubting himself.
“It was a tough time,” Santos said. “I made some bad decisions, maybe I was too loyal to some people who weren’t helping me. But I always had faith inside that I could ride horses. I never lost that.”
In 1999, Santos won his first Triple Crown race, with Lemon Drop Kid in the Belmont Stakes. Last fall, Santos had his richest victory. He took another big underdog, Volponi, to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Still, the Derby was what Santos yearned for, more than any other race. He always remembered the feeling he got watching Secretariat, watching Cauthen and Affirmed.
A new agent, Mike Sellito, helped Santos get better horses. Funny Cide came his way last August. The first time Santos rode Funny Cide, he told trainer Barclay Tagg, “This is my Derby horse. This horse will win.”
When Funny Cide crossed the finish line, ahead of favorite Empire Maker and with the cheers of a stunned crowd refusing to stop, Santos bent over and kissed the neck of Funny Cide. When Santos reached his family, Jose Jr. jumped up and grabbed his dad’s neck and planted dozens of kisses.
“I knew he’d win,” Jose Jr. said afterward. “I just knew it.”
Manuel Santos is 72 and still in Chile, Jose said. “I think he’ll be proud. He couldn’t ride winners, but he taught me how to handle a horse.”
And Santos then shared another memory, of his first Derby. It was 1987. “I had a good horse,” Santos said. “I came from far behind, but I was not mentally tough enough, not physically tough enough, for the Derby. I finished fourth. I should have finished second.” The horse was Cryptoclearance. The honesty was touching.
After that, Santos had a fifth, a seventh and two ninths at the Derby. He hadn’t ridden here since 1999. His dream could have gone away. But it didn’t.
“I’m going to win the Derby someday,” Jose Jr. said. Another dream. The father smiled.
Diane Pucin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.