Father and Son Jose Santos Sr. and Jr. celebrating a moment in the winners circle 17 years ago when Funny Cide won the 2003 Kentucky Derby
By: Ryan Dickey
Seventeen years ago, a future jockey agent was in the winner’s circle following Funny Cide’s 2003 Kentucky Derby triumph. He was eight years old at the time.
This year, that agent has a rider in the “Run for the Roses” for the first time. Jose Santos Jr. represents Miguel Mena, who will be in the irons aboard Necker Island for trainer Chris Hartman on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
And while this year’s edition of the Kentucky Derby has a plethora of intriguing story-lines due to it being held in September due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is noteworthy that Santos Jr.’s father, a Hall of Fame jockey rode Funny Cide to victory on the first Saturday in May of 2003.
Santos Jr. will be cheering for Mena, Hartman and Necker Island owners Wayne Scherr, Raymond Daniels and Greg Harbut on Saturday, but a part of him will be rooting for Sackatoga Stables and trainer Barclay Tagg’s Tiz the Law–the same connections that got Santos Jr. into the winner’s circle as a boy.
“Those are some of the nicest people in the world,” Santos Jr. said. “If anyone deserves to have an opportunity with a horse like that it’s those people. Of course I want to win the Derby, but I’m definitely cheering for them. They do such a great job. They’d be really deserving.”
Jose Santos Sr. shares the sentiment of Mena’s agent. “I am going to be rooting for my son’s horse first, and then Tiz the Law,” Santos Sr. said. “We can box the exacta. The good thing about it is he (his son) has been in the winner’s circle a couple times. He was with Funny Cide and Giacomo. When Giacomo won, Mike Smith, who is a good friend to us, invited him to the winner’s circle as well.”
The younger Santos began representing jockeys during his summers off from high school.
The first rider who entrusted Santos Jr. with his mounts was Eddie Dominguez at Calder. After graduation, Santos Jr. went to Kentucky to represent Aldo Canchano at Turfway Park, then added Didiel Osorio.
“I did pretty well with Didiel, but the first time I did real good was when I took David Cabrera’s book at Oaklawn,” Santos Jr. said. “That was 2018. Richard Eramia mentioned to David about me because David wanted to go to Oaklawn for the first time. I had never heard of David and David had never heard about me.”
Discouraged because things hadn’t gone the way he had hoped for, Santos Jr. wasn’t sure being an agent was for him. He talked with Cabrera anyway.
“He called me one night in November and was like, ‘hey I’d like for you to be my agent,’ and interestingly enough, I was just about to quit being an agent. I was going to go back down to Florida and work at Gulfstream on television,” Santos Jr. said.
Santos Jr. made another phone call before having his decision made for him.
“I called J.R. Caldwell,” Santos Jr. explained. “He was the only guy I knew in Oklahoma at the time. I told him that Cabrera called me and I asked if he knew anything about him and he said, ‘hang up the phone, call him back right now and tell him you’re going to take his book.’”
In 2018, Cabrera finished second in the rider standings at the Oaklawn meet, winning 43 races from 298 mounts.
Last year, Santos Jr. wanted to add another jockey to represent when he went north to Kentucky for the Spring.
“The plan was for (Cabrera) to come to Churchill with me in 2019, and that’s why I had asked Miguel if I could take his book at Churchill,” Santos Jr. explained. “I had asked Miguel a countless amount of times in a four year span, and he told me I could when the time was right.”
Santos Jr. couldn’t take no for an answer.
“I saw his agent at the time at Fair Grounds who was going to Arlington, so Miguel would need an agent when he got to Churchill and I knew I was going to Churchill,” said Santos Jr. “One night, I just got in my car and drove down to Fair Grounds and went and saw him in the paddock. He thought about it for a day and told me yes.”
About two weeks later, Cabrera had to leave Oaklawn for a family emergency in Mexico, and Santos had no idea when he was going to be back. He told Mena he would still commit to him and the pair went to Kentucky as a team.
Santos Sr. remembers Mena from when the Peruvian-born jockey was just getting his career started in the United States.
“He was an apprentice when I was riding,” Santos Sr. said. “He was a bug boy and he’s doing pretty good right now. He has settled down, he has a family and he is making the right choices right now.”
Santos Sr. retired from racing in 2007, following a particularly bad spill at Aqueduct in February. Later that same year, he was inducted to the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.
Interestingly, Santos Jr.’s biggest win as an agent so far happened in 2014.
“I once won the Charles Town Classic with Kent Desormeaux, four months into me ever being an agent in Kentucky,” Santos Jr. said. “I had that Turfway meet and Kent came to Kentucky needing an agent. His son has been of my best friends since we were little. I got his book for a month and we won the Charles Town Classic with Imperative.”
Mena provided the younger Santos with his first Breeders’ Cup mount as an agent last November, when he rode Peace Achieved in the Juvenile Turf. Minus the brief stint with Desormeux, Mena has been Santos Jr.’s most notable client.
“He’s the first top-class rider that I’ve had,” Santos Jr. explained. “He’s a well-recognized name and settled in the circuit. I’m super appreciative of him giving me that shot, because it’s my first real shot to ask for big horses and it has worked out well so far.”
On Saturday, Mena will be in the saddle for the biggest race in Santos Jr.’s career, although it is the jockey’s second Kentucky Derby mount. He finished last aboard 23-1 longshot Backtalk in 2010–the year Super Saver won the Derby.
Santos Jr. expects Mena to fare much better this weekend.
“Miguel has given me the opportunity to be in these kinds of races,” Santos Jr. said. “I’m trying my best to hustle up the opportunities for him as well. It’s been a while but he’s ridden in the Derby before and I feel like he’s trending the right way. Last year went really well. This year is going well, so opportunities like this keep coming.”
Necker Island, a winner of two races in 10 career starts, was claimed for $100,000 in an allowance optional claiming race at Churchill Downs in June. In that four-horse field, Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes winner Art Collector won the race, followed by Grade 3 Indiana Derby winner Shared Sense with Kentucky Derby contender Finnick the Fierce finishing third.
“We think Necker Island is an improving horse. He worked really well and we’re hoping to get the right trip and come up and try to make something big happen,” Santos Jr. said. “We’re super excited about him. Chris called me saying–and I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone who watches Churchill–that Miguel rides Churchill really well and they feel like he’s going to fit the horse well. We couldn’t be more excited.”
Santos Sr. won all three Triple Crown races–having won the Belmont Stakes in 1999 with Lemon Drop Kid and both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003 aboard Funny Cide. In 2002, he was the winning jockey aboard longshot Volponi when the pair won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He knows what it takes to win whether the horse is highly-regarded or seen as an also-ran.
“In the Kentucky Derby, you never know what can happen,” Santos Sr. said. “You can be on a big favorite and a longshot can win the race. I’m pretty sure (Mena’s) horse is going to be a longshot but at least he’s in. To win the race, you have to be in.”
Santos Sr. has the utmost respect for Tagg, who gave him his chance to win the Derby.
“I always say Barclay is a grouchy guy, but he is very wise,” Santos Sr. said with a chuckle. “The older he gets, the better he is. He’s like a good bottle of wine. I can’t say anything bad about the guy. What he has done through the years is spectacular”.
“I remember when my agent called me and told me I had to work a horse for Barclay Tagg and I said to him, “do I have to work a horse for that grouchy guy?”, and he said “yeah I heard he was a pretty nice horse.”
That horse was Funny Cide, and one ride was all it took for Santos. After working the gelding for the first time, Santos Sr. told his agent “don’t ever get off this horse because this is the horse that is going to take us to the Derby.”
Santos Jr. recalls that first Saturday in May 2003 vividly and shares that his father was just as confident in Funny Cide on the morning of the Derby as he was the first time the jockey rode him for a workout.
When we showed up to Churchill Downs, we were all getting out of the car, and when we all got out, he said, “I’m going to win the Derby today.”
Santos Jr. said his father said the same thing the year prior when he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Volponi. He said, “I’m winning the Classic today,” so I was fired up when he said it at the Derby.
Santos Jr. watched the Kentucky Derby with his family, while sitting in the lap of the (former) wife of Kent Desormeaux, Sonya. NBC featured shots of the family before and after the race during the national broadcast of the race.
The eight year old son of the Kentucky Derby-winning jockey never saw Funny Cide cross the finish line.
“There was this TV, and you can see him turning for home, and he’s in front,” Santos Jr. said, “I looked at my mom when he hit the lead and I was going nuts. And they ran by us at the eighth pole where we were sitting and I took off towards the winner’s circle. It’s a day I’ll never forget.”
Sackatoga Stables’ Jack Knowlton enjoyed having the children of his jockey around for Funny Cide’s victory. “It was fun,” Knowlton said. “He was everybody’s darling that was watching the races. He was with us on the whole Triple Crown trail. He was a cute kid, well-dressed and well-mannered. He was part of the legacy and the lore. He and my old partner Gus Williams, they got along great.”
Santos Sr. has a special place in his heart for the rest of Funny Cide’s connections.
“Barclay was good to me all along,” Santos Sr. said. “All of the people from Sackatoga are a good group of guys. They always believed in me and now 17 years later, they are back again in the spotlight.”
His son realizes how special those times were for a youngster.
“I got really lucky,” Santos Jr. said. “As young as I was then and even younger than that, he always involved me. He could tell my passion for the game. Anywhere he went, I went. I was lucky to have those opportunities to meet really influential people in the game and learn from them. Every time I see them (Sackatoga Stables partners) it’s always a reminder of the great memories we share.”