“I was six days old when I spent my first day at a track,” Santos said. “And that very same day, my dad won the Whitney with Colonial Affair. In fact, he later told me that he almost missed my birth because he was up at Saratoga the morning I was born to work Colonial Affair for that race.”
“It’s as close to being a rider one can get, without actually being a rider,” Santos said from Calder Casino & Race Course on Father’s Day. “I just love it.”
As the smallest kid in his seventh-grade class at 4 feet 6 inches, Santos believed he would follow in his father’s footsteps, and that a career as a jockey was a certainty. But the certainties of youth are often far from certain, and as months fell from the calendar, Santos physically outgrew his dream.
“Back then I was small, but I had big hands and size seven feet,” Santos said. “I didn’t think anything of it, but my dad knew that was a sign I was going to grow. The thing is, he never told me; he never wanted to ruin my dream. I had boots and a vest and would practice on the Equicizer. All I wanted to do was ride. But by eighth grade I was already over five feet, and I was still getting bigger.”
With any hope of riding horses for a living derailed by size, Santos found a new outlet for his racing-related energies when initially exposed to the job of jockey’s agent in the summer of 2010, when his father first journeyed out as an agent to represent Fernando Jara at Delaware Park.
“We were riding first call for Pletcher, so my dad would spend most of his time focusing on that,” Santos said. “And I would handle the work for the other trainers we rode for. My dad and I would sit down daily and go over the condition book together. And when I wasn’t able to be up in Delaware because of school or some other reason, we would speak on the phone every day.”
Those father-to-son sessions continued on a regular basis and were eventually relocated to south Florida in 2011 when the elder Santos agreed to represent jockey Hector Berrios at Calder.
“That time we spent with Hector was so valuable,” the younger Santos said. “I really learned a lot that year, from my dad and from Hector. Without that time together, I’m not sure I would have been ready to take Eddie’s book by myself this year.”
And while the younger Santos is clearly handling the responsibilities of being an agent by himself, hitting the barns in the morning to hustle mounts and attending the daily draw in hopes of picking up an unexpected ride, input from his father is regularly offered and valued.
“Every Monday and Tuesday, I get together with my dad and Eddie, and we go over tapes and watch races to see what we can do better,” Santos said. “And then after we watch the races, we watch and study even more races. We’re always trying to pick up on something we can improve.”
The early-morning hours kept by a jockey’s agent aren’t always conducive to the lifestyle of a 17-year-old during the summer months following his high school graduation. But Santos credits his father, and their mornings spent together while his dad was riding, for his ability to adjust to a schedule that most teenagers would run from.
“I’m in bed almost every night at nine-thirty and I’m here every morning at five,” Santos said. “But that’s nothing new for me. When my dad used to ride, every chance I had on weekends or during summer break, I would go with him to the track in the mornings. Same thing when we were at Delaware; every morning we were up early.”
But a daily routine that starts before the sun rises and is over just after the sun sets can sometimes seem foreign to others his age. For this reason, Santos has developed a bond with another jockey’s son that recently relocated to Calder.
“One of my good friends is Austin Solis, Alex’s son,” Santos said. “He came from California and gallops horses here. It’s great, because he’s someone I can always talk to about the horses. Some of our friends think we’re crazy, but while they’re going to the beach or a party, Austin and I can just sit around and talk about the horses.
“And he’s going to be a good rider,” Santos added. “We talk all the time about one day him riding and me being his agent.”
But those days will have to wait as Santos will put down the condition book in August when he leaves for his freshman year at Bellarmine University in Louisville, where he will study broadcast communications while on a full soccer scholarship as a goalkeeper,
“The first day of tryouts in high school, I saw one kid who wasn’t doing any running, and asked what position he played,” Santos said. “They told me goalkeeper, and I knew that’s the position I wanted. But I never thought it would take me this far; that I would be able to play in college. I just wanted to stay fit and impress girls. But on February 2, national signing day, I signed a letter of intent for Bellarmine.”
Bellarmine wasn’t the only university to notice Santos and offer an athletic scholarship, but it was the only school less than six miles from Churchill Downs to offer Santos a scholarship, and that proximity to the track was a deciding factor in his choosing the Kentucky school.
“That was a huge,” Santos admits. “Having the horses nearby is so important to me. I couldn’t imagine going to a school where I couldn’t be around racing on a regular basis.”
As for his father, Jose Santos the elder can be found in the Calder stable area, practicing a new trade with all the enthusiasm and passion the Chilean native exhibited while riding.
“He is running a feed company called Instride International,” the younger Santos said. “He absolutely loves it. He knows so much about feed, I’m amazed. Learning about feed and how to run the business has become his life. I’m just in awe of what he knows.”
And Santos is still in awe of what his father has accomplished in life, and what opportunities those accomplishments were able to provide.
“Growing up, my dad took me to everything,” Santos said. “If he had an interview, he took me. If there was a trainer he needed to talk to, he took me. Whatever he was doing, he wanted me to be a part of it. And there was nothing I wanted more than to be a part of it
“And looking back now, it’s amazing to think where my dad being in this business has taken me. I’ve been to Dubai, Jamaica, Chile, places like, and I grew up watching the best like Day and Bailey. It’s just been so awesome being a part of it. I feel so lucky.”
PLESA PREVAILS WITH PAIR OF FIRST TIMERS
With the first local stakes for juveniles, the Frank Gomez Memorial and the J J’s Dream, less than two weeks away, trainer Eddie Plesa, Jr. unleashed a pair of promising first time starters on Saturday, winning the sixth race for maiden fillies with Trilogy Stables’ Yes Im Sweet before returning four races later to prevail with Laurie Plesa’s homebred colt My Daddy’s Dollars.
Both horses were ridden to victory by apprentice rider Joe Rodriguez, and both were generally ignored by the betting public with My Daddy’s Dollars returning $36.60 and Yes Im Sweet rewarding her backers with a $20.40 win mutuel.
The victory by My Daddy’s Dollars was also the first win for sire Gottcha Gold, a multiple stakes winner trained by Plesa that broke his maiden at Calder in September 2005.
STAKES WINNERS WORK
A pair of local stakes winners took to the track Sunday morning with Memorial Day Handicap winner Where’s Sterling working five furlongs in 1:02.80. Trainer Luis Ramirez has indicated that the Grade 3-winning son of Northern Afleet will enter the $55,000 Mecke Stakes in hopes that the 1 1/8-mile turf race on June 23 will be rained to the grass.
Luis Duco Stables, Inc.’s Empire Builder, impressive winner of the $55,000 Mambo Meister in late May, worked a half-mile in :48.60 on Sunday. The son of Kitten’s Joy, who finished third in a turf stake at Gulfstream named for his sire, is tentatively pointing towards an appearance in the Grade 2 Virginia Derby on July 21.