Updated on 09/17/2011 10:26AM

Santos back on top after long climb

Jose Santos, on Funny Cide, revived his career with his family's support.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Less than an hour after her husband had ridden the winner of the Kentucky Derby, Rita Santos sat in a lounge adjacent to the jockeys' room at Churchill Downs. All she could do was mumble, over and over, "Can you believe this? Can you believe this?"

Well, yes, actually. A Derby victory for Jose Santos, 42, seemed long overdue, considering that in the late 1980's he was the hottest jockey in the country. But it was a long, arduous trip for Santos to get his first Derby victory. No, not for the courageous move to leave for the United States from South America 19 years ago, knowing only how to say "Thank you" in English. This win was about persevering through injuries, loss of business, and personal anguish, and coming out on the right side of each equation at 6:15 Saturday evening.

Santos, a native of Chile, was the leading jockey in purse earnings in the U.S. for four straight years, from 1986 through 1989. He set what was a single-season record in 1988, when his mounts earned $14,877,298. But the past decade or so has been a wild ride.

With his first marriage on the rocks, Santos moved to California in 1990, then went back to New York eight months later. He was in a nasty accident at Belmont Park in 1992, when he broke his right arm and collarbone. He rode a bit in Japan in 1999. In 2000, Santos finished 41st in the nation in purse earnings, and won just 89 races. Two years ago - just as it looked as though his career was starting to rebound - Santos fractured his wrist after winning the Hawthorne Derby. He wound up that year 61st in the nation in purse earnings, with $3,852,254, and with just 67 victories.

Rita - who, like Santos's first wife, is the sister of a jockey - has been Santos's biggest supporter for the past decade. Even in the most trying times, both personally and professionally, she has stood by him. Which is why when Funny Cide was being led out of the winner's circle, Santos made sure to grab a full complement of roses.

"I promised these to my wife," he said.

Scurrying about the jockeys' room was their son, Jose Jr., who had finally pulled himself together after becoming unglued before and during the race. Father and son are quite close, their bond all the stronger because Jose Jr. is the most precocious 8-year-old racing fan you will ever find.

Jose Jr. understood the significance of what his father was trying to accomplish on Saturday. He is now old enough to appreciate what his dad does. He has read of his father's glory days in the late 1980's, and was there for his father's two biggest victories in recent years, the Breeders' Cup Classic with Volponi six months ago, and the Belmont Stakes with Lemon Drop Kid in 1999. But the Derby is a different beast all together, and little Jose knew it.

"He was so nervous in the paddock," Rita Santos said. "He was crying and trembling and balling his eyes out. I've never seen him that way."

"I almost died," Jose Jr. said.

The wives of the Derby jockeys are taken en masse to a viewing stand just behind the main winner's circle at Churchill Downs. Rita Santos was in the third row. Jose Jr. could not see that well, so he moved to the first row, where he could be next to a closed-circuit television. He sat on the lap of Sonia Desormeaux, wife of Kent.

When the race started, "I was crying. I was watching Indian Express, because he almost went down," Jose Jr. said. "Then when they came into the stretch, I went, 'Oh my God, my dad's in the lead.' I started crying again."

"He made me cry like a baby," Sonia Desormeaux said while visiting with Rita Santos in the jockeys' room lounge. "I didn't even know where Kent was. I was cheering for you."

Funny Cide was in front when he passed Rita Santos, but there was still 100 yards to go. Rita Santos said she was afraid to watch the end of the race, and only knew Funny Cide had prevailed when people next to her grabbed her and said, "You won. You won." Before going to the winner's circle, Rita Santos said, "I had to pull myself together. I was a mess."

"It's awesome," Jose Jr. said. "My daddy's dream came true."

Santos has undergone a renaissance in the past two years. His victory on Volponi was the highlight of a year that saw his horses earn $11,882,955, placing him ninth in the nation in purse earnings, and he won 176 races. This year, Santos is eighth in the nation in purse earnings. He gives much of the credit to his jockey agent, Mike Sellito, a former New York City policeman better known around the track as "Mike the Cop."

"Mike has been my agent for 14 months, and my business has turned around 180 degrees," Santos said.

Santos had a whirlwind schedule after the Derby. He flew back to New York on Sunday morning - "I was flying higher than the airplane," he said - to ride at Aqueduct that afternoon. Monday morning, he worked Volponi, then hopped on a plane to his home in Hollywood, Fla., to surprise the four children - Nadia, 15, Jose Jr., Selena, 7, and Savannah, 5 - who live there with Rita.

"Little Savannah leaped into his arms. They're all so excited," Rita Santos said Tuesday from their home. "Jose went to Nadia's high school today. All the kids were cheering for him. He had tears in his eyes."

There have been other trappings for the Santos family. On Monday, Jose will be presented with the keys to the city of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Next Thursday, the family will head to Baltimore for the May 17 Preakness. The Santoses are being dressed for the Preakness by the Saks Fifth Avenue store in Garden City, N.Y. They met television personality Carson Daly at the Derby, and he said he wants to sit with the Santoses at the Preakness.

"I'm really enjoying this," Rita Santos said. "It's like being with a movie star."

There is, however, one thing left on Jose's wish list. The Triple Crown is obvious, yes. But he would really like to take aim at something else.

"I want to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium," he said.

Preakness contenders

The following horses are being considered for the 128th Preakness Stakes on May 17 at Pimlico Race Course:

ChampaliP. DayG. Foley2nd, Derby Trial
Empire MakerJ. BaileyR. Frankel2nd, Ky. Derby
Eye of the TigerE. CoaJ. Hollendorfer5th, Ky. Derby
Funny CideJ. SantosB. Tagg1st, Ky. Derby
Indian ExpressP. ValenzuelaB. Baffert14th, Ky. Derby
Peace RulesE. PradoR. Frankel3rd, Ky. Derby
ScrimshawC. VelasquezD.W. Lukas11th, Ky. Derby

* Possible: Domestic Dispute, Senor Swinger.