Updated on 09/17/2011 11:29AM

Santos cleared by Kentucky inquiry

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Lots of photos - but no evidence that winning jockey Jose Santos carried an illegal object.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Churchill Downs stewards and the Kentucky Racing Commission cleared jockey Jose Santos on Monday of any wrongdoing in winning the 129th Kentucky Derby, leading an exhilarated Santos to proclaim that he is "thankful the nightmare is over."

The stewards announced they were investigating the finish of the Derby after an article and a photograph appeared in the Saturday editions of the Miami Herald, which led to speculation that Santos may have been carrying an electrical device or some other object besides his whip when he won the race May 3 aboard Funny Cide. The investigation, which included a forensic study of the photograph, concluded that Santos was in possession of "nothing more than a whip," said Bernie Hettel, executive director and chief steward of the Kentucky Racing Commission.

Santos, who met with the stewards and other officials for about two hours earlier Monday, answered questions for about 10 minutes at an afternoon press conference at Churchill Downs. Accompanied by his New York-based attorney, Karen Murphy, Santos said he was relieved and elated.

"Anybody faced with this kind of accusation has to be very angry," said Santos, a 42-year-old Chilean native whose victory aboard Funny Cide was his first in the Derby in six attempts. "I couldn't sleep. I was upset for my family. Now, I am very happy this is over."

The Herald photo and article led to a barrage of media reports that questioned whether the results of the Derby were tainted. Santos said the negative focus was "terrible for racing, because racing is such a beautiful sport. Things like this give racing bad images."

Hettel said the chain of events began late Thursday afternoon, when Frank Carlson, a Herald free-lancer who co-authored the Saturday article with Herald staff writer Clark Spencer, phoned Hettel in the stewards' booth at Churchill as the 10-race program was winding down. Hettel said Carlson e-mailed the photograph to him at home that evening. The photograph, taken by Jamie Squire of Getty Images, appears to show a small, dark object between the index and middle finger on Santos's right hand.

Hettel said he and fellow stewards Rick Leigh and Jack Middleton began looking into the matter Friday. Hettel said Carlson "assured us" that the Herald wouldn't publish the photo and article before the stewards could conduct an adequate amount of research, but "he apparently changed his mind." Hettel said Carlson informed him through an 11 p.m. phone call that the photo and article were being published in the next morning's editions.

"If that hadn't happened, then none of this would have had to occur the way it did," said Hettel. He said that once the stewards became aware of the photograph, they initiated an investigation by contacting Squire and other sources for photographic and video images.

Santos, who was frustrated over the incident, said he did not know whether he would eventually file a lawsuit against the Herald. He said that after he rode two beaten favorites Saturday at Belmont Park in New York, "all the people were yelling, 'You're not winning because they took your battery away.' " After Santos won the Nassau County Breeders' Cup Stakes on House Party, he said: "They say, 'You're using it in the stake only.' It gets to you."

Leigh, the Churchill steward who was quoted in the Herald article as saying the photograph looked "very suspicious," said at the press conference that he had been quoted out of context. He said he told Carlson, "Yes, it looks very suspicious" before also telling Carlson: "'But we have to go on and investigate it. We have to check the authenticity. We have to check the credibility of the photographer.' Obviously, none of that made it into the article."

Robert Beatty, an attorney for the Herald, said Monday that the paper was pleased with the results of the investigation. "The reporter reported what he believed to be the facts, as hopefully all reporters do," Beatty said. "The commission has evaluated all of those facts, and we fully embrace their conclusions. We congratulate the winning jockey."

It would have been difficult for Santos to conceal something in his hand other than the whip during the Derby stretch drive. He switched stick hands twice, and when he crossed the finish, he twirled the whip in celebration.

Hettel said that during the course of the investigation, two other incidents involving Funny Cide in the moments following the Derby were closely scrutinized, with no findings of wrongdoing.

The first involved a hand-slap between Santos and Edgar Prado, who rode Peace Rules, as the jockeys were galloping out their mounts on the clubhouse turn. "We found that nothing was exchanged between the two men," said Hettel.

The second involved what appeared to be a tiny object dropping from Santos when he was about pull up on the backstretch. Footage taken by an amateur videographer stationed on the Churchill backstretch appears to show a tiny object falling to the track, but Hettel said the investigation concluded that it was a small dirt clod thrown into the air by a horse's hoof.

Hettel said the investigation employed hundreds of photographs from Squire and other sources, videotape replays from several angles from the original Derby broadcast by NBC, and assistance from the Video Technical Services Unit of the Louisville Metro Police Department - a forensic unit that conducted a particularly close study of the Squire photo that was published Saturday in the Herald.

In a prepared statement, Hettel said: "We have completed a thorough probe in an expeditious manner and have complete confidence in our findings. We appreciate the openness and cooperation of all parties involved in this investigation, especially Mr. Santos, and we thank them for their efforts to ensure the integrity of our industry and its most important event, the Kentucky Derby."

Santos, who on Saturday will ride Funny Cide in the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore, said he was always confident that he would be exonerated. "It's all behind me now," he said. "No doubt about it."

His attorney, Murphy, responded to a question originally directed to Santos about whether the reports of the jockey's exoneration would match the initial blast of publicity.

"That's up to you," she said to the assembled media.

Sackatoga Stable, the upstate New York group that owns Funny Cide, issued a statement that thanked the stewards and the commission "for their prompt attention and investigation into these unfortunate accusations. We are disappointed that the inquiry had to take place and that one photo was the basis of a story that called into question the legitimacy of the Kentucky Derby champion, Funny Cide, and the integrity of Jose Santos.

"Now that this matter is behind us, we will refocus our attention on the Preakness and Triple Crown."