“He just kept showing up in the barn, every day.”
Ricardo Santana, Jr. has been showing up for as long as anyone can remember. He's in the barns every morning and always gives a top effort in the afternoons. That work ethic is what first earned the 24-year-old Panamanian jockey a chance to ride for trainer Steve Asmussen, with whom Santana partnered to win four stakes races on Preakness weekend at Pimlico.
“It was winter at Churchill Downs, and it was cold and snowing in November,” recalled Mitch Dennison, one of Asmussen's assistant trainers. “Every single day he was in my barn, asking me just for the chance to jog some horses. He was hungry.”
In 2012, Santana finished on top of the jockey standings at Delaware Park. When that meet ended in October, he and agent Ruben Munoz made the trip to Kentucky, to Churchill Downs, testing their mettle on a bigger stage.
Trainer Ron Moquett had recognized Santana's talent in Delaware, and helped the young rider get started at Churchill by introducing him to all the trainers. Santana's English wasn't very strong yet, and both he and agent Munoz were relative unknowns in Kentucky.
While Santana managed to score 11 mounts during the meet, the winner's circle eluded him. And yet, every single morning, he could be found walking around the backside, his trademark smile greeting everyone he met as if they were long-lost friends.
“Eventually I started putting him on a few more horses in the mornings, and that turned into breezing a couple,” Dennison said. “Steve is very strict about times for his works, so that really helped Santana develop a better clock in his head.”
By late November, a large part of the local riding colony had already shipped down to the Fair Grounds for the winter. Asmussen had planned to enter a colt named Master Rick in the Zia Park Derby but was having trouble finding a rider. Santana got the job.
Master Rick finished second, coming from off the pace, and Santana earned a place as the second-call rider for Asmussen at Oaklawn Park. Any time the trainer had two horses in a single race or his regular rider was otherwise committed, Santana was given the mount. It wasn't long before Santana made it to the first-call position for Asmussen's barn, and he went on to be the leading rider at Oaklawn during the 2013 season.
The grooms in the barn often chide Santana that Asmussen is “his daddy,” but he doesn't mind.
“We have a pretty good relationship,” Santana said. “He's teaching me a lot of things in this game, and whenever I make a mistake, I call him and he tells me how to fix it.”
Santana has been the leading rider at Oaklawn Park every year since he joined forces with Asmussen and is still the barn's regular rider. He was in the irons for both Asmussen's 7,000th and 8,000th milestone victories. The three qualities that make Santana such a big part of the operation are his determination, his charisma and enjoyable personality, and his ability to take criticism and make improvements.
“There's not a rider we have met that works as hard as Santana does,” said Dennison. “He knows all of the horses in the barn, he never gives up, and we never have to question whether we've gotten his best effort.”
Six-and-a-half years later, Santana is still calling Dennison at 9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday night, asking to come and gallop horses for him in the morning.
Growing up, life wasn't easy in Panama. His father was one of the country's top jockeys but was confined to a wheelchair after an accident while galloping horses, after he'd retired from race-riding. Then Santana lost his brother to gang violence at the age of 14. His parents scraped together the money to send him to the Panamanian jockey school, in the same graduating class as Luis Saez.
Santana rode professionally for just three months in Panama before his talent caught the attention of Roberto Arango, a trainer who is now the Panamanian ambassador in Argentina. Arrango made a call to Ruben Munoz, and the agent got on a plane.
“He was atop his class,” said Munoz. “He was very friendly, charismatic, and was highly recommended by someone who I trust very much. He's from a historic racing family.
“Also, Ricardo's mom told me to please take her son.”
Munoz obliged, and today he is proud to watch Santana bring his parents to the United States.
“It's been great to see him grow up and become the person he's become,” said the agent. “Not only a great rider but a wonderful son to his parents.”
Santana spends his days with his dad watching races, listening to his dad's advice and handicapping his mounts in future races. Dennison joined the family for dinner shortly after their arrival and was somewhat surprised to find both the television and tablet tuned to horse racing streams on Santana's “day off.”
“He's really special for me, and I feel so blessed,” Santana said of his father. “We always do homework together… he's my teacher.”
In North America, Santana has won a total of 1,023 races from 6,386 starts, earning almost $45 million. To those who don't recognize him, though, he'd appear to be just another face in the barn as he walks up and down the aisle petting on the horses and going out to gallop early in the morning.
“I like to learn from a lot of people,” Santana summarized. “You never get tired of learning in this game.”
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