On Monday, we had a chance to catch up with famed author Bill Heller, who just released his 22nd book – Above It All: The Turbulent Life of Jose Santos. In part one of our conversation, Bill shared the story of Jose’s journey to the United States. He spoke about Jose’s first few dynamic years on the New York circuit. And he gave some behind-the-scenes insight on one of Jose’s greatest victories – his 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic win aboard Volponi.
Today, in part two of our conversation, we relive Jose’s great victories with Funny Cide. We get to the bottom of the infamous “buzzer” photo published by the Miami Herald. And we get an update on Jose’s current personal situation.
Horse Racing Nation: Let’s talk about Funny Cide. He gave Empire Maker a pretty good run in the Wood Memorial in 2003, but was kind of dismissed going into the Kentucky Derby. How did Jose feel after the Wood? Did he like his chances going into the Derby?
Bill Heller: You know, everybody talked about how Jerry Bailey – who rode Empire Maker – sort of stopped riding Empire Maker late in that race. But Funny Cide was coming back at him, and Jose said that, on the gallop-out, Funny Cide blew by Empire Maker. And when Jose got off the horse, he told Barclay Tagg – who trained Funny Cide – “We’re gonna beat this horse in the Derby.” Barclay said; “You serious?” And Jose said he was. Sure enough, Jose proved prophetic on the first Saturday in May.
HR Nation: It was a memorable Derby indeed. One of the fastest ever run, in fact, as Funny Cide went 1¼ miles in 2:01.19. But there was some controversy in the days that followed, as the Miami Herald published a picture of Jose coming across the line in the Derby with – what they suggested – might have been a buzzer. There were numerous reports of Jose receiving threats as a result of the report. How much of a toll did the threats take on Jose and his family in the time between the Derby and the Preakness?
BH: It was horrible. When it first broke, he was on the backside. He was with his son and his agent, having breakfast. He was in the track kitchen, when his agent got the call about the story. What I was unaware of - before I began talking to Jose about this for the book – was how bad of a weekend Jose was having to begin with. The day before, he was riding Volponi in his first start since the Breeders’ Cup. And he lost a race in which he was overwhelmingly favored. That same day, Rita (his wife at the time) and the kids were coming up from Florida, and Jose had a friend lined up to pick them up at the airport. But they missed each other. So Rita calls him in the middle of the day screaming; “Where the hell are you?!” Then their dog got loose in the parking lot. It was one thing after another.
Then the story comes out. And the most difficult thing for Jose was that he had to ride at Belmont that day. The fans were really getting on him. It was bad.
HR Nation: In the end, though, it turned out to be much ado about nothing.
BH: The story broke on a Saturday. By Saturday afternoon, NYRA blew up the picture, and it became pretty easy to tell that the only thing Jose had in his hand was a special bracelet for his arthritis. This subject produced a few of my favorite lines in the book. One of them was from Barclay Tagg, who said; “They could’ve spent five bucks at Walgreen’s and that would’ve been the end of it.” Another was from Bob Baffert who said; “The only thing missing from this story was a UFO.” At the end of the day, it proved to be nothing more than some pretty irresponsible journalism.
HR Nation: Funny Cide and Jose went on to romp in the Preakness, setting up their shot at the Triple Crown in the Belmont. Ultimately, though, they came up short. What happened?
BH: In the Belmont, you could make a host of excuses for Funny Cide. For starters, the horse went 57:3 three days before the race. It was way too fast of a work. Also, it had been pouring rain the entire day. The track was a mess. And Empire Maker – who ended up beating Funny Cide in the Belmont – was certainly bred to handle the off track. Funny Cide was on the muscle going into the first turn, probably because of the fast workout. He made the lead, and there was nothing Jose could do about it. Jose knew they were in trouble on the backstretch. But he still finished third. And when they came back, there was a big roar from the crowd. And it wasn’t for Empire Maker. It was for Funny Cide. And it was also for Jose. I think a lot of people appreciated Jose for the way he handled the Miami Herald controversy.
HR Nation: Historically, Funny Cide seems to have gotten a little short-changed. What does Jose think about Funny Cide’s legacy.
BH: I’ll say this. Jose truly believes that Funny Cide was better than Empire Maker.
HR Nation: And how about Jose’s legacy? Where does he stand in the conversation of the great New York jockeys of his time?
BH: He was the leader rider in New York in his first full year on the circuit. He won the national earnings crown four years in a row. He broke Cordero’s streak of eleven straight Saratoga riding titles. I don’t think anybody would say he was better than Cordero. But I think, especially on the grass, that he was almost as good as Cordero.
HR Nation: You mentioned Jose Jr. earlier in our conversation, and how he entered the public spotlight. But another of Jose’s children gained a different type of notoriety in 2007 – as his daughter Sophia was accused of vehicular manslaughter. She had a blood alcohol level that was three times the legal limit. In 2008, she pleaded guilty, and received a sentence of three to nine years. Tell us about the incident from Jose’s perspective.
BH: Well, Sophia was portrayed as this wild child. She’d written something innocuous on Myspace about drinking, and it got blown way out of proportion. She did graduate from high school, and was working at the time. But she was made out to be this troubled youth.
The incident definitely brought Jose closer to his daughter. Prior to her sentence, they weren’t terribly close. But now, he goes to visit her regularly. And they’re much closer than they’ve ever been.
HR Nation: What’s new in Jose’s life, as this book is coming out?
BH: Jose divorced his second wife Rita. And, just recently, he remarried – a woman named Grace. Professionally, he’s no longer handling the book of Fernando Jara. Jose and Grace moved to Florida. And down there, he’ll serve as the agent for a young jock named Hector Berrios. A Chilean-born rider who Jose thinks is very talented.
Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA