Bill Heller is one of the most acclaimed turf writers in America. His work has garnered many prestigious awards over the years, most notably the Eclipse. He recently published his 22nd book – a profile of long-time New York jockey Jose Santos called; Above it All: The Turbulent Life of Jose Santos (which can be purchased by clicking here). Indeed, Santos has had to deal with many hardships over the course of his life. He’s twice-divorced, his daughter is currently in jail serving time for vehicular manslaughter, and he suffered multiple injuries in a devastating spill that forced his retirement from racing.
Amidst the turbulence, though, was a great deal of on-track success. He won seven Breeders’ Cup races – including the 2002 Classic aboard Volponi. He also won the 1999 Belmont Stakes with Lemon Drop Kid, spoiling the Triple Crown bid of Charismatic. But it is the “gutsy gelding” Funny Cide, for whom Santos will probably be best remembered. The great New York bred and the great New York jockey teamed up to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003.
Heller was gracious enough to spend a few minutes talking to Horse Racing Nation about the book, and some of the interesting things that he learned during his conversations with the famous rider.
Horse Racing Nation: Jose has had an incredibly fascinating life both on and off the track. A lot of the off-track stuff – including his two divorces and the arrest of his daughter - was very well publicized. Did you feel he was candid on these sensitive subjects?
Bill Heller: Absolutely. Every time I do a book it takes on a life of its own. I never know what I’m going to find out, what I’m going to learn, or where it will take me. Jose is a very self-assured man. He loves his family, and his kids. He’s a lot like Randy Romero (whose biography Heller wrote just prior to this latest book on Jose) in that way. With Randy, I had worked with him in the past, because I had researched Go For Wand for a previous book. But despite the fact that we hadn’t previously worked together, Jose was open with me.
HR Nation: Talk about his early life career in Chile and Columbia. How quickly did he find success, and what led to him deciding to move his tack to the U.S.?
BH: Jose is from Concepcion, Chile – which was devastated by last year’s earthquake. Fortunately, Jose’s family was okay. After beginning his career there, he got an offer to ride at a new track in Bogota, Columbia. He accepted the offer, and it was the first time that he’d been away from his parents. He was winning races, but he developed a cocaine addiction during his time in Columbia. He was on the verge of throwing his entire career away. And then he came to the United States, thanks to the woman who would eventually become his first wife – Maria. They had been dating in Columbia, but she had moved to the United States – to Florida. And she helped him get in.
HR Nation: So, as opposed to some other South American jockeys who rode a wave of success to get to the U.S., Jose arrived here at a crossroad in his life, then.
BH: Well, he was doing all right on the track. But the drugs were threatening his career and his life. He was supposed to ride a horse in a stakes race in another Latin American country, and he didn’t show up for the horse’s workouts because he was doing drugs, and he got fired. But, in order to ride in this race, he’d gotten a visa. And this visa helped enable him come to the United States. He came to the U.S. in January 1984. He had two thousand dollars and suitcase full of clothes. He couldn’t speak a word of English. And he asked himself; on the way over, what could he do to improve his life? And the obvious answer was to give up cocaine. When he took his first step out of the plane in Florida – and he’s very specific on this – he promised himself and God that he would never use cocaine again. And he didn’t. He quit cold turkey.
HR Nation: He realized success pretty quickly here, winning the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey only four years after his arrival. Is there one particular race or meet that he’d point to as being the catalyst for his early success?
BH: Not really. His big thing was just getting a chance. And he almost ran out of money in Florida. He almost went right back to South America. It’s funny. Prior to the book, I didn’t know he’d ridden so long in South America. But it made sense because his immediate success in the U.S. was staggering. He went from Calder to New York in three months. And then, in ’86, two years after he came to the U.S., he won the national earnings title, the first of his four straight.
HR Nation: What skills separated him from other riders?
BH: I think that he had incredible patience. And that helped him immeasurably, particularly in turf races. In Chile and Columbia, Jose told me that early speed wasn’t very important. Patience was one of Jose’s greatest attributes, as a rider.
HR Nation: Like many of the other top New York jockeys, he had a great rivalry with Angel Cordero. Talk about their dynamic.
BH: When Jose first went to New York, Cordero came over to him and said; “Look, Jose. We have the only two speed horses in this race. So don’t push us too hard, and then we’ll be by ourselves the whole way.” Jose said; “Okay.” So the gate opens, Jose takes a hold of his horse, and Cordero opens up ten lengths on the field and goes wire-to-wire. So that was Cordero’s way of welcoming Jose to New York. But Cordero showed another side during the 1988 meet at Saratoga. At the time, Cordero was a big fan of the boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho. So, to imitate him, Cordero put his hair in a ponytail. And he’d walk around the jockeys’ room and say “I’m just like Macho Camacho.” So Cordero told Santos one day; “If you beat me at Saratoga, I’ll let you cut off my ponytail.” Lo and behold, Santos won the title that year, breaking Cordero’s streak of eleven straight at Saratoga. And Cordero was so classy that, on the last day of the meet, he not only showed up for the haircut, he brought a pair of scissors. In the book, I actually have a picture of Jose and his agent cutting Angel’s hair off.
HR Nation: Those were good times for Santos. But soon after that, he hit a rough patch, both, personally and professionally, didn’t he?
BH: Yeah. His first wife, Maria, divorced him in 1994. She had actually purchased a house in Columbia that he didn’t even know about. She really took him to the cleaners. And professionally, he went to California to ride towards the end of 1990. And that move didn’t quite work out for him.
HR Nation: Let’s fast-forward a few years, and talk about one of Jose’s signature victories. In 2002, he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Volponi, who was thought to be hopelessly overmatched going into the race. It was the last of Jose’s seven Breeders’ Cup Victories, and the first one he’d notched since 1990. Just how special was the win to Jose, as he looks back on it all these years later?
BH: As special as it was to Jose, it might have been even more special to Volponi’s trainer, P.G. Johnson. The Classic was, by far, P.G.’s biggest career win. And it took place at Arlington Park, which was significant because P.G. was from Chicago. And, oddly enough, Jose happened to run into Karen Johnson, P.G.’s daughter, on the flight into Chicago. And Jose was telling Karen that he thought Volponi had a shot, but nobody else did. And Karen said; “Well, my dad thinks he’s got a shot too.” And, sure enough, Volponi went on to pull off one of the greatest upsets in Breeders’ Cup history.
HR Nation: It’s funny that you bring up Karen Johnson, who is an outstanding writer and broadcaster for HRTV. Racing truly is a family trade, as evidenced by people like the Johnsons, and the Dutrows, and even you and your son Ben (who worked as an intern for NYRA this past summer).
BH: Absolutely. And even with Jose. His son, Jose Jr. - who the whole country got to know during the 2003 Triple Crown season – who is now 16, spent his Christmas break working as a groom for Terry Pompeii in Florida. He’s a sharp young man. He even wanted to ride. But he’s already 5’8” and still growing, so that probably won’t work out.
On Friday, in part two of our conversation, Bill will talk about Funny Cide, the injuries that forced Jose into retirement, and some of the more recent developments in his personal life – most notably, his daughter’s guilty plea and subsequent jail sentence for vehicular manslaughter.