Santana is back in a familiar spot at Oaklawn after slump

Santana is back in a familiar spot at Oaklawn after slump
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

After the first 18 days of racing at Oaklawn, a familiar name had climbed to the top of the rider standings.

A victory on Sunday pulled eight-time local champion Ricardo Santana Jr. into a first-place tie with Francisco Arrieta. Each had 20 victories. Santana topped all riders in purse earnings at the meet ($1,207,239), won at a 21 percent clip, which equaled the best among jockeys in the top 10, and reached a career milestone when he surpassed $100 million in worldwide purse earnings earlier this month, according to the statistical service Equineline.

Interpreting Santana’s numbers during the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting that began Dec. 3 is more complex since he is no longer the go-to rider for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen after losing that coveted spot last fall.

Santana’s 20 victories had come for 10 trainers – Asmussen (6), John Ortiz (2), Ron Moquett (2), Brad Cox (2), Rene Amescua (2), Mike Maker (2), Tom Amoss (1), Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer (1), Melton Wilson (1) and Bret Calhoun (1). Santana’s numbers were straightforward to open the 2021 Oaklawn meeting, with 19 of his first 20 winners for Asmussen. Santana’s other victory came for Moquett.

An early conclusion? Different landscape, same ruler.

“I thank all the trainers for the opportunity,” Santana said Jan. 14. “Thank you to Moquett. He was the one that brought me here to Arkansas when I was 17 years old. Thank you to Mr. Steve, that’s the main barn. He’s given me a lot of great moments. He’s given me a lot of great opportunities. I’m really blessed to be a part of the Oaklawn team. Everywhere I go, everybody knows me because of Oaklawn. I’m really blessed with all the success I’ve had at 29 years old. I pray to God to keep me safe, and we’re going to keep fighting to make our dreams come true.”

Santana was barreling toward a career year in 2021 after breaking his single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings ($5,642,523) en route to an eighth local riding title (all since uniting with Asmussen in 2013). Santana then had a breakout Saratoga meeting last summer, setting personal bests for victories (35), purse earnings ($4,122,471) and stakes victories (5). All five stakes victories were in Grade 1 events. Four were for Asmussen, including Echo Zulu in the $300,000 Spinaway for 2-year-old fillies Sept. 5.

Santana was also aboard for Stellar Tap’s Aug. 7 victory at Saratoga, which made Asmussen the all-time winningest North America trainer (United States and Canada), according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.

But momentum stopped, literally, after Santana rode Echo Zulu to victory in the $400,000 Frizette Stakes (G1) Oct. 3 at Belmont Park. The jockey went into a mystifying slump and didn’t win a race for more than a month. Santana was 0 for 81 at Keeneland’s fall meeting (Asmussen was 1 for 57) and lost the mount on Echo Zulu for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) Nov. 5 at Del Mar.

Coupled with another personal body blow, the Oct. 31 death of his close friend, jockey Miguel Mena, Santana had only 42 mounts at the Churchill Downs fall meeting. He won two races as Asmussen went in other directions and finished with a meet-high 20 victories.

Joel Rosario picked up the mount on Echo Zulu for the Breeders’ Cup and guided the unbeaten filly to victory, securing an Eclipse Award. Rosario, the favorite to land an Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding jockey of 2021, rode for Asmussen at the Churchill Downs fall meeting and joined Oaklawn’s riding colony Jan. 14. He has already ridden extensively for Asmussen in Hot Springs, booting home two winners for the 11-time Oaklawn training champion.

“I thought that his confidence would be shaken a little bit,” Moquett said, referring to Santana. “I think at first, for sure, it was. I think the thing that got him was the Breeders’ Cup a little bit. But that’s how it goes. That’s how this business is. I’ve seen since he got back here, I’ve seen the old Ricardo start to emerge again.”

Santana’s 2021-2022 Oaklawn highlights include guiding Hollis to a 5 1/2-furlong track record (1:02.17) in a $102,000 allowance race Dec. 10 for Ortiz; winning two races aboard the Cox-trained Coach, including the $150,000 Pippin Stakes for older fillies and mares Jan. 8; and surpassing $100 million in career purse earnings the following day, according to Equineline.

The Equineline figure is based on worldwide mounts, including purse money Santana generated in Canada, his native Panama, Puerto Rico and Turkey.

Santana reached $100 million in career North American purse earnings last weekend at Oaklawn, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Equibase’s total ($100,129,502) is based on mounts in the United States and Canada and ranked 64th in North American history entering Saturday. Santana had 1,661 career North American victories entering Saturday, according to Equibase.

Santana said he continues to ride for Mena, who was killed after reportedly being struck by a vehicle while walking across Interstate 64 in Louisville, Ky. He was 34. Santana uses Mena’s helmet covers (“MM” is stitched across the back below a peace symbol) as a tribute to the popular Churchill Downs-based jockey, who won more than 2,000 races in his career.

“A lot of people don’t know, but that affected me a lot when one of my best friends, Miguel, passed away,” Santana said. “I even talked to my agent (Ruben Munoz) and said I didn’t want to ride many at Churchill. I was with him 24/7. I even ate dinner with him every time we came from Keeneland. I always loved him like my brother. That hit me really hard. Like he was my company, 24/7. When I did something wrong, he was the first one to call me. I was pretty heartbroken. (Jockey) Florent Geroux, that’s my other best friend. He’s always on my side. That’s the people that motivate me to keep going. Thank God, now I feel I’m back. I feel my confidence is back.”

Santana recorded one winner opening day at Oaklawn. The following day, Santana won the $150,000 Clasico Confraternidad Stakes (G1) in Puerto Rico. His late-season bounce back produced a career-high $16,976,612 in purse earnings, according to Equibase. Santana’s previous high was $16,713,988 in 2019.

Santana rode his first career winner in the United States Sept. 21, 2009, at Delaware Park. Santana began riding at Oaklawn in 2011 and was its leading jockey in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2021.

Santana is Oaklawn’s career leader in purse earnings ($33,321,365) and ranks No. 8 all time in victories (633). Coach represented his 45th career Oaklawn stakes victory.

Among Santana’s earliest supporters was Moquett, who rode the jockey as an apprentice and helped steer him to Oaklawn.

“I thought that he needed somebody to look after him and stuff,” Moquett said. “I thought when he got to Oaklawn, the whole community would take him in. And he’s got all kinds of natural ability. If he could get focused, he could be anything. Luckily, he came here one year and showed up the next year (2013), he was here with Asmussen, and the rest is history.”

Through last Sunday, Santana and Asmussen had teamed for 313 victories at Oaklawn, according to Equineline, with purse earnings of $20,657,057.

Racing resumed Saturday at Oaklawn after Friday’s card was canceled because of freezing temperatures.

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