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Case in point: Derby-winning jockey proves we're always ready to believe the worst

Posted: Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Admit it: The first reports of jockey Jose Santos' funny'' ride on Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide sounded almost too familiar to NOT be true.

After all, a rider used a battery-operated device to spur a horse to victory just four years ago in the Arkansas Derby. And a repeat performance, even so soon after that one, would hardly have seemed shocking compared to some of the other schemes uncovered in recent years.

Even a partial dishonor roll over that span would include crooked judges, scuffed baseballs, corked bats, greased uniforms, overage Little Leaguers, inflated resumes, stolen signs, rejiggered intake manifolds and helmet buckles sharpened to a razor's edge and that's before a single positive test for performance-enhancing drugs makes the list.

No wonder even the least cynical among us is willing to believe the worst about our competitors. All this whiff of a scandal proved is the people in charge at Churchill Downs are not immune, either.

When first questioned about possible improprieties in thoroughbred racing's biggest event, track steward Rick Leigh rushed to judgment. He surveyed the scant evidence brought to officials' attention by The Miami Herald and concluded, it looks very suspicious.''

But that's what second looks are for. After poring over scores of photos and videotape during the weekend, Leigh and fellow stewards Bernie Hettel and Jack Middleton concluded Monday that Santos had done nothing improper.

I am thankful this nightmare is over,'' Santos said. A week ago, I was in the happiest moment of my life. And then this photograph came in, in Miami, and destroyed my career, actually.''

Whether that's true remains to be seen. The photograph in question ran in several newspapers the morning after the race and depicted a dark area in the space between the jockey's right hand and his whip. At first glance, it was hard to determine whether that gap was a shadow, the green background of another jockey's silks or something more sinister one of those small, battery-powered electrical stimulation devices forbidden by racing rules and known as a joint'' by insiders.

Such devices have been part of racing lore almost as long as there have been batteries. Rumor became fact when a jockey named Billy Pattin was suspended for five years after racing authorities determined he used one to ride a 43-1 long shot named Valhol like Funny Cide, a 3-year-old gelding to victory in Arkansas in 1999.

The second bit of evidence against Santos was a conversation he had with a Herald racing writer that in retrospect sounds like a comedy routine gone haywire.

Asked to explain what was in his right hand besides a whip, Santos reportedly answered a cue ring'' and described it as used to summon an outrider the rider aboard a pony who sometimes is called on to guide a thoroughbred around the track before and after a race.

As fate would have it, Santos grew up in Chile, didn't ride in the United States until 1984 and speaks English with an accent. On top of that, nobody in racing had ever heard of a cue ring'' and the only way jockeys ever summon outriders is by yelling.

That probably explains why Santos thought the questions were about a bracelet he wore on his left hand, which is called a Q-Ray.'' And why Santos' attorney, Karen Murphy, thinks what the reporter believed was a reference to an outrider almost certainly was her client saying the word, arthritis.''

Your guess is as good as mine,'' she told The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Arthritis and outrider I don't know.''

The whole thing would be even funnier, but only if Santos is wrong about this episode won't becoming a lasting stain on his career.

Three jockeys who battled Santos in the Derby said Sunday they saw nothing but a whip and the reins in his hands at the finish line. Never mind that Santos is considered one of the most honorable riders on the circuit; or that rival jockeys and trainers would turn Santos in to race officials in a heartbeat if they had the goods on him.

But like a number of racetrack observers who reviewed the videotapes, all three jockeys concluded there was no way Santos could have switched whip hands three times in the stretch, twirled it right after crossing the finish line (when the photo in question was taken) and still kept something like a joint hidden.

Ludicrous,'' said Robby Albarado, who was aboard Offlee Wild.

The guy's a great rider, but he's no magician,'' said Shane Sellers, who rode Lone Star Sky.

Yet even those endorsements, coupled with another one Monday from the Churchill Downs panel, might not be enough to convince everyone. Some will argue racing is so desperate to avoid another fiasco just months after the Breeders' Cup Fix Six'' betting scandal that it's willing to look the other way.

In this case, they'll be the ones whose imagination is running wild.

If this guy is capable of doing this, he's in the wrong profession,'' veteran racing chartmaker Cliff Guilliams summed up for The Courier-Journal. He should be dealing blackjack off the bottom of the deck. It's a lot safer than being on top of a horse going 35 mph.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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